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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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"Whodunit?" Writing Evolution as a Murder Mystery

Laine Edwards

Current conflicts surrounding the story of evolution often center around a single question- "whodunit?" Whether from the point of view of religion or science, the question about who or what is responsible for the creation of life on Earth reigns supreme. The formulaic script for the modern "whodunit?" mystery, however, when applied to Ernst Mayr's What Evolution Is, briefly reduces the complexities of evolution into a simple story of intrigue . Following the four part, character intensive formula, the story of evolution becomes a murder mystery complete with detectives, suspense and faulty leads. Analyzing Mayr's book through the mystery genre allows for a retelling of the evolutionary story that focuses on the most often asked question of all- "whodunit?"
What Evolution Is falls under a specific type of "Whodunit" mystery called the Period Mystery. In a Period Mystery "the action takes place in the past" with "social and political themes as well as the dress and manners of the period (which) are featured and are usually relevant to the solution" (1). Taken literally this definition does not seem readily applicable to the story of evolution because that story is still unfolding even today. Thinking liberally about the terms, "social", "political", "dress" and "manners" in the context of plant and animal life, however, changes the meaning of the above definition. The "social and political themes" of evolution represent the ways in which organisms interacted in competition with each other throughout time to evolve. "Dress and manners" refers to the means through which organisms physically changed and behaved. Writers of Period Mysteries divide their books into four sections, each section having a specific purpose in the development of the mystery. Mayr follows this formula and divides his books into four parts. Together the four themes combine within the four part structure of the "Whodunit?" mystery to create a historical atmosphere in which evolution can take place.
Part one of the Period Mystery focuses on introducing the detective(s), the specifics of the mystery and the environment in which the story takes place. Mayr's first three chapters fall perfectly into this mold. These first chapters serve to explain the theories of evolution and the men behind their creation. According to the formula the mystery "must capture the imagination. It should have been committed in an extraordinary way" (1). The very nature of life immediately calls attention to the story of evolution because of the uncertainty of its origins. The stories of life's earliest moments are therefore filled with speculation on the part of both science and religion. Reader's of What Evolution Is are immediately drawn into the mystery behind life and its creator. Mayr grounds the reader by providing a description of the changing world in which evolution takes place and creates in Charles Darwin an enigmatic detective figure that will carry the story through the next three sections until the end.
The most important element in the second section of the "Whodunit?" is the creation of a conclusion that later proves to be faulty so that several different explanations of the mystery are investigated. In What Evolution Is this takes place in the fourth through seventh chapters as Mayr leads his readers through various explanations for evolution, such as Essentialism and Finalism, that have been proved false. By proving such theories incorrect, Mayr begins to point his towards the correct conclusions. A sense of urgency is also developed in this section to emphasize the detective's personal stakes in the solving of the mystery. The mystery of "who?" in the story of evolution is both literally and figuratively a matter of life and death- for the characters, for Mayr, and, most importantly, for the readers. To many religious sects "nothing in life is more important than finding out just who that God is, and why we were created" (2). To solve the mystery of "whodunit?" in terms of evolutionary beginnings would mean the resolution of years of conflict between scientists and religious organizations as well as an increased understanding of the possibility of the role of a "higher being" in the process of evolution.
Parts three and four of the formula work together to review the specific clues towards the solving of the mystery and the gradual coming together of the story to bring about a conclusion. All the information that has been gathered from characters, investigative clues, and reader's prior knowledge is brought together and examined again to strengthen the case for moving in the direction of a certain conclusion. In What Evolution Is, Mayr looks back at the origins of diversity and the affect it has had on evolution as a means of reviewing his previous theories from a different angle. As each theory of evolutionary progress is sufficiently proved the ties between combination of molecules in the atmosphere and the origination of life 3.8 billion years ago becomes stronger. The climax is reached in Mayr's last two chapters as he proves his theory that life originated natural without the presence of a God and the implications this has for mankind.
Mayr solves the "whodunit?" mystery of evolution muchas a detective would, through careful examination of the theories of evolution and then using the clues these provide him to extract information that ultimately leads him to a conclusion. In viewing the story of evolution as a "Whodunit?"-type mystery the theories and speculations become more interesting to the reader because of the suspense that builds towards the climax. When Mayr refutes the claims of the creationists by putting forth his carefully thought out theory on the origins of life he answers the most prominent question about evolution and places the responsibility not on a higher being, but upon forces of nature beyond our control.


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

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