Journal Article

Evolutionary Essentialism

Denis Walsh

in The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science

Published on behalf of British Society for the Philosophy of Science

Volume 57, issue 2, pages 425-448
Published in print June 2006 | ISSN: 0007-0882
Published online March 2006 | e-ISSN: 1464-3537 | DOI:
Evolutionary Essentialism

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According to Aristotelian essentialism, the nature of an organism is constituted of a particular goal-directed disposition to produce an organism typical of its kind. This paper argues—against the prevailing orthodoxy—that essentialism of this sort is indispensable to evolutionary biology. The most powerful anti-essentialist arguments purport to show that the natures of organisms play no explanatory role in modern synthesis biology. I argue that recent evolutionary developmental biology provides compelling evidence to the contrary. Developmental biology shows that one must appeal to the capacities of organisms to explain what makes adaptive evolution adaptive. Moreover, the specific capacities in question are precisely those that, according to Aristotle, constitute the nature of an organism.


1.1 Aristotelian biological kinds

Evolutionary anti-essentialism

2.1 Taxonomic anti-essentialism

2.2 Explanatory anti-essentialism


3.1 Stability

3.2 Mutability

3.3 Phenotypic plasticity and adaptive evolution

The natures of organisms


Journal Article.  9724 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy of Science ; Science and Mathematics

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