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The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance
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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
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.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on May 19, 2005
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. In essence, we really need to know how a particular idea was derived in order to understand its significance (It was not until I was taught the significance of the history behind cell theory that I really appreciated it!) This is how biology should be taught and this is a good book with which to start. I recommend it highly.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on July 15, 1998
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
on September 22, 2004
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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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 31, 2010
I read this book 20 years ago and I still remember it. It is one of the best works of non-fiction I have ever read. Mayr makes clear the fundamental difference between the physical sciences and the biological sciences, and provides an outstanding introduction (more than an introduction) to the history of biological thought. Read Darwin, read Gould, but read Mayr first.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Ernst Mayr (1904-2005) was one of the leading evolutionary biologists, whose concept of speciation as a key to evolutionary development was critical for such persons as Stephen Jay Gould. He wrote other books such as Systematics and the Origin of Species from the Viewpoint of a Zoologist,Populations, Species and Evolution, etc.

He wrote in the Preface to this 1982 book, "Much of modern biology, particularly the various controversies between different schools of thought, cannot be fully understood without a knowledge of the historical background of the problems. Whenever I made this point to my students, they would ask me in which book they could read up on these matters. To my embarrassment, I had to admit that none of the published volumes fills this need... these writings are invariably inadequate as far as an analysis of the major problems of biology are concerned or as a history of concepts and ideas in biology.... there is nothing available that covers biology as a whole. To fill this gap in the literature is the object of this work... When I first conceived the plan to write a history of ideas in biology, the goal seemed impossibly remote..."

He observes, "Natural history was a ... source of rebellion against Galileo's mathematical ideal of science. It was particularly promoted by Buffon, who asserted emphatically... that some subjects are far too complicated for a useful employment of mathematics... Even Kant, by 1790, had abandoned his subservience to mathematics. If the invalidity of the mathematical ideal of science had not been obvious before, it certainly became so with the publication of The Descent of Man." (Pg. 41)

He suggests, "It is now clear that a new philosophy of biology is needed. This will include and combine the cybernetic-functional-organizational ideas of functional biology with the populational-historical program-uniqueness-adaptedness concepts of evolutionary biology. Although obvious its essential outlines, this new philosophy of biology is, at the present time, more of a manifesto of something to be achieved than the statement of a mature conceptual system. It is most explicit in its criticism of logical positivism, essentialism, physicalism, and reductionism but is still rather hesitant and inchoate in its major theses." (Pg. 73-74)

He points out, "Long lists of 'early evolutionists' are recorded in some histories of biology... [But] closer analysis fails to substantiate these claims. The forerunners either had theories of 'origins' or the unfolding of immanent potentialities of the type. A true theory of evolution must postulate a gradual transformation of one species into another and ad infinitum." (Pg. 352)

He asks, "What does one call a person who shows the path even though he is not a forerunner in the conventional sense? ... my own work on geographic speciation was stimulated by opposition to Goldschmidt's ] proposed solution of speciation through systemic mutations. There are literally scores of cases in the history of science where a pioneer in posing a problem arrived at the wrong solution but where opposition to this solution led to the right solution." (Pg. 381)

He states, "Considering how useful an organ the human brain is, the question is sometimes asked, Why did not selection produce as large a brain in all organisms?... It was this inability to account for the large brain of our primitive ancestors which made [Alfred Russel] Wallace doubt that selection could account for the origin of man as MAN. What Wallace overlooked is that the crucial moment in all selection is an emergency or catastrophe. An organ or function is usually not altered by selection during normal times; rather, it is selected at a time when it represents the tail end of the curve of variation and permits its carrier to survive in an emergency... 'Catastrophic selection' ... is a very important evolutionary process." (Pg. 600)

He admits, "The greatest unsolved problem in speciation research remains that of the genetic basis of speciation. To describe the process of speciation, one still relies in the main on inferences from patterns of distribution. It will not be possible to resolve the controversies on the frequency and validity of the various possible modes of speciation until we have acquired a better understanding of the underlying genetic processes." (Pg. 605)

For anyone wanting a history of such controversies in biological (and particularly evolutionary) intellectual history, this book will be warmly welcomed.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on March 26, 2012
I read this book as part of my preparation for preliminary exams for my Ph.D.. It is largely written for biologists. Much of the parlance employed will be difficult to understand for the layperson without at least some biology education. If you are a biologist or biology student and would like a firm grounding in the historical development of the science, its philosophical underpinnings, and our current evolutionary paradigm, then this book is for you. Ernst Mayr is a very proficient, clear writer. Some of the thinking about certain subfields and some concepts have changed somewhat in the 30 years since this book was published, but for the most part the book holds up incredibly well. Mayr is both a scientist and a historian of science, so familiarity with important ideas in the study of the history of science is helpful (Kuhn, Popper, etc...), but not essential.
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on July 6, 2013
A bit dated in parts, but Mayr is a great writer. His conversational style (for history of science) makes what could be a very dull topic into an interesting read. Learned a lot.
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6 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on May 13, 2000
There is history in biological thought and not only an accumulation of knowledge as it is commonly assumed. Knowledge is an interpretation of facts and is dependent on concepts about the world or even the process of cognition. This book deals with the part of dependency on concepts about the world which were used to research and explain the found data. For me it was an eye-opener because in school we learned, that there is just one eternal biology about wich one cannot argue. After genetics we may no more be able to argue, but because of other reasons:-)
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8 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on February 18, 2002
While Mayr took on a monumental task in researching the history of ideas in 3 important areas of biology, this book feels limited. The most glaring weakness I found is the heavy Eurocentrism displayed throughout. It gives no mention to the large contribution made by scientists in Asia to many of the issues it addresses. The book also feels highly repetitive in some areas, explaining the same concepts every few pages at times. I feel that it would have been better served as a series of books, each one more detailed in the branch of biology with which it is concerned.
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