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This is Biology

This is Biology/ The science of the living world, Ernst Mayr, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass, 1997, ISBN 0-674-88468-X

Ernst Mayr is the grand old man of biology, born in 1903 and still going strong, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology, Emeritus, at Harvard University. Sixty years ago he and Dobzhansky hammered out the modern synthesis, the resolution of Darwinian evolution and modern genetics. Forty years ago he laid out the principles of punctuated equiblirium, well before Gould and Eldredge rediscovered it and made it fashionable. Fifteen years ago he wrote a comprehensive history of the growth of biological thought. Nine years ago he wrote a seminal work on biology and the philosophy of science. Like Darwin he treats both great matters and small, bringing to them a wealth of knowledge, an attention to detail, and a continuing flow of depth of insight.

This is Biology is his latest work. No one book, no one treatise, no matter how large, can give a comprehensive overview of biology. The science of life is too vast, too varied to fit in a simple frame. One can readily get lost in the endless forest of details. Mayr takes a big picture and a number of small pictures that illuminate the larger issues. He considers the role and nature of science and the philosophy of science and their relationship to biology. He rolls in some history of science, showing in that way what the major arguments were, what the opposing positions were, the reasoning on each side, and how they were resolved. People who have read Kuhn, who have read nothing but Kuhn, will profit mightily by reading what Mayr says. (Briefly, he shows by example and analysis that Kuhn's characterization of science alternating between "paradigm shift" and "normal science" simply doesn't hold in the history of the biological sciences.)

I cannot give a good synopsis of the book in a few paragraphs. The man writes better than I can, knows more than I do, and thinks more clearly than I do. And yet it took him a whole book. However the chapter titles will give you a flavor.

  1. What is the Meaning of "Life"?
  2. What is Science?
  3. How Does Science Explain the Natural World?
  4. How Does Biology Explain the Living World?
  5. Does Science Advance?
  6. How Are the Life Sciences Structured?
  7. "What?" Questions: The Study of Biodiversity
  8. "How?" Questions: The Making of a New Individual
  9. "Why?" Questions: The Evolution of Organisms
  10. What Questions Does Ecology Ask
  11. Where Do Humans Fit into Evolution
  12. Can Evolution Account for Ethics?

The man is not afraid to tackle big questions. There are major areas, genetics and molecular biology to name two, which he does not cover in detail but which he draws upon. Chapter 1 by the way is about the difference between "life" and "non-life".

The book is written for the intelligent layman who has at least some modest knowledge of modern biology (a diet of PBS specials will probably get you by.) It is written in a clear, simple, literate style which is easy to follow. It is not jargon ridden - technical terms are used but are usually explained in the text. There is a glossary which I can commend even to readers well versed in biology and evolutionary theory.

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