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Species Problem: An Exposition

Species Problem: An Exposition

Linnaeus’ biological theory of the fixity of the species is so superbly suited to serve as the point of departure for our investigations because of its persuasive simplicity. In a few lucid sentences the fixity of the living type is exhaustively formulated, and at the same time a catalogue of problems is presented that would be desirable in race theory today, since the modern studies are caught up in the difficulties of one or another subordinate detail and thus lose sight of the whole.

In his “Observationes” in Regna III Naturae, Linnaeus developed in a series of propositions the axioms of biology as he practiced it; and the first four of these propositions formulate the problem of species. The first proposition states the fact that all living beings emerge from an egg and that each egg produces a creature that resembles its parents. Linnaeus concludes from this that no new species are produced in the present time. The second proposition speaks of the multiplication of the number of individuals in all species through ongoing procreation; and from this he concludes that each species consists of a greater number of individuals today than it did in the beginning.

In the third proposition Linnaeus traces this multiplied chain back to the original ancestor of each species (either a hermaphrodite or a pair differing in gender). The fourth proposition infers that since, first, no new species can emerge, and, second, like produces only like, and, third, the species is a unity—therefore the origin of those creative unities must be traced back to God. Thus the species are ontic unities and cannot vary; procreation is nothing more than the method for preserving these unities through the generations; the originator of these unities is God. The concepts and theses are forcefully and clearly formulated, and some of them are still part of the edifice of race theory in their original primitiveness. Thus the thesis of the immutability of hereditary unities is preserved in the principle of the constancy of racial types; it is the indispensable basis for the claim of the fateful consequences for man’s spiritual and intellectual life that result from his belonging physically to a particular race.

Through a strange concatenation of historical circumstances, in the prevailing popular opinion [Nazi race ideology in 1933], the concept of the species and subspecies, after having gone through natural philosophy, Darwinism, and recent research in genetics, has once again arrived at the point where it was in Linnaeus’ time. And the new attempts to interpret the phenomena of constancy and variation in such a way that the insight into the creative power of nature regains its rightful place have not progressed to the point where we would be justified in speaking of a new post-Linnaean view of the living world.

What remains overlooked today is the problem of origins in this context. Linnaeus solved it with his thesis that God has created the life form and fixed it for all time, but since God as the originator of species and races is out of the question for any self-respecting modern scholar, these living unities must have “evolved.” [This] brings up the phenomenon of variation, which cannot be reconciled with the claim of strict constancy.

[Finally it is not taken into consideration that] nothing is gained with the word evolution and that the beginning or origin of a succession of phenomena of the type of the living form is (1) a theoretical and speculative problem and (2) a metaphysical, real-ontological problem; at most, this is grudgingly admitted for the problem of the absolute origin of being.

The Natural Method (Ray)

Linnaeus was so deeply convinced that God had created the species that the issue of an epistemological theory about the units of life and the methods for their description was only of secondary importance to him. He was convinced that the species were directly discernible and could be described adequately by indicating the one trait differentiating each from the genus proximum.

In spite of the forcefulness and ambitiousness of Linnaeus’ overall outline, a tendency to oversimplification of the problems makes itself felt in his position, a tendency that is all the more dubious as there were already before his time important studies (with which Linnaeus presumably was very familiar) of the epistemological and methodological questions involved. According to the prevailing opinion, Linnaeus was the “father” of systematic classification in botany, and because of his achievement as its creator one makes allowances for the flaws of the binary nomenclature and the rather superficial classification principle.

Only on the basis of the beginning Linnaeus made, prevailing opinion holds, was our factual knowledge increased and the methods proved. In fact, however, in the history of science a continuum of a more profound treatment of the species problem and of the scientific method begins long before Linnaeus and extends in its tradition far beyond him. In this continuum, Linnaeus’ work stands out almost as an alien element; only a few relevant points, such as the constancy of species, are also found in his work, but the detailed and precise work on epistemology and methodology carried out by earlier and contemporary scholars meets with no response in his work.

