The Difficulty of Defining Species

The Platonist regards any change in rabbits as a messy departure from the essential rabbit, and there will always be resistance to change - as if all real rabbits were tethered by an invisible elastic cord to the Essential Rabbit in the Sky. The evolutionary view of life is radically opposite. Descendants can depart indefinitely from the ancestral form, and each departure becomes a potential ancestor to future variants. Indeed, Alfred Russel Wallace, independent co-discoverer with Darwin of evolution by natural selection, actually called his paper 'On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type'.

If there is a 'standard rabbit', the accolade denotes no more than the centre of a bell-shaped distribution of real, scurrying, leaping, variable bunnies. And the distribution shifts with time. As generations go by, there may gradually come a point, not clearly defined, when the norm of what we call rabbits will have departed so far as to deserve a different name. There is no permanent rabbitiness, no essence of rabbit hanging in the sky, just populations of furry, long-eared, coprophagous, whisker-twitching individuals, showing a statistical distribution of variation in size, shape, colour and proclivities. What used to be the longer-eared end of the old distribution may find itself the centre of a new distribution later in geological time. Given a sufficiently large number of generations, there may be no overlap between ancestral and descendant distributions: the longest ears among the ancestors may be shorter than the shortest ears among the descendants. All is fluid, as another Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, said; nothing fixed. After a hundred million years it may be hard to believe that the descendant animals ever had rabbits for ancestors. Yet in no generation during the evolutionary process was the predominant type in the population far from the modal type in the previous generation or the following generation. This way of thinking is what Mayr called population thinking. Population thinking, for him, was the antithesis of essentialism. According to Mayr, the reason Darwin was such an unconscionable time arriving on the scene was that we all - whether because of Greek influence or for some other reason - have essentialism burned into our mental DNA.

For the mind encased in Platonic blinkers, a rabbit is a rabbit is a rabbit. To suggest that rabbitkind constitutes a kind of shifting cloud of statistical averages, or that today's typical rabbit might be different from the typical rabbit of a million years ago or the typical rabbit of a million years hence, seems to violate an internal taboo. Indeed, psychologists studying the development of language tell us that children are natural essentialists. Maybe they have to be if they are to remain sane while their developing minds divide things into discrete categories each entitled to a unique noun. It is no wonder that Adam's first task, in the Genesis myth, was to give all the animals names.


The Platonist view of species defines all members as imperfect examples of a perfect example of the species, when in reality, there is a bell curve of examples that blend into other species.

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Natural selection (0.674730): dbpedia | freebase
Charles Darwin (0.643139): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc | yago
Biology (0.614858): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
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 The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Dawkins, Richard (2010-08-24), The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, Free Press, Retrieved on 2011-05-19
Folksonomies: evolution science