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The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance

10 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674364462
ISBN-10: 0674364465
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Editorial Reviews


Professor Mayr has written a monumental history of biological ideas...[It is] a marvelous course in evolution, taught historically. For a reader who is willing to make the effort, this book provides one of the best and most nearly complete discussions of these ideas to be found anywhere. It is an example of those rare books in popular science which can teach scientists as well as laymen...[This book] is full of insights and historical revelations. Nothing quite like The Growth of Biological Thought has been attempted before. It is a book that could have been written only by a scientist in complete command of his subject. (Jeremy Bernstein New Yorker)

This is an extraordinary, epic work in which Mayr once again shows himself a master of detail, interpretation, and synthesis. (Douglas J. Futuyma Science)

The Growth of Biological Thought will be a richly rewarding experience...Mayr's vivid manner, his clear analytical distinctions, his candor in meeting controversial issues head on, make his discussions as stimulating as they are valuable. (Frederic L. Holmes Washington Post Book World)

Mayr concentrates on scientific problems and concepts, placing them in the intellectual milieu of each historical period...Tightly drawn, highly opinionated presentations are invaluable in science, and Mr. Mayr's [book] is certainly provocative. (James L. Gould New York Times Book Review)

This solid essential reading for everyone at all interested in evolution, in biology or its history, or in science in general. (A. J. Cain Nature)

Mayr's book is a book of great erudition and insight. No other single volume offers such an extensive account of the history of the subjects in question while providing as penetrating a view of the nature of these subjects. (Richard W. Burkhardt Times Higher Education Supplement)

About the Author

Ernst Mayr was Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology, Emeritus, at Harvard University. He was the recipient of numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the Crafoord Prize for Biology, the National Medal of Science, the Balzan Prize, and the Japan Prize.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 974 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press (1982)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674364465
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674364462
  • Product Dimensions: 2 x 6.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #434,316 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

26 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Robert Dray on August 27, 2001
Format: Paperback
Ernst Mayr's comprehensive history of biological thought is nothing less than the story of man's discovery of his own place in nature. Mayr goes back centuries in this fascinating detective story of man's attempt to make sense of all the similarities and all the diversity of organic life, as well as the changes in life forms and the makeup of the earth as found in the geological record. Mankind's attempts to understand life forms through their categorization is fully discussed. Mayr is exceptionally good in his lengthy review of evolutionary thought and brings it up to date throught the century following Darwin. He ends by dealing with the problem of inheritance and the development of genetic theory which is brought up through the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. Throughout the work Mayr retains a focus on the place of biological thought in the history of science. He clearly shows how historians and philosophers of science have made serious errors by assuming that physics and mathematics present the perfect models for the "scientific method." He illustrates how biological understanding does not often fit those paradigms. A real strength of his book is how he develops the "conceptual" universe of thinkers and researchers as they struggled with the problems posed by biological diversity and change. "In biological science," he says, "our understanding of the world is achieved more effectively by conceptual improvements than by the discovery of new facts." Pertinent here is what he refers to as the "strait jacket of Plato's essentialism" that influenced thinking right into the 20th century. He also demonstrates why it was so important that biologists began to ask "why?" instead of simply "how?Read more ›
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By David B Richman on May 19, 2005
Format: Paperback
Ernst Mayr (1904-2005) was an institution in the science of biology. Around long enough to contribute significantly to the development of synthetic theory, Mayr made at least some of the history he reports on in his monumental "The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution and Inheritance." While any book of this scope is bound to have some blank spots, this is by far the most comprehensive history of biological thought ever published and it is fitting that it should get as much praise as it has.

Mayr had his weak points (as all people do), but they were certainly not in depth of knowledge. Starting as an ornithologist (he could identify the local birds around his home in Germany by the time he was ten) he built a solid reputation as an evolutionary biologist. He early on (correctly, I believe) took the view that the "nature-nurture" argument was not valid, as genes and environment can never be separated. He is also the author of numerous quotable statements on the scientific method, biology and evolutionary thought, such as "...most scientific problems are far better understood by studying their history than their logic," a statement he backs up in this huge tome.

Indeed, Mayr is right; to understand scientific problems one needs to understand the history of thought involved. For example, Mayr first proposed punctuated equilibrium, as noted by S. J. Gould and Niles Eldredge, and defined much of the evolutionary landscape of speciation. Without the knowledge of Mayr's contribution and contributions made by other biological giants, starting with Darwin and going on through Sewell Wright, George Gaylord Simpson, the Huxleys, Dobzhansky, George Williams and many others, the rich development of biological thought is almost indecipherable.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 15, 1998
Format: Paperback
Professional biologists, particularly those who have received their graduate trainining in recent years like myself, tend to ignore the philosophical basis of theoretical systems and working hypothesis we use in our work, be it research or teaching, everyday. There are several different and apparently contradictory systems to explain the mechanisms of evolution but, nonetheless, the most successful and the basis of all present possible explanations is the Neo-Darwinian synthesis, which integrated Charles Darwin's hypothesis with modern research techniques and methods, opening the path to mechanistic explanations and eventually, yes, reductionism, validating organismal biology as a "hard core" science. Dr. Mayr was one of those biologists who laid the basis for the Neo-Darwinian synthesis. In this book, he traces back the concept of organism, species, diversity, inheritance and evolution to the early greek philosophers and exposes the changes of the philosophic! ! al and conceptual basis of evolutionary theories to our days.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Robert J. Crawford on September 22, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This is an absolutely superb history of biological thought. If you want to know what Aristotle thought, the details about van Leuvenhook as he turned his crude microscope on a drop of water (revealing the existence of teeming microorganisms), and the neo-darwinian synthesis (of Darwin and Mendelian genetics), this is your book. It is unfailingly accurate, beautifully written, and laid out so that it is easy to find what you want at the moment you need it. I have used this as a reference for years when I needed just the right fact or idea in some article or review. It is simply first rate, but it is a book to use and apply more than one to read straight through. Finally, Maye is one of the great biologists of the 20C, a leader in the development of neo-Darwinism, which is a special treat to the reader.

Recommended. Its excellence will stand the test of time.
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