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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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Mayr's Use of Biological and Literary Contexts

Anne Sullivan

In his Preface to What Evolution Is, Ernst Mayr invites a diverse audience to peruse his account of evolutionary biology. Mayr is confident that his book will benefit all readers—biologist and creationist alike. His language, however, indicates that Mayr does not intend to teach evolution so much as to inculcate it as the preeminent way to understand the world. With such a varied reading public before him, Mayr must not simply summarize, but argue for evolution. He is thus compelled to posit essentialist claims about the 'right' answers and the 'real truth.' There is nothing inherently wrong with such bold language—it may in fact stimulate a more dynamic conversation, in the Hegelian tradition, among the diverse audience that Mayr invites. The real problem with Mayr's style, however, is that it directly opposes the story he wishes to tell. Mayr asks his audience to read evolutionary biology in a way that contradicts his own methodology. In a narrative about change, Mayr leaves little room for deviation—he expels imagination in a project that requires speculation and invention. He sculpts a story about directionless change within a highly directional narration. Mayr's account for the rise of evolution is static—much like the scala naturae model that he so vociferously condemns. Mayr's style not only undercuts his own argument, but it also highlights the problems of reading the past. The ideology driving Mayr's story collapses into the positivist, teleological narrative that it denounces.

Mayr fails to heed, in his own writing, the processes of biological evolution that he describes. His writing, for example, suggests isolation rather than community. In order to narrate evolution, one must search for the fundamental unity between two seemingly different organisms. The theory of common descent is, after all, the backbone of evolutionary biology. One must trace the various partings and convergences of a lineage, recognizing commonality while none is currently visible. Mayr suggests this process, for example, when describing recapitulation as "the appearance and subsequent loss of structures in ontology, which in related taxa are retained in the adults" ((3). 28). Certain structures appear and disappear, but their connection to the ancestral form is constant. By purporting one "correct" lineage of evolutionary theory—and by depreciating the rich ancestry of the Origin of the Species—Mayr severely undermines his own illustration of a uniformitarian and continuous process. As he dislocates Darwin's work from its proper discourse, Mayr destabilizes the very principles of evolutionary biology that he describes.

Similarly incongruous is Mayr's treatment of environment—he exalts biological, but not literary, environments. He uses environment, for instance, to invalidate the concept of directional evolution. It is the changing natural world, rather than an inherent drive toward perfection, that governs evolution. Organisms do not evolve from simple to complex, from lower to higher. Adaptations do not produce superior organisms; but rather, ones that are better suited to their environment. This concept is relevant to story formation as well. The 'current' story is not superior to past ones; it has simply evolved according to the changes within its discursive world. Yet Mayr's own writing defies the understanding of adaptation he wishes to impress—the notion that environment governs evolutionary change. For he presents Darwin as an isolated scientist battling a hostile environment, rather than one guided and influenced by his community. Mayr fails to recognize, for example, the contributions made by scientists such as Lamarck, Wallace, and Huxley. He does not even reference Robert Chambers', The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), a piece that undeniably eased the way for Darwin's work. While still permitting cosmic intervention, for instance, Chambers makes two important moves: he obscures the role God, depicting him as a mysterious force; and he suggests that man may not be nature's final work ((2). 124). Darwin's work did not react against such antecedents; rather, it emerged out of a dynamic community. The Origin of the Species bears remnants of its own discursive world. With such a restricted view of Darwin's literary 'environment,' Mayr undermines his own description of biological 'environment'—as the key determinant of evolution.

If Mayr has revealed anything in his treatment of nineteenth century thought, it is the profound connection between science and philosophy, between context and change. Mayr depicts pre-Darwinian sciences as ideologies, yet he fails to contextualize his own theories. If science is always a social activity, what kind of ideology motivates Mayr's own writing? To which discourse does What Evolution Is belong, and how does it affect his writing style? It seems the story of evolution currently in play reflects the post-modern age—an era of self-reflexivity and unraveling teleologies; one that recognizes the individual rather than the 'type.' Following these directives, Mayr is exceedingly careful in defining his terms: "adaptation is not teleological . . . the survivors do not contribute to the process of becoming better adapted" ((3).), for example; and "selection does not have a long-term goal" (121). Likewise, Mayr devotes three pages (213-216) to the discussion of the term "progress" in evolutionary biology. These choices reflect the community in which Mayr writes. He perhaps condemns pre-Darwinian philosophy, therefore, because it is so distant from his own ideology. Philosophies based on essentialism and finalism represent the kind of positivist historiography—the naïve and insular stories—that a post-modern world seeks to revise. Mayr refutes these philosophies, however, in ways that entrap him in the very thought-patterns he condemns. He reduces past philosophies to static theories, affording them only a brief moment of summary. He relies on over-simplified understandings of not only pre-Darwinian discourses, but of any theory that opposes his own. Ironically, Mayr's treatment of the past is strikingly similar to the nineteenth century methodologies he condemns. Mayr demonstrates how difficult it is to read the past; and how easy it is to become that which you say you are not.

In What Evolution Is, Mayr narrates the rise of a story, yet he privileges the product rather than the processes of story formation. Mayr's narrative begins in 1859—the year of Darwin's work—and it concludes with his own contributions to evolutionism, the modern synthesis. As Gillian Beer notes, Darwin's Origin of the Species commences during the moment of observation: "When we look . . ." Ernst Mayr, conversely, begins his work with a judicious claim: "Evolution is the most important concept in biology." The very title of Mayr's work, What Evolution Is, is didactic rather than descriptive. His tone, along with the rigidity of his language, suggests stasis rather than variability. Although Mayr's work is a scientific in content, it cannot be freed from the criterion with which we evaluate literature. We must ask the same questions we would when reading a novel. Are form and content separable? How do they work together and how do they oppose one another? Mayr's inconsistencies drastically reduce the argument he posits, for both form and content equally reflect the author's ideology.



1) Beer, Gillian. Darwin's Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and
Nineteenth-Century Fiction. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983.

2) Gilmour, Robin. The Victorian Period: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English
Literature 1830-1890. Harlow: Longman Group UK 1993.

3) Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

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