This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

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

Mayr and the Monkeys Went Down to Georgia

Rachel Clark

When Ernst Mayr published his book, What Evolution Is, in 2001 it was hailed as a work of genius. The praise, replete with superlatives, ranged from "elegant, enthralling, and provocative" to "clear, comprehensive, and very informative".1 From all appearances it intended to be the theory of evolution offered up to the common man for general consumption and enlightenment; it was what would put the evolution/creationism debate to rest once and for all. It neither fulfilled its own goals nor lived up to the acclaim received from the intellectual establishment.

In order to assess the success of Mayr's book as a book for the people, it is necessary to examine just who these "people" are. Certainly scientists would understand and agree with this book, but they do not need this pop- culture version of evolution; they can find what they need in giant volumes with complex scientific writing. Those within liberal intellectual society would agree with evolution and the premise of this book, although some would base this assertion more on a knowledge of scientific fact while others would choose the argument of 'that's just the way it is'. The latter is neither useful nor compelling: Mayr does not need to convince this sector of the population. For them, he wants to explain evolution; the dubiousness of this success is explained in Mayr's mention of scientific theories, etc. without further explanation or discussion. That leaves the sizable portion of the population which is not part of the scientific elite and does not subscribe to "liberal" values, but instead to more traditional views. While Mayr supposes to be the common man's evolutionist, he and his arguments inhabit an entirely different plane of existence from a substantial portion of the American population. In fact no region of the country has experienced as much controversy over evolution as the South. The theory (or fact- as Mayr would have it) of evolution represents a threat to the traditional identity of this region. This tension between science and tradition (whether real or perceived) has affected the education and upbringing of an entire region for so long that even now in this age of "reason" and "scientific enlightenment", the debate continues.

To understand the unique relationship between the South and evolution, one can look at the Scopes trail in 1925 and the recent controversy evolving the Georgia department of Education. These two cases illustrate the continuing friction between traditional American (Southern) culture and modern scientific thinking/ the intellectual community.

Eighty years after Tennessee v. John Scopes, 1925, know to many as the "Monkey Trial", many states south of the Mason-Dixon Line are still grappling with the same issues as the people of Dayton, Tennessee did in 1925. John Scopes, a young school teacher in the small community of Dayton, Tennessee, agreed to challenge the newly passed state law which forbade the teaching of evolution in public schools. He was tried and convicted for breaking this law and so became a martyr for science over ignorance. The trial was dubbed the "trial of the century" and tiny Dayton became the center of national attention. The trail was a battle between the forces of good and evil. Who was good and who was evil all depends on your point of view of course. Although Scopes's conviction was overturned by an appellate court due to a technicality, it was not until 1967 that the Tennessee legislature stuck the law from its books.2 The lawyer for the prosecution, William Jennings Bryan, an ordained Baptist minister and presidential candidate, was and still is a hero to many people in the area. The Scopes trial is still reenacted every summer in the Rhea County Court House and people hold views about the case as strong now as they did then. When evolution is the topic, the South is neither amused nor convinced.3

A very recent example of the evolution debate is the case of the Georgia Board of Education. The Superintendent of Schools for the state of Georgia attempted to remove the word "evolution" from the state biology curriculum. The stated purpose of this action was to reduce the controversy of teaching evolutionary theory in the more conservative areas of the state. Presumably that would be everywhere but inner-city Atlanta schools. The opposition to this act was very vocal, as was a small segment of the population in support of it, but I feel that it is fairly safe to reason that if the population of the state were to be polled, the numbers of those in opposition would to be reduced to all but the most liberal elements.4 In the end, the "E-word" was reinstated owing to the dissent of several high-profile citizens of the state, among them former President Jimmy Carter.

Given these tendencies towards censorship in the southern states, one could argue that Mayr, unyielding and unambiguous is needed even more, but should Myer be the harbinger of all that is scientific, good, and enlightened in the world? Probably not. Myer is an elitist who does not attempt to conceal the fact that, yes indeed, he knows more than his reader. While the New York Review of Books and other literary publications might faun over this account, it is not the "people's" book of evolution. Many times throughout his book he is dismissive and does not open the subject up for dialog but instead states his fact in a deific manner.

Mayr offends the sensibilities of traditional society; he neither attempts to be diplomatic nor suavely persuasive. Evolution is an empirical science and is not subject to negotiation or compromise, the tone that Mayr assumes while he explains the intricacies of biological evolution does not endear him to the reader. He does not speak to the common person.5 The foreword to What Evolution Is, states that "evolution needs to be understood not only by scientists, but also by the general public." Later the author of the foreword, Jared M. Diamond, a scientist himself, continues asserting that this book is particularly suitable "for the audience of everyone interested in evolution" and is meant for "non-biologists". [Emphasis mine] Mayr does not live up to this praise unfortunately. While he is undoubtedly extremely knowledgeable in his field, his argument fails to acknowledge the fact that evolution is not solely a scientific theory but a cultural institution with its supporters as well as its antagonists. Without addressing these cultural and historical issues, Mayr cannot begin to write the definitive persuasive volume on evolution.

1. See: Praise for What Evolution Is on the back cover of the paperback version
2. - 2/19/04
3. I have consciously chosen to refer to the South as one entity. This is not because I suppose that everyone in this region holds these views, but instead I understand that there exists a certain prevailing discourse which, not surprisingly, is controlled by those in positions of relative authority: pastors, teachers, elected officials, school curriculum committees, parents of school children, county commissions, etc.
4. Georgia Board of Education Website, , 2/20/04
5. I do not suggest that all literature, science or otherwise, should be "dumbed down" in order to be assessable by all of the population. I chose address Mayr in this manner simply because of the fanfare which has surrounded this book.

| Course Home Page | Forum | Science in Culture | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:51:51 CDT