From the works preceding Linnaeus, I will single out for our purposes the significant foundational works of John Ray and Francis Willughby. They encompass the whole topic of eighteenth-century biology in its basic outlines and so provide us with the best exposition of the issue of biological species and races, which forms the underpinning of modern race theory.1 Willughby, a zoologist, and Ray, a zoologist and botanist, dealt decisively with the problem of classification and the adequate description of a unit of life, the one (Willughby) primarily in practical work through his typology of species, the other (Ray) also in theoretical discourses.

The problem of species unity makes itself felt as a problem in the concrete difficulties in the proper differentiation of species. In the foreword to Willughby’s ornithology, Ray justifies the descriptive method applied in this work, calling the reader’s attention to the fact that the species are defined by complexes of traits whenever the usual scholastic practice of description by a single trait, the differentia specifica in the more concise sense of Aristotelian logic, seemed insufficient.

This statement already distinguishes between the scholastic system and the natural system in Kant’s sense, though without giving it a name yet. In the classification according to scholastic logic the species is characterized through the identification of the specific (in the logical sense) trait distinguishing it from the genus proximum. By contrast, Ray has a real-ontological concept of species as it exists in nature; in view of this reality of a species, the scholastic system of distinguishing traits can fail.

The practical needs of a more concrete science lead to the emancipation from a method that formulates its rules according to the scholastic doctrines of genus proximum and differentia specifica: traditional logic is replaced by a method that follows closely the structure of its subject. Nature with its species itself becomes the guideline for the method of typology. In the subtitle of Willughby’s later Historia Piscium, this idea is formulated in principle. There we read that in these four books fish in general will be discussed and that there will also be a description of all species, according to a method that follows the guidelines given by nature. The method here becomes the servant of nature and follows its lead.

In a somewhat later work on botany, Ray attempts to justify his classification of plants into trees and herbs, a classification that was new and unusual at that time. As he put it, according to the consensus of contemporary botanists, the objection will be raised that the notae charactetisticae of the genera and species should be based on the differences and similarities of blossoms and fruits, to which he replies that the traits of blossoms and fruits are very useful for defining subdivisions, but that the principal divisions must be guided by the total habitus.

The total habitus, or total constitution, which can be described only by a complex of traits, is thus introduced as the element guiding the definition of types; the natural unit as a real unit becomes almost tangible in this idea as opposed to the arbitrary system. The idea is summed up (decisively) in the statement, “Methodum intelligo Naturae convenientem, quae nec alienas species coniungit, nec cognatas separat.” [I understand a method that agrees with nature, that neither joins alien species, nor separates cognate ones.] What Ray has in mind is a system adapted to nature; he concedes almost contemptuously that over against this “natural” system, artificial ones can arbitrarily be established and every plant can be assigned a place in them, but they contribute nothing to our knowledge of real divisions in nature.

The Natural and Scholastic Systems (Ray to Kant)

From these beginnings, [John] Ray’s Methodus Plantarum penetrates the problem most deeply. The concept of the total habitus had been attained, and this phenotypical habitus, whose traits can be summarized as a type, was now understood as the expression of a life unity, a vital essence. Outwardly, the way it is defined still follows the traditional logical forms: “Definitio perfecta conficitur e Genere proximo et Differentia essentiali” [A perfect definition consists of a proximate genus and an essential difference]–but the differentia specifica has been replaced by the differentia essentialis.

The species-distinguishing trait was traditionally understood as a trait of the phenotype pure and simple, but the essential characteristic is for Ray the manifestation of an essence behind the appearance. “At essentiae rerum nobis incognitae sunt, proinde et Differentiae earum essentiales.” [But the essences of things are unknown to us, inasmuch as their essential differences are.]

The real-ontological concept of essence is introduced to contrast on the linguistic level the real natural life unity with the concept, weighed down by logic, of the species, and the expression differentia essentialis has the function of relating the individual trait to the life form in which it appears, while the differentia specifica points to the position of the concept in the logical system of classification.

