- Paperback: 974 pages
- Publisher: Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (1982)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0674364465
- ISBN-13: 978-0674364462
- Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 2 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 14 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #952,459 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance Reprint Edition
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“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
“This solid book…is essential reading for everyone at all interested in evolution, in biology or its history, or in science in general.”―A. J. Cain, Nature
“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
“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
“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
“It 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.”―The New Yorker
From the Back Cover
No book has ever established the life sciences so firmly in the mainstream of Western intellectual history as 'The Growth of Biological Thought.' Ten years in preparation, this is a work of epic proportions, tracing the development of the major problems of biology, from the earliest attempts to find order in the diversity of life to modern research into the mechanisms of gene transmission.
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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.
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.