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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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The Story of Evolution as told by Ernst Mayr

Nada Ali

Ernst Mayr's book titled "What Evolution Is" is an interesting and accessible analysis of the theory of evolution. Evolution has been a controversial theory since its very inception and in recent times become a hot topic of public debate in domestic American politics. Mayr's approach to writing about this contentious theory determinedly represents his own experiences, assumptions and opinions which affect the way in which his book is received by its readers. This is not to say that all readers of this book extrapolate a similar story but rather that both Mayr's biases and presumptions affect different readers differently on the basis of their interest in the book to begin with. I would like to argue that Mayr's story of evolution becomes enmeshed in his own biases compromising the content of the book and the discipline of science and that the books reception is largely influenced by the reader's intent and background.

It is worthwhile for the purpose of this paper to explicitly define evolution in Mayr's terms as "the gradual process by which the living world has been developing following the origin of life." The question of where man and the living world have come from has been a controversial topic, both historically and in present times. Biblical stories trace the history of the Earth and man to merely 6000 years ago while scientists claim that the Earth is approximately six billion years old. Recently the importance of purpose behind this 'intelligent design' has propelled neo-creationist thought to suggest that life on Earth was not an accident but rather a manifestation of God's will. Even the Vatican is willing to consider accepting evolution as a theory as long it places God in His rightful place ensuring that the purpose of our existence is secured. Today 44% of Americans remain skeptical about macro evolution and many associate evolution as a irreligious concept and hence steer clear of it. The common perception of equating evolution and atheism in one equation has led many to distance themselves from the stigmatized theory itself. Given recent heated debates of whether evolution should be taught as a theory in public schools in Pennsylvania is a glimpse into how highly emotional this subject really is.

Hence to say the least, Mayr is not writing for an easy crowd. With that being said Mayr's writing style may reflect the legal, cultural, social and intellectual difficulties he may have faced in debating the legitimacy of his life long work as a scholar of evolution under the scrutiny of rigorous creationist opposition. Therefore to be fair to Mayr, before I critique his writing style, one must note that his writing style is indicative of the struggles he has faced in defense of not only his work but his core beliefs and academic accomplishments.

Mayr's writing style essentially represents his quest to convert unbelievers of evolution into believers. Ironically his writing style resembles religious styles of writing to refute the very religious biblical stories of how and when life began. For instance he says that while humans consider stories and religion as an important component of their cultural history they "turn to science when we (they) want to learn the real truth about the history of the world." Claiming 'real truth' is a religious certainty that lacks in the disciplines of science and raises concerns about whether science can be classified as the "real truth." Further its raises questions of whether that view of science is a legitimate assertion for a scientist to make.
Given that science is a progressive discipline that organizes itself around consistent and inconsistent observations, "real truth" becomes a proclamation of faith and its quest for the one truth. Scientific method is meant to be progressive in the sense that it is a public debate that prides itself on the accumulation of various observations upon which other scientists contribute and refute creating a social arena where scientists and science interacts. This in essence is what makes science a progressive discipline. It is not an area where "real truth" is assumed because without doubt and uncertainty, science fails to be progressive and social. E.G Boring, a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Harvard University makes an interesting claim that "calls attention to the necessary lack of certainty in science and speaks of the changing paradigms of science" suggesting that uncertainty in science is vital and characteristic of what makes it essentially progressive. In addition he "speaks of the creationist paradigm point of view as one paradigm and evolution as another," stressing the lack of permanence and 'truth' in scientific theories. Implicit in that is the importance of the fluidity of these shifting paradigms which create space for further observations and scientific dialogue and diversity. It is from these very antagonistic conceptions of science that progress and diversity is sustained. In some sense by claiming "real truth" in science, Mayr ignores the importance of science as a social practice and uses the very writing style tool that he is averse to.

Also as the observations of evolution culminate into a particular discourse, the assumption that evolution in Mayr's sense is "real truth" undermines the social discussion on questions that are still to be answered and explored in evolutionary theory. It is important to note that since theories are meant to be built upon, refuted or remain consistent, labeling evolution as truth undermines the further spirit of its exploration and I think in writing this book that should have been encouraged.
In reading Mayr, we find that his perspective is his truth and hence permeates in his writing on evolution. Since science in some respect is a story of the observations that scientists make, perspective becomes an important component of the narrative. Mayr's age, experience, success and biases can be seen, felt and heard in his book. Since it is 'his' story of evolution it is important to understand his story beyond the theory in order to assess how it is read. For example at the back of his book, in the Q & A section he says, "Evolution is no longer a theory, it is simply a fact," because the evidence for it has not been refuted. However creationists would argue that there is evidence to suggest that evolution may not be a valid theory of how life began and considering the similar scientific and educational backgrounds in both camps it becomes important for the sake of science to value other discourses in order to develop ones own. His critique of other theories is overshadowed by his absolute assertion that evolution as we know it is truth and hence all others are false.

From a reader's point of view, his/her's intent strongly governs their sense of Mayr's story. The above described writing style may not be problematic for a reader that is simply using this book as an informative text. For often when we read a text it is simply not important to give credence to anything more than the 'facts.' However for a critical or leisure reader, this firm and almost aggressive rendition of the story of evolution may represent an arrogance and lack of accommodation for other views and disciplines. Also as mentioned above it may compromise the content as it did for me as a reader.

Overall, the book is a significant contribution to evolutionary thought, especially for those that are curious and scientifically inept, like myself. However the underlying presumptions and biases are misleading and take away from the actual story of evolution. In his quest to show one the light, Mayr uses the very tools of the Almighty to tell a story that is truly fascinating yet presumptuous. How ironic is it that the very opposition Mayr faced, it is their style of writing that he chooses. Perhaps the consistent observations in evolution would have told a far more effective story than one that was entrenched in human emotion and purpose.


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

22 June 2004. "Vatican observatory sponsors conference on Evolution." Catholic News. (Cited 8. Feb. 2005)

Hoesch, Bill. 2004. "America's Skeptical 44%." Institute for Creation Research. (cited 8 Feb. 2005)

Koltz, John.W. 1968. "Creationist Viewpoints." A Symposium on Creation. (cited 8 Feb. 2005)

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