Re: A review of "The Selfish Meme"

From: John Wilkins (
Date: Thu 02 Jun 2005 - 04:26:58 GMT

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    On 02/06/2005, at 2:10 PM, Scott Chase wrote:

    >> The claim that species shade from one to another was due to the
    >> Aristotle-derived great chain of being. All Lamarck did with it
    >> was make it a temporal sequence.
    > Are you damning Lamarck with faint praise or praising him with
    > faint damnation? Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference :-)
    > Temporal sequence was a praiseworthy thing I hope, great chain be
    > damned.

    Temporalisation is a Good Thing, to be sure. But when all is said and done it's just an outgrowth of Christian eschatology ;-)

    The scala naturae implies (from the lex completio and the principle of plenitude) that there *are* no species, and that any division we may make is for our own convenience only. I think Darwin's version is more interesting - it drops the assumption of plenitude, and makes the lex completio apply only to internodal edges of the evolutionary tree. In short, all gaps have been filled between actual forms, but not all forms exist.

    On Lamarck's account, all forms that *can* exist do or will or have done.
    > So Aristotle gave us essentialism? Then did his predecessor Plato
    > bequeath idealism? Did the morphological idealists lean more
    > towards Platonic Ideas than Aristotlean Essences?

    I distinguish between several senses of "essentialism":

     From the book-in-progress:

    My argument is that essentialism, construed as the claim that a general term or concept must have necessary and sufficient inclusion criteria, is a long standing formal notion, but that when it comes to applying that notion to living things, it was always understood that living species were a different category to formal species.

    Let us therefore distinguish, since that is the key to this section, between several senses of “essentialism”. We have encountered so far nominal essentialism with Locke, the view that names can have essences, but only names. Is Strickland’s a nominal essentialism? Not as Amundson presents it. His is more correctly understood to be a taxonomic essentialism – that in the process of determining natural groups, one must find what actual properties (in this case biological properties) they have in common. Taxonomic essentialism is a kind of logical essentialism, in that it relies on the construction of formal, or logical, groups, as Aquinas posed it. But it is also a material essentialism in Aquinas’ terms, because it relies on material properties and not just formal ones.

    Traditional essentialisms are generally nominal. From Aristotle through to the end of our period, when people discuss the essences, they are very often discussing what description or definition is essential for a universal name or term. Locke’s rejection of Real Essences is a rejection not of the essences of terms, but of things. He rejects material essentialism. And it is the material essentialism of biology that is problematic – did it, as a historical fact, occur before Darwin? And is it required for taxonomy? We shall see that neither are necessarily the case, although it is likely that the issues were not so marked as I have expressed them here, and naturalists do in fact slide from nominal to material essentialisms from time to time, although it is not the identifying truth of the period that the Received View/Synthetic Historiography asserts.<eq>

    So I am arguing for taxonomic/logical essentialism as being a Mostly Harmless terrestrial idiosyncrasy, and material essentialism as being a Malignant, But Rare condition, which *so far as I can tell* arises in the *mid-19thC*, shortly before Darwin wrote the Origin. The first actual case of material essentialism is, I think, to be found in Phillip Henry Gosse's _Creation (Omphalos)_ [which is the correct title) of 1857. At least, I have't found earlier ones (such historical claims are liable to be overturned within seconds...).

    > Where did Darwin get Unity of Type and Conditions of Existence
    > from? Did these stem from some grand debate over Structure vs.
    > Function or something?

    They derive from the debates in the early 19thC over large-scale taxonomic systems, particularly those of Swainson and Macleay, but also from Cuvierian _embranchments_ and Geoffroy's revision of them. I can't read French, so I can't tell how much Henri Milne-Edwards contributed to this.

    Structure v. function is, of course, the debate between Goethean- inspired biology and Cuvier. I suspect the functional approach has its distal ancestor in Locke, via the Encyclopedists and Buffon ...

    John S. Wilkins, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Biohumanities Project
    University of Queensland - Blog:
    "Darwin's theory has no more to do with philosophy than any other
    hypothesis in natural science." Tractatus 4.1122
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