The Opposing Thumb

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Summer Reading II: The Growth of Biological Thought

At 974 pages, the second entry in OT’s summer reading list is hardly a breezy beach read. Ernst Mayr’s The Growth of Biological Thought could consume a vacation all on its own. But it is a comprehensive, not bloated, book. Unlike Horace Judson in The Eighth Day of Creation, Mayr does not provide a nuts & bolts view of how science is done. There are no extensive, in-depth interviews here, very little in the way of the sociology and psychology of the scientific enterprise. On the other hand, while Judson covered about 20 years (granted they were two hectic decades in the history of biology), Mayr covers 2000. The Growth of Biological Thought delivers on the promise of its title, giving us the history of cell biology, heredity (later called genetics), and, most of all, evolution. Given the scope, one could even call the volume concise.

Mayr, a perennial contender for the title of greatest biologist of the 20th century, is also character in the later stages of the story he’s telling, and not an outsider looking in. One consequence of this is that in The Growth of Biological Thought he often writes of himself in the third person, much like Caesar in the Asterix comics. Ernst Mayr lived through an interesting transition, and was indeed a key actor in it. In the first decades of the last century, while all biologists had accepted the fact of evolution, many, if not most, did not believe it could be explained by the mechanism of Natural Selection. A plethora of alternative theories could be found among zoologists, botanists, paleontologists in the field and the various flavors of physiologists and biochemists at the bench. Paleontology, from its long-term historical vantage point was riddled with orthogenesis- a model that called for directional trends in evolution; Mayr’s own field of zoology was a hotbed of Lamarckism.

Ernst Mayr died on Feb 3rd, 2005, aged 100. Officially retired in 1975, he was active to the last. His final book, “What makes biology unique?” for Cambridge University Press, came out when he was already a centenarian. Coming from a family of medical doctors, he showed an early passion for birds and left medicine for Biology. In 1927, Lord Rothschild engaged him to collect samples in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands- a seemingly suicidal assignment that he faced with the reckless confidence of youth “I did one thing after another that I had no business of doing, but I was confident I could do it and, by God, I was able to do it” . It was an adventure:

“During these expeditions, forlorn, at times given up for dead, exposed to tropical diseases and the danger of headhunters, he collected the skins of thousands of specimens, eating the flesh of many. Mayr was not only the ornithologist who probably tasted the largest number of different species of birds, but he also named 26 new species and over 400 new subspecies, more than any other taxonomist.”

Mayr wrote his scientific masterpiece, Systematics and the Origin of Species in 1942- it was, as the full title said, a zoologist’s take on the evolutionary synthesis. Theodosius Dobzhansky’s Genetics and the Origin of Species had convinced Mayr that the Darwinian model was essentially correct- and that it could be conciliated with the nascent science of genetics. Systematics and the Origin of Species was directed primarily at his fellow zoologists, part of a concerted effort to spread the so-called Modern Evolutionary Synthesis (the conceptual framework that joined Mendelian genetics and Natural Selection).

The Growth of Biological Thought

Forty years later, Mayr published The Growth of Biological Thought (1982), a look at how several disciplines coalesced into modern biology- and also a cry for biology as an autonomous science. As an intellectual and physical weightlifting program, OT recommends carrying The Eighth Day of Creation (itself no leaflet) and The Growth of Biological Thought with you this summer- together they will give an excellent conceptual foundation to understand modern biology, no matter what level you are starting from. And they’ll sculpt those triceps into prime beach shape.


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