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What Makes Biology Unique?: Considerations on the Autonomy of a Scientific Discipline [Hardcover]

Ernst Mayr
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)

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Book Description

August 9, 2004 0521841143 978-0521841146 First Edition
This collection of revised and new essays argues that biology is an autonomous science rather than a branch of the physical sciences. Ernst Mayr, widely considered the most eminent evolutionary biologist of the 20th century, offers insights on the history of evolutionary thought, critiques the conditions of philosophy to the science of biology, and comments on several of the major developments in evolutionary theory. Notably, Mayr explains that Darwin's theory of evolution is actually five separate theories, each with its own history, trajectory and impact. Ernst Mayr, commonly referred to as the "Darwin of the 20th century" and listed as one of the top 100 scientists of all-time, is Professor Emeritus at Harvard University. What Makes Biology Unique is the 25th book he has written during his long and prolific career. His recent books include This is Biology: The Science of the Living World (Belknap Press, 1997) and What Evolution Is (Basic Books, 2002).

Editorial Reviews


"His mind is still remarkably sharp." Science

"In this first book of the second century of his long career, the biologist Ernst Mayr at age 100 has given us his reflections on the most interesting and important questions about life: why living things can't be understood just as very complex machines, how humans evolved, why we haven't yet communicated with any extraterrestrials, and others. Written with a clarity and vigor that shine from every page, this book is best summarized in one word: exciting!" Jared Diamond, Professor of Geography, UCLA, author of Guns, Germs and Steel (Pultizer Prize, 1998).

"Ernst Mayr has long had a deep and well-informed interest in the philosophy of biology in relation to broad questions in the philosophy of science. This is an invaluable, thought-provoking, and engaging summary of his ideas, a crowning achievement!" Mary Jane West-Eberhard, Senior Scientist, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, author of Developmental Plasticity and Evolution (Hawkins Award, 2003).

" What Makes Biology Unique? offers newcomers an entertaining way to expand their horizons. We are lucky that someone who has experienced so much remains forever young in his thinking." American Scientist, Volume 93, David Sloan Wilson, Biology and Anthropology, Binghamton University, Binghamton, New York

Book Description

This new book, a collection of revised, collected, and some new essays written in time for his 100th birthday by the most eminent evolutionary biologist of the past century, explores biology as an autonomous science, offers insights on the history of evolutionary thought, critiques the contributions of philosophy to the science of biology, and comments on several of the major ongoing issues in evolutionary theory. Notably, Mayr explains that Darwin's theory of evolution is actually five separate theories, each with its own history, trajectory and impact.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 246 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; First Edition edition (August 9, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521841143
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521841146
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.3 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,847,968 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
30 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great overview September 11, 2004
By Ben
This is a great overview of evolutionary thought and history. The chapters are some of his past works improved upon. He explains why there has been such trouble between evolutionists, and shows many mistaken ideas presented by Dawkins and Gould.

I would recommend this book so the reader might correct any incorrect information he might have picked up from someone not as knowledgeable about philosophy/Biology as Mayr. He clearly presents his ideas with better force than many authors of books on Biology. Perhaps you may also gain more respect for Biology apart from Chemistry and Physics.

I would also recommend his book, What Evolution Is, because he covers a lot of things in much more detail than in this newer book -- due to a broader overview in the current title.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What Has Made Dr. Mayr Unique? February 4, 2005
I was glad to receive this book for Christmas from my brother, and I read it in two days. The book does exactly what it sets out to do: explain the difficulties of applying the theory of evolution to daily tasks of the biologist: discerning between different species and different populations of the SAME species.

The fact that makes biology a unique discipline is this: there is not one, but TWO causalities one need consider: the normal statistical-chemical causality all empirical scientists deal with, and the running of a genetic program, established by millenia of evolutionary happenstances, which provides the "why" which many authors have wrongly considered to be anthropomorphism. To quote Dr. Mayr (p. 90): "However, organisms are subject also to a second set of causal factors, the information provided by their genetic program. There is no activity, movement, or behavior of an organism that is not influenced by the genetic program."

He goes on to clearly explain that understanding this genetic program has only recently been possible through the collaboration of genetics, cytology and molecular biology.

