Grene and Hull on Type-Concepts in Biology

Phillip Honenberger

Rowan University

Ernst Mayr’s contrast between “typological” and “population” thinking has recently come under attack both for its historical accuracy and its conceptual perspicuity (Amundson 1998, 2005; Winsor 2006, Lewens 2009). In this paper I review three disputes between the late twentieth-century philosophers of biology Marjorie Grene and David Hull bearing on the question of the proper role of type-based concepts (“typological thinking”) in biology. The first of these concerns the role of types within evolutionary biology (Hull 1965, 1969, 2004; Grene 1953, 1989, 1990, 2004). Here Grene construes type-based thinking as indispensable and illuminating, whereas Hull treats it as often misleading and problematic, and thereby generally suspicious. The second concerns the question of whether species can be adequately understood as historical individuals (as Hull famously proposed in Hull 1976 and elsewhere), and thus entirely in the absence of those forms of thinking Hull and Mayr had construed as “typological” or “essentialist.” The third dispute concerns the prospects of a biologically-informed philosophy of human nature, an issue with which Hull and Grene’s varying judgments on the legitimacy of type-based thinking are closely related (Hull 1985, Grene 1974, 2007).