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What Evolution Is (Science Masters Series) Paperback – October 11, 2002

4.1 out of 5 stars 76 customer reviews

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Amazon.com Review

Gathering insights from his seven-decade career, the renowned biologist Ernst Mayr argues that evolution is now to be considered not a theory but a fact--and that "there is not a single Why? question in biology that can be answered adequately without a consideration of evolution."

Mayr, emeritus professor of zoology at Harvard University, has long been one of the world's foremost researchers in genetic and evolutionary theory. In this overview of past and current scientific thought, he discusses key concepts and terms, among them the origin of species, the (somewhat metaphorical) "struggle for existence," and agents of micro- and macroevolution. Somewhat against the grain, he argues against reduction and for the study of evolution at the phenotypic, not genetic, level. In his concluding pages, Mayr offers a careful overview of human evolution, adding his view that humankind is indeed unique--though "it has not yet completed the transition from quadrupedal to bipedal life in all of its structures."

Advanced students of the life sciences, as well as readers looking for a survey of current evolutionary theory, will find Mayr's book a useful companion. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

At age 97, Ernst Mayr is one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century, and here he delivers yet another valuable addition to the field of evolutionary theory. Mayr, who was also a curator at the American Museum of Natural History for two decades, guides lay readers through evolutionary thought from the book of Genesis and creationist theory through Darwin's theories and "soft" evolution and on to more contemporary, inclusive concepts. He takes readers on a whirlwind voyage from the scala naturae (the Great Chain of Being, in which everything in the world was accorded a position in a developmental hierarchy) to Mayr's own work, which builds on Darwinian theory and environmental factors. No one but Mayr could explain evolution so well, and though the text is peppered with many scientific terms, overall the author is triumphant in his goal to teach "first and foremost... biologist or not, [anyone] who simply wants to know more about evolution." While many authors suggest their tomes are the authoritative source, Mayr remains humble, reminding readers that "many details remain controversial." And the combination of his expertise, his elegant prose and the sheer pleasure of so many enthralling facts (the 145-million-year-old Archaeopteryx is a near perfect link between reptiles and birds, for example) means that studying the fossil record has rarely been so absorbing. Appendixes answer FAQs and respond to various objections to evolutionary theory, while a glossary offers entries from acoelomate to zygote.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Series: Science Masters Series
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; Reprint edition (October 11, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465044263
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465044269
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (76 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #136,346 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This is a very good introductory overview of evolutionary theory, suitable for the enthusiastic novice, the educated skeptic, the qualified biologist, or for those who simply wish to know what has been going on in this fascinating field for the last 150 years and more of scientific enquiry.

The writer, Ernst Mayr, only recently passed away aged over 100, and had been through a good deal of this scientific development, and is therefore in a unique position to approach the subject. Jared Diamond (author of 'The Third Chimpanzee', 'Guns, Germs and Steel') describes the result: "there is no better book on evolution". Whilst a little skeptical of this hyperbole, I decided to check it out, and wasn't disappointed.

Discussions range from the philosphical (everything in this Earth seems to be in a state of flux" p7), to the palaeontological ("the older the strata in which a fossil is found...the more different the fossil will be from living relatives" p13-although see also the occassional stasis of the genotype on p278-79), to the embryonic (eg 'recapitulation'-an important point), to the modern discovery of 'transposable elements' (gene jumping and copying-p100). Important developments in the theory include the 'branching theory' of Darwin (p19), to the theory of common descent (p21), to discussions of biogeography (species distribution), molecular biology (including the molecular clock), to the formation of new genes by doubling and insertion, leading to diversification (p108-9). The reader will find all the scientific development and current investigations exhaustive, but (hopefully!) rarely exhausting.
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Format: Paperback
In the introduction, Mayer states that this book is written for 3 groups of people. One of which is just anyone that is interested in evolution, biologist or not. "Great!" I thought. I have read some stuff on evolution such as the Blind Watchmaker, so I figured I could handle this. I thought wrong. I suppose I just dont know enough basic biology to understand a lot of the stuff Mayer discusses. But the reason that I wanted to read this book... so that I would understand evolutionary biology!

Indeed, there is a wealth of information in this book, but it seems like all of this stuff is just second nature to Mayer, and he doesnt realize that most people will have no idea about what he is talking about.

For instance, when disussing Biased Variation (pg 99), Mayer states "Some genes affect the segregation of alleles during meiosis in a heterozygote such that the allele of one parental chromosome goes to the gametes in more than half of the instances. If this allele controls the unfit phenotype, it will be selected."

The book is packed with stuff like this. I suppose if I had some background in biology I might have some idea of what that means.

Anyway, the books is probably a gold mine for anyone educated in biology, but I am gonna have to say that if you just want a basic intro to biological evolution, this is not the book for you. Or at the very least, it wasnt the book for me.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is simply a MUST for anyone interested in the theory of evolution, including, and especially for, those human beings who are curious about the origins of their present constitutions, both biological and psychological, and who want to be informed of the most up-to-date natural and scientific explanations about them, rather than to continue to lie ignorantly, though comfortably, in the consolation of religious or supernatural dogmas.
I cannot think of anyone else who is able to present all levels of the complexity and subtely of the process of evolution and the theory of natural selection with such precision and clarity than Ernst Mayr, a venerable scientist, "the world's greatest living evolutionary biologist" (Steven Jay Gould), "the Darwin of the 20th century" (New York Times).
This book is not only consisted of rigorous arguments, but also full of compelling illrustrative examples picked up from the diversity of living beings on our earth of various geological ages (from the fossil record to modern human beings) and places in support of those arguments.
Mayr's knowledge in biology is so comprehensive and his narrative so straighforward and lucid that he recounts those examples of evolution history just like a grandfather telling some everyday stories to his grandsons.
And I especially recommend those who once found or still find the so-called "GENE EYES' VIEW" (as popularized by Richard Dawkins) attractive shall seriously study this great work. And then he or she, I think, will soon discover that how imprecise and misguiding is the metaphorical language of those sociobiologists in their description of almost every parts of the process of evolution.
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Format: Hardcover
(But not for dummies.)
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this book is that the author was born in 1905. What legendary biologist Ernst Mayr might next want to share with us is his secret for remaining so mentally acute for so many years! Reading this exposition on evolution by "The world's greatest living biologist and a writer of extraordinary insight and clarity" (Stephen Jay Gould, on the jacket cover) is somewhat like taking Evolution 101 as it might be taught by Professor Mayr. As he writes in the Preface, his purpose is didactic. He would like us to know more about evolution and how it works.
First he presents the evidence for evolution, explaining (I hope) once and for all how evolution can be established as a fact even though we cannot perform experiments as we might in physics or chemistry: "Evolution...must be inferred from observations. Such inferences subsequently must be tested again and again against new observations, and the original inference is either falsified or considerably strengthened..." (p. 13) He adds on page 276, "I cannot see why...an overwhelming number of well-substantiated inferences is not scientifically as convincing as direct observations. Many theories in other historical sciences, such as geology and cosmology, are also based on inferences. The endeavor of certain philosophers to construct a fundamental difference between the two kinds of evidence strikes me as misleading."
To this I might add that all the evidence we have of the external world is from inference. Even so-called direct observations (whatever they may be) are inferences from the evidence of our senses and must be checked against the same inferences that others make.
Next Mayr explains how change and adaptation take place.
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