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Evolution for Beginners?

WHAT EVOLUTION IS, By Ernst Mayr, Basic Books: 336 pp., $22

January 27, 2002|PAT SHIPMAN

In 1928, when the Cyclops Mountains of New Guinea were mostly unexplored by Western scientists, an undaunted biologist named Ernst Mayr undertook the first field survey of the indigenous birds of the area. It was astonishing work for many reasons, not least because the region was forbidding and remote and reportedly inhabited by ferocious tribal peoples. That experience, and others to follow, gave Mayr a grasp of the breadth and elegance of evolution in action few could rival.

By the 1930s and 1940s, Mayr, together with G.G. Simpson and Theodosius Dobzhansky, was re-creating evolutionary theory and its applications. By the 1960s, Mayr was writing classics of evolutionary theory such as the one my generation cut its intellectual teeth on, "Animal Species and Evolution." He has sorted out deeply tangled taxonomic muddles, written wisely on the hows and whys of evolution and illuminated many of the subtleties of evolution throughout his career. At 97, Mayr is now the Grand Old Man of evolutionary theory and the last living architect of the so-called new synthesis that brought Darwinian theory--or more properly, theories, as he points out--together with population genetics and paleontology.

Thus it was with enormous anticipation that I opened "What Evolution Is," Mayr's latest work. It is touted in its preface as "a concise, reader-friendly account" of evolution. At this late phase of his career (long may it continue), Mayr proposes to give us a book meant for "anyone, biologist or not, who simply wants to know more about evolution ... [for] those who accept evolution, but are in doubt as to whether the Darwinian explanation is the correct one ... And finally [for] creationists who want to know more about the current paradigm of evolutionary science if for no other reason than to be better able to argue against it." Mayr announces that the existing volumes written by others are too specialized, "too technical, and use too much jargon" (they are) and his book will be different.

Sadly, it is not. Mayr starts off well with a section called "What is the evidence for evolution?" that is clearly written but does not answer the question. Instead, he simply pronounces that the evidence for evolution is "now quite overwhelming," refers readers to other works where the evidence is actually discussed and reviews the types of evidence that have been studied. Mayr's explanations and definitions are deliciously concise. Of course, the shortcoming of concise definitions is that they fail to provide operational criteria that would let the reader actually use them. Still, Mayr's explanations of the basic principles are admirably clear and that is the first step to proposing and agreeing upon operational criteria.

What of Mayr's avowed readership? All too often readers are expected to take his word for it. Mayr pronounces that evolution is "irrefutable" and that "there is no other natural explanation than evolution for the facts presented [here]," assertions that are unlikely to change the minds of those inclined to endorse supernatural or godly explanations for the way things are on Earth. For the non-specialist believer in evolution who wants to learn more or hoping for clarity, there is a different problem. Mayr has a very optimistic opinion of the knowledge of his readership, or else he credits them with a great willingness to spend time with the glossary and a good encyclopedia before reading on.

In a brilliant section of the book, for example, in which Mayr takes what we know of genetic variation and inheritance and boils it down to 17 basic principles, the concepts are stated and explained in a mere two pages with four figures. This is a tour de force: Every biology teacher, every undergraduate in a biology class and particularly every graduate student in an evolutionary discipline must read and memorize these principles. But for the general reader, they can be stiff going. Principle 16 reads: "A gene has a complex structure, consisting of exons, introns, and flanking sequences (Fig. 5.4)." The inquisitive reader has perhaps never heard of exons, introns or flanking sequences and finds these topics are not included in the index or the glossary.

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