Posted by: Johan Normark | March 15, 2012

Evolution and species

I am currently reading Timothy Morton’s The Ecological Thought and I came across a passage in this interesting book that reminded me of my own discussion of evolution and temporality. To quote him: “Contrary to what some humanists think, it is not big news to Darwinism that “species” don’t really exist. What a work of repression we have wrought. Darwin shares with Freud and Marx the honor of having his theory declared dead every few weeks, as if it were necessary to kill the corpse over and over again” (p 62). Morton discusses the way causation works backwards since we can only name something retrospectively. In my licentiate thesis (2004:46) I wrote that

“in the fossil record, palaeontologists can distinguish different individuals as examples of species of animals or plants and categorize them into larger group such as classes (mammals, reptiles, etc.). This is similar to the typological approach in archaeology. The slightly skewed picture palaeontologists get as being short-lived beings who study a small and random sample of past species (or rather individuals) can thus be applied to archaeologists as well. We do not experience the slow process of biological evolution itself (neither the Lamarckian, Darwinian, nor Bergsonian). Our parents are not of another species. Two thousand years ago we were the same species, but maybe not two hundred thousand years ago. The genetic changes are usually slow (even if they are “fast” geologically speaking). Species can only be distinguished if we cut out a sequence or a point of time of the past. Even at certain points in time there are species which can mate with each other and produce sterile offspring (such as when a horse and a donkey produce a mule). There is always some variation within every species and form. If we had the opportunity to travel in time and follow each “individual” from the “origin” of life to now, we would not be able to see when one species turned into another. There would not be any species in a continuum. Only an isolated event, an instant, as when an individual dies and is covered by sediment makes it possible to generalize fossilized individuals into species.”

Morton, Timothy (2010). The Ecological Thought. Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA.

Photo by Jim Harriss (shared on facebook)


  1. Hi Johan;

    One of the more interesting (to me) examples of this are not separated temporally, but geologically, the various examples of ‘Ring Species’, such as the Larus gulls:

  2. Thanks for reminding me about them, I did not know the English name.


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