Reference, Truth, and Biological Kinds

In: J. Dutant, D. Fassio and A. Meylan (Eds.) Liber Amicorum Pascal Engel (2014)
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This paper examines causal theories of reference with respect to how plausible an account they give of non-physical natural kind terms such as ‘gene’ as well as of the truth of the associated theoretical claims. I first show that reference fixism for ‘gene’ fails. By this, I mean the claim that the reference of ‘gene’ was stable over longer historical periods, for example, since the classical period of transmission genetics. Second, I show that the theory of partial reference does not do justice to some widely held realist intuitions about classical genetics. This result is at loggerheads with the explicit goals usually associated with partial theories of reference, which is to defend a realist semantics for scientific terms. Thirdly, I show that, contrary to received wisdom and perhaps contrary to physics and chemistry, neither reference fixism nor partial reference are necessary in order to hold on to scientific realism about biology. I pinpoint the reasons for this in the nature of biological kinds, which do not even remotely resemble natural kinds (i.e., Lockean real essences) as traditionally conceived.

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Marcel Weber
University of Geneva


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