Homage to Clio, or, Toward an Historical Philosophy for Evolutionary Biology

Systematic Zoology, 37(2): 145-155, 1988

14 Pages Posted: 30 Jan 2015

Date Written: 1988


Discussions of the theory and practice of systematics and evolutionary biology have heretofore revolved around the views of philosophers of science. I reexamine these issues from the different perspective of the philosophy of history. Just as philosophers of history distinguish between chronicle (non-interpretive or non-explanatory writing) and narrative history (interpretive or explanatory writing), I distinguish between evolutionary chronicle (cladograms, broadly construed) and narrative evolutionary history. Systematics is the discipline which estimates the evolutionary chronicle.

Explanations of the events described in the evolutionary chronicle are not of the covering-law type described by philosophers of science, but rather of the how-possibly, continuous series, and integrating types described by philosophers of history. Pre-evolutionary explanations of states (in contrast to chroniclar events) are still widespread in “evolutionary” biology, however, because evolutionary chronicles are in general poorly known. To the extent that chronicles are known, the narrative evolutionary histories based on them are structured like conventional historical narratives, in that they treat their central subjects as ontological individuals. This conventional treatment is incorrect. The central subjects of evolutionary narratives are clades, branched entities which have some of the properties of individuals and some of the properties of classes. Our unconscious treatment of the subjects of evolutionary narratives as individuals has been the cause of erroneous notions of progress in evolution, and of views that taxa “develop” ontogenetically in ways analogous to individual organisms. We must rewrite our narrative evolutionary histories so that they properly represent the branching nature of evolution, and we must reframe our evolutionary philosophies so that they properly reflect the historical nature of our subject.

Keywords: evolution, narrative, palaetiology, philosophy of history, philosophy of science, phylogeny, systematics, tree-thinking

Suggested Citation

O’Hara, Robert J., Homage to Clio, or, Toward an Historical Philosophy for Evolutionary Biology (1988). Systematic Zoology, 37(2): 145-155, 1988, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2556074

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