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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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Structure of Mayr's book undermines his subject matter

Brittany Pladek

In Ernst Mayr's scientific text What Evolution Is, the author's choice of structure contradicts the theories his book espouses: first, by repudiating his belief that form should follow function; second, by presenting humanity as the "end result" of evolution.

Noted art critic John Dewey once wrote, "There can be no distinction drawn, save in reflection, between form and substance. The work itself is matter formed into esthetic substance... the act itself is exactly what it is because of how it is done" (Dewey 109). Though Dewey applies this logic primarily to art (all forms, from sculpture to literature), Ernst Mayr, the famous evolutionary biologist, uses strikingly similar rhetoric to explain the theory of evolution. Mayr defines the basic Dawinian principle of adaptation as "a property of an organism, whether a structure, a physiological trait, a behavior, or any other attribute, the possession of which favors the individual in the struggle for existence" (Mayr 149). He continues to explain that such selective properties are what they are because of how the organism uses them in the struggle for survival. There is a strange perfection in "the seeming adaptedness of each structure, activity, and behavior of every organism to its inanimate and living environment" (Mayr 145), Mayr writes. In evolution, form must follow function. The alternative is extinction.

Unfortunately for Mayr, if What Evolution Is actually participated in evolution, it would probably die out. The form of Mayr's evolutionary text does not "evolve" with its subject matter. The book has no recognizable narrative progression. Unlike a population of organisms undergoing natural selection, which gradually changes to accommodate its surroundings, the text fails to adapt to its material. The information Mayr presents bears little relation to its order and organization in the book. And unlike a conventional story (or piece of literature, a la Dewey), which takes into account past events, weighs their effects in the present, and then uses this past/present dynamic to push forward into the future, Mayr's text leapfrogs from topic to topic with little logic and absolutely no attempt at literary segue.

For example, Mayr divides the book into four sections: What is Evolution?, How are Evolutionary Change and Adaptedness Explained?, Origin and Evolution of Diversity: Cladogenesis, and Human Evolution. At first glance, these chapters seem logical, conventional. But a look at the actual text reveals a discontinuity between the section's title and the information it actually contains. In the preface, Mayr writes that "first and foremost, [the book] is written for anyone... [who] does not understand exactly how it [evolution] works and how one can answer some of the attacks against the Darwinian interpretation" (Mayr xiii). Part I, What is Evolution?, should presumably achieve the first of these two goals. The logical progression, as Mayr himself notes in the preface, is from "how it works" to "what evidence do we have that it works"---from explanation to proof. Instead, Part I begins with a history of evolutionary theory (an incomplete one; Mayr reserves some early anti-Darwinian theories for later explanation), then abruptly moves into the evidence for evolution itself---before actually detailing how evolution works! "The how and why of evolution... we shall show in later chapters" (Mayr 11), he writes. "But let us first review some of the evidence for the actual occurrence of evolution" (Mayr 11). After this review, the chapter moves into a mini-evolutionary history of life on earth; again, before actually explaining how this history functions. In Part I, Mayr seems to automatically assume his audience not only understands the nuances of evolution, but agrees with him completely. At the end of Part I, section ii, he states with confidence: "Indeed, there is no other natural explanation than evolution for the facts presented in this chapter" (Mayr 39). How could his audience disagree? They don't know how evolution works yet.

Thankfully, Part II resolves this problem. Part II, section I, entitled "How and Why Does Evolution Take Place?" does just that... only not quite. Instead, it picks up where Part I, section I broke off, completing the history of Darwinian dogma by listing "a plethora of theories... in conflict with each other and with Darwin's original theories" (Mayr 73). The problem with this presentation is that Mayr's audience still has had no real explanation of Darwinian evolution with which it can compare such theories. The book has not evolved in a way which allows them to do so. Instead, Mayr only gets down to business in Part II, section I. Here he finally explains Dawinian Theory, which actually "consist[s] of a number of different theories that are best understood when clearly distinguished from each other" (Mayr 86). For a while, the book regains a sense of progression as Mayr explains, in detail, each of these different theories, beginning with variation (chapter 5) and ending with adaptedness via natural selection (chapter 7). However, this moment of order is brief. Part III, The Origin and Evolution of Diversity: Cladogenesis, quickly devolves back into disorder. In some sense, Part III is the book's grab-bag section: everything that Mayr could not place in another section of the text goes here. Such concepts include a detailed discussion of species, speciation, and macro/microevolution. By itself, such a grab-bag would be forgivable. Part III is not significantly different from the rest of the text in that it is divided into neat, individually-digestible, somewhat unrelated sections. However, within these sections, Mayr commits the same mistake which plagues the first half of the book---narrative discontinuity. In Part III, section iii, he writes: "There is an unbroken continuity between macro- and microevolution... all macroevolutionary processes take place in populations and in the genotypes of individuals, and are thus simultaneously microevolutionary processes" (Mayr 189-190). If the evolution of a written text occurs in the same way, then one would expect a narrative coherence on all levels. Chapters, like populations, should follow their own microevolutionary course; and these smaller progressions should combine to advance the macroevolution of the whole book. Unfortunately, the chapters within Part III do not evolve. They are grab-bags within a grab-bag.

