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Bacteria, Sex, and Systematics

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2022


Philosophical discussions of species have focused on multicellular, sexual animals and have often neglected to consider unicellular organisms like bacteria. This article begins to fill this gap by considering what species concepts, if any, apply neatly to the bacterial world. First, I argue that the biological species concept cannot be applied to bacteria because of the variable rates of genetic transfer between populations, depending in part on which gene type is prioritized. Second, I present a critique of phylogenetic bacterial species, arguing that phylogenetic bacterial classification requires a questionable metaphysical commitment to the existence of essential genes. I conclude by considering how microbiologists have dealt with these biological complexities by using more pragmatic and not exclusively evolutionary accounts of species. I argue that this pragmatism is not borne of laziness but rather of the substantial conceptual problems in classifying bacteria based on any evolutionary standard.

Research Article
Copyright © The Philosophy of Science Association

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Four anonymous reviewers at Philosophy of Science were helpful in clarifying the arguments in this article. I would also like to thank Philip Kitcher for his comments and encouragement.


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