Species: A History of the Idea

January 26th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Wilkins JS. 2009. Species: A History of the Idea. University of California Press; Berkeley, Los Angeles, London. 305 pp. ISBN 978-0-520-26085-6 (HB).


The idea of what a species is and how one is classified has changed many times throughout history. This book, rooted in a philosophical and historical framework, attempts to review the conceptual history of the term species and what it means today. The volume forms part of the Species and Systematics series which aims to investigate fundamental aspects of systematics and taxonomy as well as delving into the philosophical consequence of classification and its antiquity. This book is roughly divided into three parts, the first and second parts dealing with prebiological and postbiological ideas of classification, respectively, and the third reviewing species concepts and modern debates, ending with a summary chapter.

Part one (chapters one and two) is a historical account of the prebiological era of classification (from Plato to Locke), i.e. science by division using a universal taxonomy. By this definition, species are any naturally distinguished categories with an essence. This type of ideology was developed and implemented by Aristotle and Plato, and persisted through the Middle Ages. The second part of the book (chapters 3-5) introduces the concept of a biological taxonomy. This biological notion of a species did not develop until the end of the 16th century when the focus of understanding species shifted to natural history and the explanation of biological units in terms of reproduction and form. Part three (Chapters 6-8) explores the modern view of species. The author addresses issues relating to the difference between the modern era of classification, involving the identification of genetic substructure, versus the eternal Darwinian problem of determining the origin of species. Here the author also lists and describes species concepts central to the modern species problem/debate.  The final chapter is comprised of a historical summary and conclusion. Although this book is rather densely written, it provides a comprehensive and interesting synthesis of the species problem today in the context of changing ideologies through history.

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