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essentialismEssenzialismus (ger.)

  • The metaphysical view of biological species as having essences.

    [Methodological essentialism, i.e. the theory that it is the aim of science to reveal essences and to describe them by means of definitions.

    Popper, K.R. (1945). The Open Society and its Enemies, vol. I: 26.]


    Essentialism […] In taxonomy this philosophical position became known as typology. The three essentialistic tenets of typology are (I) the ontological asser- tion that Forms exist, (2) the methodological assertion that the task of taxonomy as a science is to discern the essences of species, and (3) the logical assertion concerning definition.

    Hull, D. (1964). The effect of essentialism on taxonomy – two thousand years of stasis (I). The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 15, 314-326: 317.


    essentialism pursued an individualistic (organismic) methodology, which population thinking supplants by specifying laws governing objects at a higher level of organization. From the individualistic (organismic) perspective assumed by essentialism, species are real only if they can be delimited in terms of membership conditions applying to individual organisms. But the populationist point of view made possible by evolutionary theory made such reductionistic demands unnecessary. Since populations and their properties are subject to their own invariances and have their own causal efficacy, it is no more reasonable to demand a species definition in terms of the properties of constituent organisms than it is to require organismic biology to postpone its inquiries until a criterion for sameness of organism is formulated in terms of relations between constituent cells. Essentialism lost its grip when populations came to be thought of as real.

    Sober, E. (1980). Evolution, population thinking, and essentialism. Philosophy of Science 57, 350-383: 381.


    essentialism1: Typology q. v. 2: Belief in the reality of underlying universal principles.

    Lincoln, R.J., Boxshall, G.A. & Clark, P.F. (1982). A Dictionary of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics: 84.


    an essentialist conception of species implies neither stasis nor immutability, contrary to what has been said about the question by the anti-essentialists who have in mind only platonic essentialism. The proposed conception of essentialism implies immutability only for the duration of the species. When individuals emerge with an essence that is different from that of their progenitors, they constitute a different species and they are members of a different class. An essence, a species, or a class do not become another essence, species, or class; they produce another essence, species, or class. To say that living beings have an essence does not mean that evolution is impossible, or irreconcilable with essence.

    Bernier, R. (1984). The species as an individual: facing essentialism. Systematic Zoology 33, 460-469: 467.


    Aristotle [held] […] a non-typological essentialism that might be referred to as ‘teleological essentialismʼ.

    Lennox, J.G. (1988). Kinds, forms of kinds, and the more and the less in Aristotle’s biology. In: Gotthelf, A. & Lennox, J.G. (eds.). Philosophical Issues in Aristotle’s Biology, 339-359: 340.


    the replacement of essentialism by population thinking, which emphasized the uniqueness of the individual and the critical role of individuality in evolution

    Mayr, E. (1991). One Long Argument. Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought: 42.


    origin essentialism—the doctrine that organisms have their biological parents essentially—entails that natural selection cannot explain why an individual organism has the traits that it does.

    Pust, J. (2001). Natural selection explanation and origin essentialism. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 31, 201-220: 202.


    the failure of essentialism, i.e., that fact that species have relational not intrinsic essential properties

    Okasha, S. (2002). Darwinian metaphysics: species and the question of essentialism. Synthese, 131, 191-213: 205.


    Essentialism is a doctrine about natural kinds, not about the causal relations between these kinds. […] In contrast, species fixism is a doctrin about causal relations – the causal relation of generation between parents and offspring. Essentialism may entail that a dog cannot transform into a cat, but it cannot (by itself) entail that a dog cannot give birth to a cat

    Amundson, R. (2005). The Changing Role of the Embryo in Evolutionary Thought: 209.


    the new “origin essentialism” in systematics

    Rieppel, O. (2006). The PhyloCode: A critical discussion of its theoretical foundation. Cladistics 22, 186-197: 190.


    organismal natures, as revealed by modern developmental biology, play explanatory roles closely analogous to those played by Aristotle’s biological essences. In this sense, I think, it is fair to conclude that modern developmental biologists have resurrected Aristotelian essentialism.

    Walsh, D. (2006). Evolutionary essentialism. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 57, 425-448: 444.


    Qualitative essentialism assumes that the members of a kind share a qualitative essence—a character that makes no reference to a particular time or place. Such characters are intrinsic properties of organisms. Origin essentialism asserts that the members of a taxon have a common and unique phylogenetic origin. Such essences are relations among organisms. According to origin essentialism, membership in a taxon depends on being a descendent of a particular ancestor.

    Ereshefsky, M. (2007). Foundational issues concerning taxa and taxon names. Syst. Biol. 56, 295-301: 297.


    The doctrine I want to defend, which I shall call “Intrinsic Biological Essentialism,” abbreviated sometimes to “Essentialism,” is that Linnaean taxa have essences that are, at least partly, intrinsic underlying properties. […] Essentialism is a thesis about what it is for an organism to be, say, a dog not a cat, not about what it is for, say, dogs to be a species not a genus.

    Devitt, M. (2008). Resurrecting biological essentialism. Philosophy of Science 75, 344-382: 346.


    According to relational essentialism, certain relations among organisms, or between organisms and the environment, are necessary and sufficient for membership in a taxon. Such relations, argue Griffiths, Okasha, and LaPorte, are taxon essences. For example, Griffiths and LaPorte suggest that being descended from a particular ancestor is necessary and sufficient for being a member of a taxon and thus a taxon’s essence. […] relational essentialism is not essentialism because it fails to satisfy a core aim of essentialism. The essence of a kind is supposed to bear the explanatory weight for understanding why the members of a kind have the typical traits they do. The relations that serve as the identity conditions of a taxon do not fulfill that explanatory role.

    Ereshefsky, M. (2010). What’s wrong with the new biological essentialism? Philosophy of Science 77, 674-685: 679; 683.


    it is only if species have distinct essences that one can say in a principled fashion that one species no longer exists and that two new distinct species have arrived on the scene. Thus the standard accounts of biological diversity and organismal design both presuppose essentialism. […] My main suggestion regarding biological essences is that they are found not in the genotype or the phenotype but in the species specific developmental programme that map genotypes onto phenotypes. […] One reason for taking species specific developmental programmes as serious candidates for biological essences is that they have great explanatory potential, an essential feature of Aristotelian essences.

    Boulter, S.J. (2012). Can evolutionary biology do without Aristotelian essentialism? Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 70, 83-103: 99-101.


    [It is] a well-worn but false claim that evolutionary biology is incompatible with essentialism. […] The essence of a biological form is its species specific developmental programme.

    Boulter, S. (2013). Metaphysics from a Biological Point of View: 130; cf. 112.

Winsor, M.P. (2003). Non-essentialist methods in pre-Darwinian taxonomy. Biology and Philosophy 18, 387-400.

Levit, G.S. & Meister, K. (2006). The history of essentialism vs. Ernst Mayr’s “essentialism story”: a case study of German idealistic morphology. Theory in Biosciences 124, 281-307.