Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Happy Birthday, Ernst

Ernst Mayr Ernst Mayr was born today in W├╝rzburg, Germany, in 1904. A biologist (ornithologist, more precisely), his work on speciation was a major contribution to the conceptual revolution that led to the modern evolutionary synthesis of Mendelian genetics, systematics, and Darwinian evolution, and to the development of the biological species concept. It also underpins the theory of punctuated equilibrium. He argued that evolutionary pressures act on the whole organism, not on single genes, and that genes can have different effects depending on the other genes present, and thus disagreed sharply with those such as Richard Dawkins who believe the gene is the single most important thing.

Here is an interview in the Edge from 2001, four years before Mayr's death (yes: he died at 100 years old, almost 101), on the occasion of the publication of his book What Evolution Is. A taste:
Because of the historically entrenched resistance to the thought of evolution, documented by modern-day creationism, evolutionists have been forced into defending evolution and trying to prove that it is a fact and not a theory. Certainly the explanation of evolution and the search for its underlying ideas has been somewhat neglected, and my new book, the title of which is What Evolution Is, is precisely attempting to rectify that situation. It attempts to explain evolution. As I say in the first section of the book, I don't need to prove it again, evolution is so clearly a fact that you need to be committed to something like a belief in the supernatural if you are at all in disagreement with evolution. It is a fact and we don't need to prove it anymore. Nonetheless we must explain why it happened and how it happens.

One of the surprising things that I discovered in my work on the philosophy of biology is that when it comes to the physical sciences, any new theory is based on a law, on a natural law. Yet as several leading philosophers have stated, and I agree
with them, there are no laws in biology like those of physics. Biologists often use the word law, but for something to be a law, it has to have no exceptions. A law must be beyond space and time, and therefore it cannot be specific. Every general truth in biology though is specific. Biological "laws" are restricted to certain parts of the living world, or certain localized situations, and they are restricted in time. So we can say that their are no laws in biology, except in functional biology which, as I claim, is much closer to the physical sciences, than the historical science of evolution.... Anyhow the question is, if scientific theories are based on laws and there aren't any laws in biology, well then how can you say you have theories, and how do you know that your theories are any good? That's a perfectly legitimate question. Of course our theories are based on something solid, which are concepts. If you go through the theories of evolutionary biology you find that they are all based on concepts such as natural selection, competition, the struggle for existence, female choice, male dominance, etc. There are hundreds of such concepts. In fact, ecology consists almost entirely of such basic concepts. Once again you can ask, how do you know they're true? The answer is that you can know this only provisionally by continuous testing and you have to go back to historical narratives and other non-physicalist methods to determine whether your concept and the consequences that arise from it can be confirmed.

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