Branches in the lines of descent: Charles Darwin and the evolution of the species concept




Charles Darwin introduced a novel idea into the concept of species, namely that species are branches in the lines of descent (segments of population lineages). In addition to this novel evolutionary component, Darwin's species concept also retained an older taxonomic component, namely the view that the species category is a taxonomic rank; moreover, he adopted amount of difference as a criterion for ranking lineages as species. Subsequent biologists retained both components of Darwin's species concept, although they replaced Darwin's ranking criterion with ranking criteria that either are more objectively defined or relate more directly to the biological bases of lineage separation and divergence. Numerous alternative ranking criteria were proposed, resulting in a proliferation of species definitions and a controversy concerning the concept of species. That controversy can be resolved by distinguishing more explicitly between the theoretical concept of species and the operational criteria that are used to apply the concept in practice. By viewing the various alternative ranking criteria as operational indicators of lineage separation rather than necessary properties of species, the conflicts among competing species concepts are eliminated, resulting in a unified concept of species. A brief examination of the history of biology reveals that an important shift related to the unified species concept has been emerging ever since Darwin reformulated the concept of species with an evolutionary basis. The species category is effectively being decoupled from the hierarchy of taxonomic ranks and transferred to the hierarchy of biological organization.  Published 2011. This article is a US Government work and is in the public domain in the USA. © 2011 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2011, 103, 19–35.