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Folkbiology, species concepts, and multispecies ethnography

Francisco Vergara-Silva

The interdisciplinary academic project aimed to understand the cognitive underpinnings of the classification of life-forms into 'species' –in the Western scientific tradition known as biological taxonomy, as well as in non-Western knowledge systems– achieved certain prominence in the 1990s, mainly around discussions on 'folkbiology'. Primary research on this subject has continued, but philosophy of biology analyses on its implications have been scant. In this paper I will argue that a relatively recent investigative trend in anthropology called 'multispecies ethnography' constitutes, among related anthropological perspectives, a useful analytical and interpretive context to continue addressing some of the research questions left unsolved during the original interdisciplinary discussion on 'folkbiology'. At the same time, I will identify some of the limitations and biases that 'multispecies ethnography' might entail as an approach to the 'species problem', vis-à-vis findings in cognitive science and arguments from other anthropological discourses, as well as advances in the philosophy of biology specialized in taxonomy and systematics. Finally, I will put forward suggestions for research strategies in 'multispecies ethnography', oriented to address diverse aspects of the discussion around 'species concepts', both within and beyond the boundaries of (Western) biology.

Last Updated: 5/5/22