Thus, the contrast between the descriptive-classifying concept formation (the scholastic system, in Kant’s language) and the research guided by the natural divisions (Kant’s natural system) appears even on the level of terminology. In fact, it has been claimed that Ray also formulated the criterion of a natural division: the interfertility of supposed individuals to belong to the same subdivision.

If this is true, then Ray’s theory would have already contained all the ideas that served Kant as the basis for his uncommonly drastic statements on the essence of the life form. And these statements by Kant, in turn, pursue the possibilities inherent in these fundamental ideas to the point that current biological theory, insofar as it deals with them at all, has nothing really new to add.

Kant distinguishes between the scholastic classification of phenomena and the other type of classification that is based on the natural divisions. The interfertility of individuals determines whether they belong to the same natural division, a principle ascribed to Ray and for which Kant draws on Buffon. Scholastic classification concentrates on classes according to similarity, while natural classification arranges phyla according to kinship: “the former intends merely to subsume creatures under headings, but the second wants to place them under laws.”

The designation of natural subdivisions is thus simplified significantly compared to the Linnaean system; the distinction between genera and species disappears, and the term phylum designates the individuals who belong together according to the above-mentioned criterion; all larger groupings are artificial. The variations within the phyla are divided into races –hereditary varieties–and variations–differences that are not necessarily hereditary.

This was the precursor of the modern system of species, mutations, and variations, though it was not yet as clearly defined because the facts of genetics were not yet known. The individual natural divisions, the phyla, are constant, as were the Linnaean species, and the races developed within the phyla through the unfolding of dispositions that were present in seminal form in the as yet undifferentiated phyla.

The potential of developing in one or another direction was already present, but it was realized only when particular external conditions occurred, which then favored the unfolding of one potential while allowing others to wither. This explains why the races we find today can no longer regress to their undifferentiated phyla or develop in completely different directions.

There is obviously a close kinship between this theory and Heinz Woltereck’s most recent studies–in both, a natural division, the species, is considered the smallest, so far at least, biological division, and both theories interpret hereditary mutations or races as unfoldings of what was already inherent in the nature of the phylum. To use Woltereck’s formulation, the viable hereditary traits are already predetermined through the reaction norm of the species; mutations beyond the boundaries of the species’ constitution are not possible.

Kant is exemplary in his further application of this principle of interpretation to the variations down to the individual level, a part of the theory completely lacking in modern race theories–not because of the subject matter, but only because of the authors’ deficient theoretical background. Even in the personal variations nature does not proceed in complete freedom, but according to Kant, just as in the case of race characteristics, nature develops the original predispositions of the phylum. “The variety among people of the very same race was, in all probability, as effectively inherent in the original phylum in order to establish and subsequently develop the greatest diversity for an infinite variety of purposes, as the difference between races was present to later develop into fitness for fewer but more essential purposes.”

Race is not the ultimate determinant of the individual phenotype; rather every one of its traits must be regarded as the direct unfolding of the predispositions of the human phylum. The possibilities of human nature are spread out before us in the infinite variety of individual forms. That individual characteristics are not heritable Kant takes as an indication that nature “does not want the old forms always replicated but instead desires the expression of all the variety it had embedded in the original germs of the human phylum.” In the field of biology (there is nothing similar in anthropology) it is once again Woltereck who comes closest to this view. For him the variations are also determined by the reaction norm.

Kant, however, goes further and (more important for anthropology than biology) develops the idea of the bodily singularity of each person, so that only the human species as a whole can express the human essence in bodily form through all its individuals throughout history. Kant cites the physiognomical uniqueness and inner unity of every human face, thus transferring the problem of singularity from the merely physical sphere into that of spiritual expression. The idea of the singular body-mind unified person is almost attained here, though not yet completely . . .

The Essence (Ray to Goethe)

We have followed Ray’s idea of distinguishing between the real essence and the classificatory species to Kant’s ideas on the scholastic and the natural system. In Ray’s theory there are relationships between the essence of a living form and its traits that lead into epistemologically significant problems. The essence lies somewhere “behind” the traits meeting the observers’ eyes and guiding their ordering of the phenomena.

