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A Comprehensive and Fascinating Journey
on August 27, 2001
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?" One particular hi-lite of Mayr's book is his "rehabilitation" of the reputation of Jean Baptiste Lamarck who is so often disparaged in texts which use him as "the" example of all that was wrong with biological thinking prior to Darwin. Mayr clearly shows the power of Lamarck's thought and reveals that he, more than anyone, "discovered the Achilles heel of natural theology" with his insight that "a species must likewise change forever in order to remain in harmonious balance with the environment." This book is not a quick read as it is packed with information. But it is a fascinating detective story that should be seen as required reading for any educated individual. It is often hard to put it down as one is constantly looking forward to seeing how men solved the various problems of biological change and the nature of organic life.