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This Is Biology


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Table of Contents

Guide to Topics Covered Preface What Is the Meaning of Life? What Is Science? How Does Science Explain the Natural World? How Does Biology Explain the Living World? Does Science Advance? How Are the Life Sciences Structured? "What?" Questions: The Study of Biodiversity "How?" Questions: The Making of a New Individual "Why?" Questions: The Evolution of Organisms What Questions Does Ecology Ask? Where Do Humans Fit into Evolution? Can Evolution Account for Ethics? Notes Bibliography Glossary Guide to Topics Covered Acknowledgments Index

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Another many-faceted gem from the Sage of twentieth century biology. A readable life history and philosophy of biology, this original composite of science and scholarship illuminates every aspect of its great subject. Not least, it simply demolishes the millennial myth of 'the end of science.' -- Robert K. Merton Ernst Mayr has done it again. In a graceful style that replaces the arcane with the clear, he presents the structure of the diverse biological disciplines in a historical and philosophical frame that does not evade the issue of hominid evolution and its unique moral characteristics. Loyal fans of this eminent scholar will find themselves smiling at the beauty and wisdom in this synthesis of fact and ideas. -- Jerome Kagan In this brief and very readable book, one of the grand masters of twentieth-century biology sums up the personal wisdom accumulated during seventy years of research and reflection. -- Edward O. Wilson

About the Author

Ernst Mayr was Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology, Emeritus, at Harvard University. He was the recipient of numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the Crafoord Prize for Biology, the National Medal of Science, the Balzan Prize, and the Japan Prize.


The simplicity of its title belies the complexity of this book, which requires attentive reading even by professional biologists. Nonetheless, Mayr, emeritus professor of zoology at Harvard and a major contributor to contemporary evolutionary understanding, manages to condense the involved history of biological thought into this treatise. In this respect, the book should interest the general educated reader. In the more polemical passages, Mayr tries to explicate the perspective of a practicing biologist to philosophers of science. Mayr promotes a view of knowledge acquisition called evolutionary epistemology, which suggests that human understanding evolves like life itself, i.e. that while chance reigns supreme in the origination of ideas, those that survive are the ones that best serve their adherents over time. In the thought-provoking final chapters, Mayr enlarges upon an earlier statement: "Our [success in] dealing with racial discrimination, crime, drug addiction, homelessness... will depend... on our understanding of their biological roots." He promotes an ethic of "evolutionary humanism" and suggests that children be inculcated with the attitude that "one should never do anything to one's environment... which would make life more difficult for future generations." Extensive notes, bibliography, glossary, topic guide and index all contribute to the academic usefulness of the book. (Mar.)