For example, let's take Chapter 8: "The Units of Diversity: Species." Here, as in Parts I and II, Mayr places evidence before explanation. While he stresses the need to understand the difference between the many definitions of species, and the "great confusion [that occurs] when these differences are not clearly recognized" (Mayr 168), he refrains from actually explaining these definitions until Box 8.2, well into the chapter. In fact, he actually begins with an evaluation of how many "species" exist on earth---without first identifying which definition of "species" he is using! Chapter 10, "Macroevolution," is even less coherent. While it does begin with a discussion of how speciation (macroevolution) follows from populational change (microevolution), the chapter's flow is broken up by a series of mini-discussions that seem to have been arbitrarily thrown in. For example, on page 210, in the midst of explaining the puzzling inventiveness of early Cambrian evolution, he breaks off---with no segue---into a pages-long examination of coevolution and symbiosis. "The contrast between the innovativeness of the Cambrian fauna and the conservativeness of the body plans of living fauna is no longer an insolvable puzzle when the recent findings of developmental molecular biology are duly considered" (Mayr 210), he concludes, and never returns to the topic. Instead, from symbiosis, he again abruptly breaks off---again with no segue--- into a rejection of the Creationist view that "evolution is able ultimately to produce perfection" (Mayr 213). The sections which follow are only barely related to one another. Despite Mayr's insistence that "evolution means directional change" (Mayr 212), the various subdivisions of Chapter 10 do not evolve in any specific direction. After rejecting Creationism, Mayr discusses, in order: biosphere; evolutionary trends; mosaic evolution; pluralism; convergent evolution; polyphyly/parallelophyly; if evolution has laws (shouldn't this be included in Part II's discussion of how evolution operates?); and finally, the arbitrariness of natural selection. While one or two of these concepts may overlap (for example, how the modern idea of convergent evolution relates to the older practice of polyphyly), as a whole, they show no sense of narrative progression. Chapter 10 does not evolve.

Mayr's most blatant act of evolutionary self-contradiction comes in his positioning of Part IV: Human Evolution. In Part III, he writes: "At one time the idea was almost universally held that man was the culmination of Creation and that anything was progressive that led in the direction of man's perfection" (Mayr 214). Mayr strongly disagrees. Humans, he stresses, are neither the goal of evolution nor its endpoint. "Modern evolutionists reject the idea that evolution is able ultimately to produce perfection" (Mayr 213), he writes. But yet again the structure of his text undermines in form what it presents in substance. Mayr gives human evolution its own Part, as if the story of mankind's creation were somehow different, or our race somehow favored. The story of human evolution would have fit just as well in Chapter 3, "The Rise of the Living World." (Significantly, in this early chapter Mayr bypasses human evolution completely). Even more telling is Mayr's placement. Human evolution comprises Part IV, the culmination of the book---as if mankind's story was in some sense the endpoint, the perfect archetype, of the story of evolution itself. He even ventures so far as to assert that "man is indeed unique, as different from all other animals" (Mayr 252) and "there is no chance for the evolution of a superior human species" (Mayr 261). Setting such statements at the tail-end of an evolutionary text sends the unavoidable message that humans, unique among living beings, are in some fundamental way the fulfillment of evolution's hard-won goal.

"Every genotype," writes Mayr, "seems to have limits to its capacity for change and this constraint might prove fatal" (Mayr 199). He may very well be describing his own text. What Evolution Is fails to evolve to accommodate its own subject matter; and though this lack of narrative organization is not lethal, it damages the presentation of the book as a whole. The disparity between the text's structure and its substance not only confuses the reader, but chips away at the book's credibility. What Evolution Is, this book is not.


Works Cited

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Berkley Publishing Group.

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

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