The Use of Natural Kinds in Evolutionary Developmental Biology


Evolutionary developmental biologists categorize many different kinds of things, from ontogenetic stages to modules of gene activity. The process of categorization—the establishment of “kinds”—is an implicit part of describing the natural world in consistent, useful ways, and has an essentially practical rather than philosophical basis. Kinds commonly serve one of three purposes: they may function (1) as practical tools for communication; (2) to support prediction and generalization; or (3) as a basis for theoretical discussions. Beyond the minimal requirement that classifications reflect biological reality, what sorts of kinds or classification will be useful in advancing a research program depends on the epistemological context. Thus, the important meaning of “natural” in “natural kinds” is not “natural with respect to nature,” but “natural with respect to the question.” This conclusion arises from the recognition that the proper role of concepts (e.g. natural kind, module, homology, model) is not to answer biological questions, but rather to help frame them. From a scientist’s perspective, arguing about the wording (or existence) of a single definition of “natural” or “kind” is beside the point: we get more work done by letting the question at hand determine what kinds of kinds are natural, on the basis of their ability to help answer it. We should be content to let “natural kinds” remain vague, multivalent, and–therefore broadly useful. For a philosopher like Hacking, the diverse, disparate, and ultimately incommensurable uses of the term “natural kind” have diluted its value so far that it loses all meaning. For practicing scientists, however, defining useful kinds in the context of particular questions and systems remains a productive epistemological strategy

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Biological Theory



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