[A] lovely book...[It] is a long essay on how biologists study living things on the large scale of organisms and their families. Its range is enormous...This is an old-fashioned book, to be read slowly, more than once, and to be thought about afterward. Isn't that what books are for--so that people can, at their leisure, consider the hard-learned thoughts of a beautifully educated, smart old man? -- Ann Finkbeiner New York Times Book Review As would be expected from Mayr, the text achieves considerable richness and depth. Academic readers will appreciate a sophisticated level of cross-disciplinary analysis, and all readers will enjoy a lucid style of presentation...This is Biology is yet another illustration of one of Mayr's most celebrated talents: his power to transform a vast amount of complex knowledge into its engaging and illuminating essence. As a product, the science of biology is left in clear perspective and is liberated from many stereotypical attributes that are traditionally associated with science as a whole. Practising professionals and students alike should benefit immeasurably from reading this book. -- Barnaby Marsh The Ibis Mayr, emeritus professor of zoology at Harvard and a major contributor to contemporary evolutionary understanding, manages to condense the involved history of biological thought into this treatise. Publishers Weekly Ernst Mayr, the world's greatest living evolutionary biologist and a writer of extraordinary insight and clarity, gives us, in the tenth decade of his own rich life, his distillation of a full career spent in thought and study of his favorite subject. -- Stephen Jay Gould This Is Biology is an excellent attempt on Mayr's part to bring biology to a common focus and to help define what characteristics distinguish living systems from inanimate matter. This is an extremely well-thought-out and eminently scholarly work. It will be of significant value to those who wish to understand the philosophical underpinnings of biology, how biological questions are addressed, how the various subdisciplines came into existence, and how they are related. It is also a very personal work due, in no small part, to Mayr's own seminal contributions over the years to several biological topics. -- Mitchell K. Hobish Science Books and Films We are fortunate that one of the great evolutionary biologists of the 20th century has taken the time to set down his reflections on biology as he has seen it develop for the last three-quarters of a century. Mayr is not afraid to tackle the difficult issues of a definition of life, a description of the modern theory of evolution, punctuated equilibrium, ontologic recapitulation, sociobiology, cladistics, and the descent of man, to name a few...This is an erudite, carefully reasoned account of what a naturalist considers to constitute biology penned by one of the great evolutionary biologists of the century. It is well worth a read. -- J. Edward Rall, M.D. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease He is acknowledged to be one of the great zoologists of the 20th century. His contributions to evolutionary biology have been recognised by a dazzling collection of the world's most prestigious scientific awards...Now 92, Ernst Mayr has written a wide-ranging review of biological thought and progress. In part, This Is Biology is a study of the philosophy of biology, and in part a history of selected branches of the subject...This is a magisterial account of biology, by a great biologist. -- R. McNeill Alexander New Scientist [Mayr's] summary of the early history of evolution is excellent, particularly of Darwin's monumental contribution. His analysis of the concept of speciation, a key feature of evolution, is excellent and he has contributed much to this area...The most interesting chapter raises questions about the relationship between ethics and evolution. -- Lewis Wolpert Times Higher Education Supplement In this wide-ranging book, Ernst Mayr, one of the doyens of evolutionary biology, raises many important questions about the nature of biological research. He examines them in a scholarly yet approachable way...This is a book designed to make one think...Mayr raises the fascinating question of how we humans have been able to change our society so remarkably in the past thousands of years--occupying many niches of climate and geography--without much change in our gene pool. It is just one of the many unanswered questions that course through his fertile brain and have found an outlet in this volume. -- David Baltimore Nature In this deeply thought-provoking book, [Mayr] records his thoughts about the philosophical underpinnings of his beloved field of biology and muses about some of the changes he sees coming as his colleagues delve more deeply into both the molecular basis of life and the complex web of interacting agents that make up the global ecosystem...[I]n the last few chapters, Mayr moves to a more speculative mode and addresses himself to questions such as the place that humanity has in the grand evolutionary scheme, and the question of whether there is a sense in which human ethical systems can be accounted for by evolution...I wouldn't dream of spoiling your fun by trying to summarize Mayr's complex and well-thought-out views on these [questions]...The book covers so many topics that there is something here for everyone. -- James Trefil Boston Globe This Is Biology...explicates the field as only this historian, philosopher and biologist could. -- Carol Kaesuk Yoon New York Times

Mayr (zoology, Harvard; One Long Argument, LJ 10/1/91) offers a critical overview of the major concepts and issues surrounding biology from Aristotle to the present in terms of emergence and organicism. He stresses both the uniqueness and the importance of the life sciences, distinguishing between ultimate and proximate causations in organic history. Rejecting vitalism, teleology, essentialism, and supernaturalism, he focuses on "population thinking" as well as variation and selection within a neo-Darwinian worldview. Special attention is given to the philosophy of science, especially the ideas of progress and limits. Other topics include genetics, cytology, evolution, development, and biodiversity. The excellent chapters on ethics, ecology, and human evolution emphasize the value of scientific evolutionism. Unfortunately, Mayr does not discuss exobiology, molecular biology, or genetic engineering, and more illustrations (there is only one) would have been helpful. Recommended for academic and large public biology collections.‘H. James Birx, Canisius Coll. Lib., Buffalo, N.Y.

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