Biological Kinds in Scientific Practice
Matthew Slater, 2017, Fellow Visitor
Extant accounts of natural kinds have notoriously struggled to accommodate the vagaries of classificatory practice in the biological sciences. This most evident for the classification of species — where the thesis that species are natural kinds has fallen substantially out of favor — but problematic as well for less charismatic examples such as our classification of cells, tissues, diseases, ecosystems, and so on. Many philosophers of biology have regarded Boyd’s “Homeostatic Property Cluster” (HPC) account of natural kinds to feature the right balance of flexibility and specificity. I have argued, however, that while an improvement on essentialist approaches, the HPC account faces conceptual problems and difficulties of application to certain cases (Slater 2015). In that paper, I proposed an alternative account of natural kinds that showed promise in addressing these problems. I conceive of natural kinds “adjectivally” — that is, rather than seeing natural kinds as an ontological category, as a left-alone feature of reality, I argue that it is more fruitful to see “natural kindness” as a status that a category can possess in virtue of its aptness to contribute to our explanatory and inferential practices. This status is domain- and contextrelative, however, introducing a dose of pragmatism into an account of biological kinds. I propose to use my time at KLI to work on one or two of my case studies and address the tension between realism and pragmatism in my account at a conceptual level.