Article ID: CBB858547415

“A temporary oversimplification”: Mayr, Simpson, Dobzhansky, and the origins of the typology/population dichotomy (part 1 of 2) (2015)


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 this first part, I will argue 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 the 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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Authors & Contributors
Smocovitis, Vassiliki Betty
Bernardi, Massimo
Menegon, Michele
Bellati, Adriana
Honenberger, Phillip
Witteveen, Joeri
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Journal of the History of Biology
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science
Journal of Cambridge Studies
Journal for General Philosophy of Science
Isis: International Review Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences
University of Chicago Press
Columbia University Press
American Philosophical Society
Philosophy of biology
Dobzhansky, Theodosius
Mayr, Ernst
Simpson, George Gaylord
Wilson, Edward Osborne
Darwin, Charles Robert
Allen, Garland Edward (1936-)
Time Periods
20th century
21st century
20th century, late
20th century, early
19th century
United States
Great Britain
Soviet Union
National Academy of Sciences (U.S.)

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