Psychology Magazine

Essentialism

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds

I pass on some clips from Richard Dawkins' brief essay, and suggest you also take a look at Lisa Barrett's comments on essentialist views of the mind:

Essentialism—what I’ve called "the tyranny of the discontinuous mind"—stems from Plato, with his characteristically Greek geometer’s view of things. For Plato, a circle, or a right triangle, were ideal forms, definable mathematically but never realised in practice. A circle drawn in the sand was an imperfect approximation to the ideal Platonic circle hanging in some abstract space. That works for geometric shapes like circles, but essentialism has been applied to living things and Ernst Mayr blamed this for humanity’s late discovery of evolution—as late as the nineteenth century. If, like Aristotle, you treat all flesh-and-blood rabbits as imperfect approximations to an ideal Platonic rabbit, it won’t occur to you that rabbits might have evolved from a non-rabbit ancestor, and might evolve into a non-rabbit descendant. If you think, following the dictionary definition of essentialism, that the essence of rabbitness is "prior to" the existence of rabbits (whatever "prior to" might mean, and that’s a nonsense in itself) evolution is not an idea that will spring readily to your mind, and you may resist when somebody else suggests it.
Essentialism rears its ugly head in racial terminology. The majority of "African Americans" are of mixed race. Yet so entrenched is our essentialist mind-set, American official forms require everyone to tick one race/ethnicity box or another: no room for intermediates. A different but also pernicious point is that a person will be called "African American" even if only, say, one of his eight great grandparents was of African descent. As Lionel Tiger put it to me, we have here a reprehensible "contamination metaphor." But I mainly want to call attention to our society’s essentialist determination to dragoon a person into one discrete category or another. We seem ill-equipped to deal mentally with a continuous spectrum of intermediates. We are still infected with the plague of Plato’s essentialism.
Moral controversies such as those over abortion and euthanasia are riddled with the same infection. At what point is a brain-dead accident-victim defined as "dead"? At what moment during development does an embryo become a "person"? Only a mind infected with essentialism would ask such questions. An embryo develops gradually from single-celled zygote to newborn baby, and there’s no one instant when "personhood" should be deemed to have arrived. The world is divided into those who get this truth and those who wail, "But there has to be some moment when the fetus becomes human." No, there really doesn’t, any more than there has to be a day when a middle aged person becomes old. It would be better—though still not ideal—to say the embryo goes through stages of being a quarter human, half human, three quarters human . . . The essentialist mind will recoil from such language and accuse me of all manner of horrors for denying the essence of humanness...Our essentialist urge toward rigid definitions of "human" (in debates over abortion and animal rights) and "alive" (in debates over euthanasia and end-of-life decisions) makes no sense in the light of evolution and other gradualistic phenomena.
We define a poverty "line": you are either "above" or "below" it. But poverty is a continuum. Why not say, in dollar-equivalents, how poor you actually are? The preposterous Electoral College system in US presidential elections is another, and especially grievous, manifestation of essentialist thinking. Florida must go either wholly Republican or wholly Democrat—all 25 Electoral College votes—even though the popular vote is a dead heat. But states should not be seen as essentially red or blue: they are mixtures in various proportions.
You can surely think of many other examples of "the dead hand of Plato"—essentialism. It is scientifically confused and morally pernicious. It needs to be retired.

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