Essentialism within the purview of psychology is a cognitive bias whose roots form in early childhood (Gelman, 2004). This concept pertains to the notion that all discernible objects harbor an underlying reality that although intangible, gives each and every object it’s true identity – it’s essence (Dawkins, 2009; Hood, 2008). To put it another way:
“people believe that natural category members share some hidden, unobservable, empirically discoverable deep structure or essence, whose possession is necessary and sufficient for category membership” (Jylkkäa, Railob, and Haukiojaa, 2008).
In our early childhood, as we were developing language, essentialism played a crucial role in the expansion of our vocabulary, the generalization of our knowledge, in discriminating among objects, and in our ability to construct causal explanations (Gelman, 2004). In our struggle to understand the vast and complicated world, our brain forced us to partition things into categories so we chopped and divided what we surveyed into distinct groupings based on defining characteristics driven by our internalized understanding of the essence of those groupings. This was initially a very simplistic process (dog, cat, cow), then more complex (mammal, reptile, insect), and then even more sophisticated for those who progressed in the biological sciences (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species). This is necessarily a dynamic process because as we mature and take in increasing complexity we need increased specificity when parsing the world up into discrete categories.
This pattern of thinking/learning transcends all cultures and is central to our language development (Hood, 2008). Given this central role, it forms the foundation of our thought processes (Hood 2008; Dawkins, 2009). The overgeneralization of this process is what gets us into difficulty. Bruce Hood, author of Supersense (2008), convincingly argues that this innate tendency forms the core of our superstitious and supernatural thinking. Richard Dawkins (2009), an evolutionary biologist, suggests that such an inclination explains why people have such great difficulty grasping and accepting the concept of evolution by means of natural selection. I suggest, that like evolution (which necessitates quintessential anti-essentialist thinking), the concepts of plate tectonics, deep geological time, and deep space time are also very hard to grasp for the same reasons. We are inclined to think that what we see are constants – that the world as we see it has been eternally so, and so shall it always remain.
In biology, essentialism sustains the notion that all animals are clear and distinct, belonging to a specific species. In fact, as Dawkins suggests: “On the ‘population-thinking’ evolution view, every animal [living form] is linked to every other animal [living form], say rabbit to leopard, by a chain of intermediates, each so similar to the next that every link could in principle mate with its neighbors in the chain and produce fertile offspring” (2009, p. 24). This is true for all conceivable pairings including bacteria and viruses, giant sequoias and lichen, spiders and flies, cats and dogs, birds and snakes, foxes and chickens, and even humans and turnips.
Plato demonstrated essentialist thinking in The Republic in his cave allegory, where he suggested that the world as we experience it is only a composite of mere shadows tethered to their true and perfect forms (essences) floating about somewhere in the heavens (Dawkins, 2009; Hood, 2008). Many people still believe that there is something more to the physical world than what we see. As Hood (2008) put it, “Humans like to think that special things are unique by virtue of something deep and irreplaceable.” This thinking, and other intuitive errors such as vitalism (that vital life energies cause things to be alive) and holism (that everything is connected by forces) are likely artifacts of our natural involuntary inclinations (Hood, 2008).
Essentialism is more than a heuristic and it has ramifications beyond making us less inclined to believe in evolution or more inclined toward superstition. It is what makes rape more than a physical crime. The defilement and contamination the victim feels is a psychological violation of one’s essential integrity. Genocide is perpetrated by individuals who dehumanize or define the victims as essentially different and/or contaminated. Essentialism, is what makes original works of art more valuable than exact duplicates (Hood, 2008). It also drives the belief systems that sustain homeopathy.
It is interesting that this intuitive process plays such an important and fundamental role in our development and sustains both powerfully positive and hugely negative influences on us as adults. When you get right down to the essence of this concept, you must accept that these inclinations have their roots in the same thinking that makes a preschool child believe that a Mommy can’t be a firefighter (Gelman, 2004).
Dawkins, R. 2009. The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. New York: Free Press.
Gelman, S. A. 2004. ‘Psychological Essentialism in Children’, TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 404-409.
Hood, B. 2008. Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Jylkkäa, J., Railob, H., & Haukiojaa, J. 2008. ‘Psychological Essentialism and Semantic Externalism: Evidence for Externalism in Lay Speakers’ Language Use‘. Philosophical Psychology