Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Enrst Mayr dies at 100

So, Ernst Mayr has died. As one of the Grand Old Men of evolution, Mayr pretty well established, or as we would say today, framed, the debates of the last fifty years, and his books were enormously influential from the 1940s through to his most recent works.

But as we must not speak ill of the dead, this leaves me in a quandary. My book on species concepts focuses on Mayr being wrong on several counts, and I half hoped he would be around to respond. Since it is unlikely to get published for another year, that was always going to be a forlorn hope, but since he had a wicked pen, I am also half-relieved. A novice like me could be shredded by a magister like Mayr.

Still, he was wrong about the history of the species concept, and I shall continue in my expression of that. As a biologist, and in particular an ornithologist, he was unparalleled in his time. But as a historian he was the worst kind of Whig. This is a general point, though, not a personal attack. Scientists use history in a particular way, to evade responsibility, or to build up their own originality. They do not have the same concerns about historical objectivity that professional historians do. Well, some historians...

Also, Mayr was wrong as a philosopher about the nature of classification, but that's another story (and a research project for me). I will always regret not having met and discussed this with him, but I think it would have been a short meeting anyway.