In one of its meanings this “behind” covers a causal connection between the invisible essence and its manifestation, the phenotype. This connection is the key to understanding the essence itself. Since only similar traits and functions flow from a particular essence, the fact that several individuals share the same habitus can be interpreted as an indication that they also share the same essence. Such likeness in habitus, texture, and appearance is the sufficient guarantee for identity of essence; the possibility, however, that an isolated trait can be considered essential is deemed improbable.

The concrete, visible overall habitus of the living creature is the expression of a unity working in the background and itself remaining invisible. In this contrast we find the same problem dealt with in contemporary biology under the heading of gene structure and the traits expressed in the phenotype. In both the phenotype is determined by a causal factor whose qualities cannot be seen but must be deduced.

This causal analysis ultimately leads, as we see in Woltereck’s work, beyond the sphere of material determination to the reaction norm [Reaktionsnorm] as the determining “inextensive diversity”–that is, an entity that can no longer be comprehended by means of mathematical-scientific analysis and thus leads us back to the living unity as one we have “seen” with our eyes.

We find the ambiguity inherent in the concept of the reaction norm also in Ray’s concept of essence. Just as Woltereck’s reaction norm is the causal determinant of the phenotype and at the same time because of its inextensivity leads us back from the causal analysis to the reality of organic essence accessible to intuitive perception, so Ray’s essence also signifies both the cause of the organic form and its host of traits and the seen being of the living creature, which guides the selection of traits with which the living being is to be described “essentially,” “naturally” (in contrast to the scholastic classification according to arbitrary traits that are irrelevant to the natural subdivision).

In discussing this problem, Ray arrived at formulations we will hardly find in modern biology but meet with in the humanities in the typology of Max Weber and Georg Simmel. The total habitus characterizing the living being must be conceived of in the concept of the type, and according to Ray this concept of the type is legitimately formed even when the individuals subsumed under it differ quite significantly from each other in various traits.

The traits are selected on the basis of an immediate grasp of the object, and the selected group is considered “typical,” while other traits and groups of traits may be ignored as being “inessential” and should not be considered characteristic. The formation of types thus is the result of a value-based selection (in the sense of Heinrich Rikkert’s logic of history), which in this case means: a selection is made in which the guiding “value” is the directly grasped vital essence of the plant.

The “ideal type” so arrived at does not comprise a group of traits an individual absolutely must possess to be considered a member of the type; rather, the traits are ordered with a view to the concrete essence. The empirical specimen may be more or less close to the essence, and perhaps no individual ever fully attains this essence. That does not make the type formation orientated to the concrete essential unity any less legitimate.

In the eighteenth century and in biology, this problem of the visibility of the living essence found its classical expression in Goethe’s statements on osteology. According to Goethe, in establishing the type, we are assured by the nature of the undertaking that our procedure is not merely hypothetical, for in looking for laws according to which living, separate beings, acting out of themselves, are formed, we are not getting lost in vast breadths but are being taught on the inside. That nature, when she wishes to produce such a creature, must concentrate its greatest diversity in the most absolute unity is evident from the concept of a living, definite being, separated from all others and acting with a certain spontaneity.

So we consider ourselves already assured of the unity, diversity, expediency, and lawfulness of our subject. If we are now circumspect and strong enough to approach our subject with an imagination that is simple yet wide-ranging, free yet guided by its own laws, lively yet regulated, to observe it and deal with it; if we are able to meet the certain and unambiguous genius of creative nature with the complex of spiritual powers we usually call genius, but which often produces very ambiguous effects; if several persons could work on the enormous subject with a common purpose; then surely the result would have to be something we as human beings should delight in.

Ray’s theory of the living unity and its essence contains the full scope of the speculative problems—the scope that allows them to be carried to the poles of Kant’s causal analysis in the natural method and Goethe’s biology that sees the essence itself.


This excerpt is from The History of the Race Idea: From Ray to Carus (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 3) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1998)

Eric VoegelinEric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.

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