THIS IS BIOLOGY by Ernst Mayr

THIS IS BIOLOGY

The Science of the Living World

KIRKUS REVIEW

 Here is the doyen of systematics/taxonomy--a biologist who has witnessed the major revolutions in the field in the 20th century. So a volume of memoirs would be most welcome. Alas, no, what we have are didactic lectures on biology and the need to settle a few intellectual scores. To begin with, Mayr takes up arms against philosophy--narrowly construed as philosophy of science. The reason? Ever since Newton, the philosophes have taken physics as the model science, regarding biology as a second-rate pursuit based merely on observations. Thomas Kuhn gets his comeuppance when Mayr denies that biology follows the model of long periods of ``normal'' science punctuated by findings that radically change the paradigm. Given the enormous success of molecular biology and the absence of philosophical debate in the prestigious science journals (except in areas of ethics), these chapters seem largely gratuitous. For the rest, Mayr says he has written the book to provide a perspective on the whole field of biology for fellow biologists suffering the myopia that is endemic as the science splits into finer and finer specialties. He does this by addressing the how, what, and why questions biologists ask, answering them in terms of chronologies of four areas of biology he knows well: biodiversity, developmental biology, evolution, and ecology. There is some excellent material here, although at times larded with jargon (the conscientious will find the glossary helpful). But again, Mayr draws back from just those areas--molecular and cell biology--that have so transformed the field. To his credit, he maintains an open mind on today's celebrated controversies, wisely noting that dichotomous views (e.g., nature vs. nurture) are often resolved by finding not in favor of one or the other alone, but rather that both together are important. Faced with this didactic piece, let us hope that there is still more to come from Mayr--an autobiography or at least a glimpse of the life and times of one of biology's greats.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-674-88468-X
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Belknap/Harvard Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 1997




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