“A temporary oversimplification”: Mayr, Simpson, Dobzhansky, and the origins of the typology/population dichotomy

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 55:20-33 (2015)
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Abstract

The dichotomy between ‘typological thinking’ and ‘population thinking’ features in a range of debates in contemporary and historical biology. The origins of this dichotomy are often traced to Ernst Mayr, who is said to have coined it in the 1950s as a rhetorical device that could be used to shield the Modern Synthesis from attacks by the opponents of population biology. In this two-part essay, I argue that the origins of the typology/population dichotomy are considerably more complicated and more interesting than is commonly thought. In the first part, I argued that Mayr's dichotomy was based on two distinct type/population contrasts that had been articulated much earlier by George Gaylord Simpson and Theodosius Dobzhansky. Their distinctions made eminent sense in their own, isolated contexts. In this second part, I will show how Mayr conflated these type/population distinctions and blended in some of his own, unrelated concerns with ‘types’ of a rather different sort. Although Mayr told his early critics that he was merely making “a temporary oversimplification,” he ended up burdening the history and philosophy of biology with a troubled dichotomy.

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Joeri Witteveen
University of Copenhagen

Citations of this work

The Wild Type as Concept and in Experimental Practice: A History of its Role in Classical Genetics and Evolutionary Theory.Tarquin Holmes - 2017 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 63:15-27.
Ontology, Causality, and Methodology of Evolutionary Research Programs.Jun Otsuka - 2019 - In Evolutionary Causation: Biological and Philosophical Reflections. pp. 247-264.

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References found in this work

Typological Versus Population Thinking.Ernst Mayr - 1994 - In E. Sober (ed.), Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology. The Mit Press. Bradford Books. pp. 157--160.
The Creation of the Essentialism Story: An Exercise in Metahistory.Mary P. Winsor - 2006 - History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 28 (2):149 - 174.
Non-Essentialist Methods in Pre-Darwinian Taxonomy.Mary P. Winsor - 2003 - Biology and Philosophy 18 (3):387-400.
Racism and Human Genome Diversity Research: The Ethical Limits of "Population Thinking".Lisa Gannett - 2001 - Proceedings of the Philosophy of Science Association 2001 (3):S479-.

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