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30 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on September 11, 2004
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
on 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
HALL OF FAMEon December 13, 2006
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. In this terse volume's concluding essays, Mayr does a fine job assessing the evolutionary history of human beings and offers a thoughtful, if unsympathetic critique on SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.). Although Mayr's arguments may seem a bit obtuse, and thus, difficult to read for someone unfamiliar with evolutionary biology, these splendid essays should be viewed as brilliant, though final, examples of both the keen intellect and elegant writer that Ernst Mayr was during his dual careers as a distinguished evolutionary biologist and a distinguished historian and philosopher of science.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on September 21, 2007
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. Mayr is especially hard on Richard Dawkins and the "selfish gene" viewpoint; but anyone who has read Dawkins' books (The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype) knows that he (Dawkins) has convincingly addressed and countered all of the objections raised by Mayr. More importantly, as Dawkins points out, a serious problem for those like Mayr who believe the individual organism to be the object of evolutionary selection is that they can't explain why the individual organism exists in the first place. Mayr speaks eloquently of needing to pose and answer "Why?" questions in evolutionary biology, but this is one of the biggest "Why?" questions out there and he dodged it.

The final three chapters on the species problem, the origin of humans, and the search for extraterrestrial life are all wonderful, chock full of profound and simple insights and observations.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on May 16, 2007
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 here in considerably revised forms, having been revised by Mayr shortly before his passing. As such the essays reflect his last thoughts on the relevant issues in philosophy of biology. Ernst Mayr was certainly qualified to write about these topics, having been one of the world's foremost evolutionary biologists (dubbed by some as the "Darwin of the 20th century") and a key figure in the so-called Modern Synthesis, along with Fisher, Dobzhansky and others. Mayr had devoted the last few decades of his life to the study of the history and philosophy of biology and he continues to be regarded as an authority in this area.

The essays are not presented in a haphazard manner. Instead they link up with one another thematically. The major issues that are analyzed in the essays concern the autonomy of biology as a scientific discipline (separate from physics and chemistry). Most philosophers of science have tried to impose upon biology the conceptual framework of the strictly physical sciences and have thereby, according to Mayr, failed to make any significant contributions to the field. Indeed, one cannot begin to fully understand and appreciate the nature of biology without understanding the essential differences that characterize the study of the inanimate world from that of the living world. Living systems are orders of magnitude more complex and for Mayr this is primarily due to their being subject to `dual causation'. On the one hand, living things are subject to the same natural laws as inanimate objects (e.g., the thermodynamic laws, etc.) but they are also uniquely controlled by genetic programs which have no analogue in the inanimate world. Mayr draws out the full implication of these genetic programs and shows how they add a new level of complexity to the study of nature - for example, with the discovery of genetic programs, we could begin to have natural explanations for processes that once invoked spooky teleological mechanisms. According to Mayr, the establishment of biology as an autonomous, bona fide science was a three-step process, that involved: (1) discarding erroneous principles that dominated the study of biology right up to the beginning of the 20th century (this primarily concerns the rejection of vitalism and cosmic teleology), (2) demonstrating that certain fundamental principles of the physical sciences do not apply to biology (strict determinism and reductionism, essentialism and the concept of natural laws, etc.) and (3) establishing certain fundamental principles that are specific to biology (primarily, genetic programs, emergence and the role of stochastic processes). For Mayr every science is characterized both by the features it shares with all sciences ("the organization and classification of knowledge on the basis of explanatory principles") and features that are unique to it (e.g., the role of mathematics in physics). It is especially interesting to read Mayr's work in comparison with the writing of some of the more extreme reductionists such as E.O. Wilson, for whom the dream of 'consilience' is to be achieved by reduction to the laws of physics (for Mayr, a fundamental impossibility).

Mayr proves to be particularly insightful on some of the following issues: the nature of theory construction in biology (which is based largely on concepts, rather than natural laws - in contrast, theory construction in the physical sciences largely proceeds from the basis of natural laws), the difference between reduction and analysis in the study of complex systems, the difference between functional and evolutionary biology, the concept of emergence, the part played by experimentation in science and the role of historical narratives in evolutionary biology, the relevance of the Kuhnian thesis to biology, the history of teleological concepts in biology and the structure of Darwinian theory. Mayr shows how Darwin's theory actually consists of five main strands that are partly independent of one another. Thus, the theory of common descent enjoyed enthusiastic acceptance shortly after 1859 (largely because it provided a theoretical framework for the work of naturalists and taxonomists) while the theory of natural selection was not fully accepted until several decades into the 20th century. The book's final essay presents a highly forceful and cogent critique of the SETI program.

The essays are a delight to read and will be enjoyed by anyone with a more than casual interest in biology. They present Mayr's original ideas on the topics at hand and mark an important contribution to the philosophy of science. Reading the book should be a requirement for a true understanding of the science of biology.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 30, 2007
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 with over his career. This is as much a book on the philosophy of science as on particular scientific issues within biology.

Of special interest are Mayr's thoughts on how biology differs from other physical sciences (as the title indicates), and on various issues within biology such as the "species problem." Mayr applies an Aristotelian approach to these issues that preempts some of the stranger conclusions arrived at by lesser minds in the philosophy of biology such as Richard Dawkins, for instance the idea that species, including man, differ only by degree and not by kind, and the implications of that view. (For Mayr, differences in degree great enough amount to differences in kind, which applies to the difference between biology and other sciences as well as to the species problem--but this is only a taste of his insightful, multi-layered analysis.)

Whether you are interested in biology specifically, or the philosophy of science in general, this is a work not to be missed.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on March 19, 2007
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. She kept asking me of my biochemical research "is it predictive?". What she was asking was from my studies in protein structure could I predict the Taj Mahal? I mumbled a great deal during those conversations.

In this book Mayr give voice and coherence to the chaos that is biology. It is not the science of physics, where one equation rules all. Choices, and accidents happen, and they shape future development. That is who we are.

I recommend this book to anyone really interested in what biology is, and what is can say about how it has arrived in this place and time.

duke out
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on October 19, 2004
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.

The role of a philosophy of biology is rescued and clarified; misconceptions about Darwinism (6 theories, not one), speciation, and variation, above all, natural selection are rectified. A final chapter offers a sobering assessment of the possibilities for finding extraterrestrial life, while exploring the utterly freak nature of intelligence. Another chapter ably dismisses the relevance of Thomas Kuhn's "Structure of Scientific Revolutions" for biological science. A minor quibble is a few references missing from sources' listings, but Mayr's delineation of the principles and principal, as well as lesser players in biology's emergence is magisterially unequalled. Probably the final book that this giant of modern biology will undertake, published in this Mayr's centenarian year.
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on November 1, 2014
This book was an absolute joy to read, Ernst Mayr is an absolute marble. The book is well-written easy to read filled with facts
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Mayr lays out his vision of a philosophy of science as it concerns biology. In doing so, he provides clear and concise refutations of a number of philosophies that other authors have put forward. Mayr occasionally could be accused of making an argument from authority; however, one could say that he's earned the right to make those arguments. It should be noted that this work draws heavily on prior works of Mayr's and as such serves mostly as a primer or condensed description of his philosophy.
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