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Essay on Ernst Mayr's What Evolution Is

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Ernst Mayr's What Evolution Is


When Ernst Mayr published his book, What Evolution Is, in 2001 it was hailed as a work of genius. The praise, replete with superlatives, ranged from "elegant, enthralling, and provocative" to "clear, comprehensive, and very informative".1 From all appearances it intended to be the theory of evolution offered up to the common man for general consumption and enlightenment; it was what would put the evolution/creationism debate to rest once and for all. It neither fulfilled its own goals nor lived up to the acclaim received from the intellectual establishment.

In order to assess the success of Mayr's book as a book for the people, it is necessary to examine just who these "people" are. Certainly scientists would understand and agree with this book, but they do not need this pop- culture version of evolution; they can find what they need in giant volumes with complex scientific writing. Those within liberal intellectual society would agree with evolution and the premise of this book, although some would base this assertion more on a knowledge of scientific fact while others would choose the argument of 'that's just the way it is'. The latter is neither useful nor compelling: Mayr does not need to convince this sector of the population. For them, he wants to explain evolution; the dubiousness of this success is explained in Mayr's mention of scientific theories, etc. without further explanation or discussion. That leaves the sizable portion of the population which is not part of the scientific elite and does not subscribe to "liberal" values, but instead to more traditional views. While Mayr supposes to be the common man's evolutionist, he and his arguments inhabit an entirely different plane of ...


... middle of paper ...


...t Evolution Is on the back cover of the paperback version

2. http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/scopes.htm - 2/19/04

3. I have consciously chosen to refer to the South as one entity. This is not because I suppose that everyone in this region holds these views, but instead I understand that there exists a certain prevailing discourse which, not surprisingly, is controlled by those in positions of relative authority: pastors, teachers, elected officials, school curriculum committees, parents of school children, county commissions, etc.

4. Georgia Board of Education Website, www.doe.k12.ga.us , 2/20/04

5. I do not suggest that all literature, science or otherwise, should be "dumbed down" in order to be assessable by all of the population. I chose address Mayr in this manner simply because of the fanfare which has surrounded this book.


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