, Volume 10, Issue 7, pp 21–33 | Cite as

Polemics and synthesis: Ernst Mayr and evolutionary biology

  • Renee M Borges


Mayr has justifiably earned for himself the title “Darwin of the 20th century”. He declared himself Darwin's champion, and was particularly wont to point out that a most important consequence of the Darwinian revolution was the destruction of typological thinking. Mayr also repeatedly stressed that there were important differences between Darwinism and contemporary theories of evolution. Evolution as conceived by Darwin was not goal-directed, while contemporary theories were orthogenetic or aristogenetic in the sense that they believed in a predetermined progression of lower to higher forms. Furthermore, by focusing on individuals, Darwin destroyed the tyranny of typological thinking, which was a left over from the essentialism of Plato, who believed that groups of organisms were constructed according to certain homogeneities. By attacking the concept of essentialism, Darwin provided a mechanism by which individuals became both a focus and an essential ingredient in the evolutionary process. This was a paradigm shift and according to Mayr, a conceptual leap that constituted a true scientific revolution. Mayr's zeal in defending Darwin and in protecting organismal biology and evolution from the “non-believers” has formed the subject of this entire article, but it can also be seen in the titles of some of his recent books, e.g.One Long Argument. Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought (1991),This is Biology—the Science of the Living World (1997), andWhat Evolution Is (2002).


Modern evolutionary synthesis speciation organismal biology 


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Suggested Reading

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    J B S Haldane,The Causes of Evolution, Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd., London, 1932.Google Scholar
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    E Mayr,Systematics and the Origin of Species from the viewpoint of a zoologist, Columbia University Press, New York, 1942.Google Scholar
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    J B S Haldane, A defense of beanbag genetics,Pers. Biol. Med, VII, pp. 343–359, 1964.Google Scholar
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    E Mayr,The Growth of Biological Thought. Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance, Belknap Press, Cambridge, Massachussetts, 1982.Google Scholar
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    P Bateson, The return of the whole organism,J. Biosci., Vol. 30, pp. 31–39, 2005.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    E Mayr, 80 years of watching the evolutionary scenery,Science, Vol. 305, pp. 46–47, 2004.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Indian Academy of Sciences 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Ecological SciencesIndian Institute of ScienceBangaloreIndia

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