• gene flow;
  • Linnaean hierarchy;
  • reproductive isolation;
  • species category;
  • species concepts

Abstract The validity of the species category (rank) as a distinct level of biological organization has been questioned. Phenetic, cohesion and monophyletic species concepts do not delimit species-level taxa that are qualitatively distinct from lower or higher taxa: all organisms throughout the tree of life exhibit varying degrees of similarity, cohesion, and monophyly. In contrast, interbreeding concepts delimit species-level taxa characterized by a phenomenon (regular gene flow) not found in higher taxa, making the species category a distinct level of biological organization. Only interbreeding concepts delimit species-level taxa that are all comparable according to a biologically meaningful criterion and qualitatively distinct from entities assigned to other taxonomic categories. Consistent application of interbreeding concepts can result in counterintuitive taxonomies – e.g. many wide polytypic species in plants and narrow cryptic species in animals. However, far from being problematic, such differences are biologically illuminating – reflecting differing barriers to gene flow in different clades. Empirical problems with interbreeding concepts exist, but many of these also apply to other species concepts, whereas others are not as severe as some have argued. A monistic view of species using interbreeding concepts will encounter strong historical inertia, but can save the species category from redundancy with other categories, and thus justify continued recognition of the species category.