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Zachos Frank | Fellow Visitor
2020-06-02 - 2020-06-10 | Research area: EvoDevo
The Species Problem – the Metaphysics / Ontology of Species and Its Bearing on Comparative Biology

Ever since my undergraduate studies I have had an interest in the history and philosophy of my main study subject – biology. The species problem is one of the most-debated topics in biology, and there is hardly one that combines history, philosophy and evolutionary biology more than the species problem does, which is why I have been drawn to it for a long time. 

Working as a research scientist in a natural history museum, taxonomy, ie the description and quantification of biodiversity and how these translate into names of (ideally) real biological entities, is one of my main scientific activities, and the theoretical underpinnings of these activities are largely determined by issues related to the species problem. The species problem deals with questions on the ontological status of species taxa, whether the species category is real or only exists nominally, and the theory and practice of delimiting species. While this is often very theoretical and philosophical, the practical ramifications could not be more relevant to large parts biology and beyond. The species is the most commonly used currency in many realms of comparative biology, from macroecology to evolutionary biology, and it is also by far the most important unit in conservation biology and management. If it turns out that the species rank (ie the species category) is not objectively real – and that is unfortunately rather likely –, many if not most of the quantitative analyses using species counts and species taxa are seriously flawed. 

As part of my ongoing work on the species problem, I am now collaborating with two colleagues (John Wilkins, a historian and philosopher of science, and Igor Pavlinov, a Russian biologist) on an edited volume on the species problem. The idea of this book is to give an updated account in the spirit of a 1999 volume edited by Robert A. Wilson (Species – New Interdisciplinary Essays). Over the last 20 years, many new ideas have been published, including exciting conceptual work on epistemology and psychology pertaining to how we perceive species. We are aiming at a new synthesis of the historical, philosophical and biological dimensions of the species problem. During my stay at the KLI I would work on and discuss selected issues of this project.