Dr. Mayr goes on to review and critique many recent writers on biology, and to point to exactly which parts of the unique study of bology they have misread, confused, or misunderstood. It is all excellent entertaining reading -- and quite astonishing for a man 100 years old. It is not too much to say that the world owes this amazing man an inclaculable debt for the wisdom and clarity of his studies spanning eight decades. We will miss him.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Ernst Mayr will definitely be missed, having been one of the leading architects of the Modern Synthetic Theory of Evolution, the leading theoretical evolutionary biologist interested in understanding the processes behind speciation, and then, late in life, both a distinguished historian and philosopher of the science of biology. His final book, "What Makes Biology Unique? Considerations on the Autonomy of a Scientific Discipline", demonstrates convincingly why biology should be considered independent from the empirical experimental sciences of chemistry and physics; one of the several well-argued, quite innovative, and technical essays which were published elsewhere before being edited together in this essay collection. For Mayr, the main distinction between Biology and these other sciences is the fact that there is inherited genetic information which is passed from one generation to another within species, observing that such information can not be tested rigorously via an empircal experimental approach to science. He also compares and contrasts reductionist and analytic approaches to scientific research, observing that a reductionist approach often leads to inaccurate predictions. He also argues persuasively that "Darwinism" is actually composed of six different - though intricately related - evolutionary theories, observing how Darwin's ideas have had an immense impact on current scientific thought. Another of his essays is a comprehensive overview on the nature of the species problem and speciation; a task well suited to Mayr since he is still regarded by most evolutionary biologists as the foremost authority on the process of speciation. And he makes a very persuasive argument demonstrating why Biology does not adhere at all to Thomas Kuhn's theory on scientific revolutions. Read more ›
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mayr's unique views on biology September 21, 2007
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A very enjoyable and interesting book by the unique Ernst Mayr. This slim book covers a surprising amount of ground and does so at the level a non-expert can appreciate and enjoy.

Personally I found Mayr's answer to the title question less than satisfying. There do seem to be things fundamentally different about biology as compared to the other sciences, but exactly what are these differences? Mayr claims the key difference is that biological entities, in addition to being subject to the physical laws that govern all (even inanimate) objects, also must follow the "programmed" instructions of their genetic code. Mayr seems to view genetic information as completely separate from the physical world and therefore beyond the purview of the deterministic models of the "physicalists" he so enjoys deriding. But this doesn't seem right. Though Mayr has little use for reductionists, at least a reductionist lives with the fact that a gene is fundamentally a section of a molecule and is thus ultimately subject to exactly the same (and no more) laws and processes that govern everything else. Biological processes are so hideously complex that proper application of the known laws and successful prediction are not possible - but this doesn't mean the laws themselves are no longer valid or insufficient. Still, I think Mayr is correct to point out the shortcomings of deterministic approaches that proceed under the assumption that they will be able to overcome the insurmountable complexities and give us reliable predictions of complicated biological phenomena.

Chapters 5-7 on Darwinism are fantastic - extremely interesting and insightful. I do not agree with much of what Mayr has to say about the "object of selection" issue in Chapter 8... but then again I'm only me while Mayr is Mayr.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Biology and Mayr
For the serious student of Biology you can't beat Ernst Mayr. He is eminently readable and only a few, e.g., E. O. Wilson can compare. Read more
Published on June 30, 2011 by E. Coady
5.0 out of 5 stars Mayr Debunks Vitalism and Teleology {as nonscientific}:
My favorite quotes from this text are:

"glossary [...] vitalism: the now thoroughly refuted belief in the existence of an occult invisible force in living organisms... Read more
Published on November 28, 2007 by Robert J. Cullen
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent overview of a great man's thoughts on his field
After more than three-quarters of a century as an evolutionary biologist, Ernst Mayr offers us, in his final book, his thoughts spanning the most important issues he's struggled... Read more
Published on October 30, 2007 by Ash Ryan
5.0 out of 5 stars A delightful book, full of original ideas
This book collects many of Mayr's most important contributions to the philosophy of biology. The majority of the essays stem from previously published papers, though they appear... Read more
Published on May 17, 2007 by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars The deep mojo of Biology
This was a book that finally answered my wife's questions. She is a theologian (main stream, liberal. Evolution is OK) and deals with science and religion frequently. Read more
Published on March 19, 2007 by The Duke
4.0 out of 5 stars Physics, biology, and teleology.
This is a very clear summary of the state of Darwinian theory from one of the founders of the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis. Read more
Published on February 24, 2005 by John C. Landon
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterful encapsulation of biology's unique claims
This work is a crowning survey of the claims of biology, defining it as an independent science, not a secondary offspring of physics and chemistry. Read more
Published on October 19, 2004 by John M. Willard
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