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Research Interests

I am interested in the history of systematics, especially in its relationship to evolution. In the centuries before Darwin, what sense did naturalists make of the resemblances linking organisms? To what extent did accepting evolution alter the practice of classifying living things? Textbooks usually answer such questions with some version of the “essentialism story” popularized by Ernst Mayr, but I have challenged the accuracy of this story. Today there are philosophers and biologists who suppose that before 1859, systematists can only have counted overall similarities, since the criterion of common ancestry that now underpins monophyletic groups did not exist. I am currently studying the concept of taxonomic “affinity,” a crucial idea in the early 19th century that corrects that mistake.

Selected Publications

2015. “Considering affinity: An ethereal conversation”  Endeavour  39 (1): 69-79; Endeavour  39 (2): 116-126; Endeavour 39 (3 & 4): 179-187.

2013. “Darwin and taxonomy,” in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Darwin and Evolutionary Thought, ed. Michael Ruse. pp. 72-79. Cambridge University Press.

2009. “Taxonomy was the foundation of Darwin’s evolution,” Taxon 58 (1): 43-49.

2007. “The mystery of Richard Owen’s winged bull-slayer” (co-author Jennifer Coggon) in reprint of Richard Owen, On the Nature of Limbs: A Discourse, ed. Ron Amundson, University of Chicago Press: XCIII-CI.

2006. “Creation of the essentialism story: an exercise in metahistory.,” History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 28 (2): 149-174.

2006.  “Linnaeus’s biology was not essentialist,”  Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 93 (1): 2-7.

2003. “Non-essentialist methods in pre-Darwinian taxonomy,” Biology and Philosophy 18: 387-400.

2001. “The practitioner of science: everyone her own historian,” Journal of the History of Biology 34: 229-245.

2000. “Species, demes, and the omega taxonomy: Gilmour and The New Systematics,” Biology and Philosophy 15: 349-388.

1991. Reading the Shape of Nature: Comparative Zoology at the Agassiz Museum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

1976. Starfish, Jellyfish, and the Order of Life: Issues in Nineteenth Century Science. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Recent Supervisions

Charissa Varma, Sara Scharf, Gillian Gass, Conor Burns, James Elwick, Tara Abraham


Contact Information

  • Personal Title: Professor Emeritus
  • E-mail address: polly.winsor@utoronto.ca