The pre-Darwinian history of the comparative method, 1555–1855

History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 43 (4):1-30 (2021)
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Abstract

The comparative method, closely identified with Darwinian evolutionary biology, also has a long pre-Darwinian history. The method derives its scientific power from its ability to interpret comparative observations with reference to a theory of relatedness among the entities being compared. Such scientifically powerful strong comparison is distinguished from weak comparison, which lacks such theoretical grounding. This paper examines the history of the strong comparison permitted by the comparative method from the early modern period to the threshold of the Darwinian revolution in the mid nineteenth century. It interprets the work of early pioneers such as Belon, Willis, Perrault, and Tyson from this methodological perspective, rather than focusing on their particular anatomical findings. Although these early writers made formative scientific contributions through their comparative investigations, the more theoretically grounded application of the comparative method by Geoffroy, Cuvier, and Owen was instrumental in laying the foundation for its later incorporation into Darwinian evolutionary theory.

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