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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
First Web Paper
On Serendip


Daniela Miteva

"Nothing succeeds if prankishness has no part in it"
Friedrich Nietzsche

The Bible contends that God created the extant world, imposing order on the preexisting chaos. Darwin's theory of evolution introduced another notion of the world, posing a great challenge to the Christian tenets. According to it, all organisms are not the creations of a supreme being, but have descended from a simple unicellular organism that somehow developed a lipid membrane, could store its genetic information and transcribe it when necessary. Darwin dared suggest that the extant world is by far not perfect or stable as depicted in the Bible, but is constantly changing. Summarizing the major points of Darwin's story, Mayr does not tell a new one. So, what is the aim of "What Evolution Is" then?

Darwin's theory of evolution defines movement as an attribute of life. Owing to changes in the surrounding environment, the species constantly respond by following suit. But what determines these changes? Drawing on Darwin's story, Mayr implies that chance shapes reality. Subtly analyzing this aspect of the theory of evolution, he challenges our notions of the surrounding world.

Chance determines ontogeny. The fertilization of the egg and, hence, the subsequent formation of the individual's genotype, are random events independent of logic or rationality. Moreover, all of a sudden a mutation may occur in the species' genetic information, resulting in a completely new feature. Whether it will be preserved and transmitted to the offspring cannot be predicted. Depending on the specific environmental conditions, it may give the species some advantage, thus inducing natural selection to act in its favour. Therefore, natural selection is guided by chance.

Random events account for the changes on the population level as well. Some millions years ago, for example, an asteroid suddenly hit the Earth, obliterating most of the animal species dominating the Tertiary scenery. Because niches were freed, new animal species began propagating trying to utilize the available space. In the due course of time, the species gave rise to other species and reshaped the planet, imposing an entirely new order. So, chance eventually creates order characterized by certain patterns of life. Like changes in the environment, the emergence of the specific patterns cannot be predicted.

Examining various factors that influence populations, Mayr deduces that evolution itself depends on chance. His implications of the role of chance in the shaping of life make us reconsider our notions of knowledge of the surrounding world. If it is constantly transforming itself due to random events, can we get to know reality? Our inability to predict and forestall events undermines our confidence and feeling of safety. A fear of the unknown then emerges. Will we be able to adapt in response to the change in the environment? Will we muster enough courage to part with the past? Should we happen to fail, natural selection may act against us.

The role of randomness challenges our moral beliefs as well. According to Mayr's account of Darwin's theory, no species are superb to others. Because the ultimate goal of organisms is to survive and successfully reproduce, spreading their genetic material, they try to utilize more space to increase their chances. Whether species will become more complex depends on the environment that happens to surround it. In order to become more adapted to certain living conditions, they might lose or gain traits. So, complexity does not necessarily designate more advanced in development. Having once anchored themselves to a specific environment, species will try to develop new structures that will help them become better adapted to living under the given conditions. If it is the environment and subsequent adaptations that ensure a species' well-being, then is our re-shaping the environment by cutting forests, exterminating species, polluting, building plants etc an attempt to adapt to it? Is such adaptation morally justified?

The unpredictability that dominates the world according to Mayr questions the role of religion. Not a supreme logic but chance is shaping the extant world. So, can a belief in a supreme being peacefully co-exist with Mayr's implications? From Mayr's account it can be inferred that a god as somebody who is able to play with living organisms, experiment, and challenge them by changing the environment. Hence, the book implies the image of a God as a player and the universe as His game.

Such definition of a Supreme Being gives rise to the new ideal. Trying to emulate such a God, we should experiment and play, in order to be able to survive and succeed in life. And curiosity is the prerequisite for it. Mayr starts his account of Darwin's theory with an analysis of the qualities that made Darwin "such a great scientist and intellectual innovator" (10). Urged by curiosity, Darwin gathered facts and intertwined certain logic around them to produce a coherent unit. Experimenting, he put facts together and culled those that did not fit. Succumbing to that playful impulse, he was not stymied by a fear of failure or of the unknown.

To prove the importance of the playful impulse in understanding the world, Mayr himself plays with notions and ideas throughout the book. He never gives his explanation of the word "perfection" he uses to describe the ultimate goal of evolution. Does it mean that the species at the top of the evolutionary tree are superb to those at the bottom? Or does he use it simply to designate better adaptedness to the environment? Likewise, he never clarifies what he means by describing certain behavioral traits of animals as "human emotions" (256). Humans are the only species that have developed the ability to communicate by means of languages structured by grammar and syntax. Thus, they can articulate their perceptions of the surrounding world into certain ideas and notions. If animals have only systems of giving and receiving signals, can they have ideas to express through emotions? Is it indeed happiness or depression that animals show? Maybe, animal behaviour is simply reminiscent of those human emotions. Devoid of corresponding notions to account for them, humans tend to impose their own ones on animals. The formation of certain notions describe reality to a large degree depends on the individual's way of thinking and experience. Therefore, using somewhat ambiguous vocabulary, Mayr affirms the role of the observer in the formation and interpretation of the theory of evolution. Consequently, the observer and the observed cannot be separated. Such realization that reality is partly what people make of it encourages us to play and experiment with life.

In his account of Darwin's theory, Mayr uses the principles of evolution to account for phenomena in human societies and culture. Reinforcing the significance if chance in the formation of reality, Mayr challenges us to redefine our values and identify the factors that stump our development. Analyzing the aspects of the theory of evolution, he suggests a new way of thinking that empowers humans to cast off the fear that thwarts their ability to play and experiment with reality. Much stamina on the part of people will this entail. Are humans prepared to answer such a challenge?

Ernst Mayr, What Evolution Is (New York, N.Y.: Basic Books, 2001)

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