Perfection According to Mayr's What is Evolution

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Perfection According to Mayr's What is Evolution


In his book titled What is Evolution, Ernst Mayr bravely attempts to explain the complex biological processes of the development of plants and animals. His book, however, reaches beyond the realm of the science text book. With What is Evolution he attempts to educate an audience which may not have a strong science background but instead a strong literary background. Through this book Mayr strives for "a mid-level account of evolution, written not just for scientists but for the educated public." In short, he attempts to write a (non-fiction) scientific novel. Though his attempt to combine great literature and hard science is admirable he often gets himself into awkward situations when trying to please both the scientific and artistic sensibilities. His major problem in the book surrounds the use of the word "perfect." As a biologist, it may be easy to pass this word off as a synonym of "adaptedness," simply meaning well-suited to one's environment. As a literary-minded person, let alone English major, however, this word cannot slip by so easily. To the novel-reader, more than to the science-reader, this word carries a lot of baggage which cannot be ignored. So, why does Mayr use this word and what is he really trying to say? Does Mayr truly believe that evolution can be perfect?

The baggage that gets snared when Mayr uses the word "perfect" in his discussions of evolution is the complicated literary definition given to this word. Exact and flawless are some common synonyms of the word perfect. Perfection is something that has reached the pinnacle, the zenith of existence. Nothing which is perfect needs any alterations, modifications or changes. When something is perfect it exists with ease. It does not struggle to remain where it is, and it does not struggle to remain alive; it works in harmony with its environment. Going beyond the definition, something that is perfect is commonly more highly valued than those things around it which have not yet reached perfection. People place a certain amount of value on things that occur with ease. The human race seems constantly to be striving for something that is faster, cleaner. Something that can achieve these goals with ease earns the title of perfection and is highly. The only problem with perfection, as least in the realm of science, is that once the peak of perfection is reached there is no place towards it can further develop.

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This obviously presents a problem when considering evolution, which by its very name and nature means the slow change over time of one organism into something separate.

Mayr, as an accomplished, intelligent and well-respected scientist, could not have over-looked the fact that by believing in the process of evolution, he cannot also believe organisms can (or have) reached perfection. The two simply cannot coexist. In fact, Mayr does not believe in perfection manifested in natural organisms, he says so many times over through the course of his novel. Often, when Mayr uses the word he is actually trying to distance himself from it, to slice it out of our concept of evolution. Perfection, he tries to tell us, has no place in the story of evolution.

Still, Mayr's approach to distancing himself from the word "perfection" is subtle and almost hesitant, as if deep inside he still wants perfection to have its place in nature. In the beginning of his novel he writes, "Evolution, indeed, was a change...a change towards greater perfection, as it was said at the time..." (p. 8). Mayr begins this sentence with a claim, that evolution is "a change towards greater perfection." This claim says that there is a purpose for evolution, a goal towards which it strives. This goal is for an organism to reach a point at which it lives and reproduces with complete ease within its own natural environment (otherwise known as perfection). This claim also states that the process is still in motion; we are moving "towards" perfection, but we have not yet attained it. Even though we have not attained perfection quite yet, Mayr seems to be telling us that it is within reach. Then, quietly sandwiched within the scentence Mayr writes, "it was said at the time." The subtlty he uses in inserting these six words is surprising, since it changes the whole meaning of the sentence. This notion, of organisms striving for a specific point at which change is no longer necessary, "was" believed. It is a notion explored in the past tense. Not only was the idea of evolution towards perfection conceived a long time ago but, "it was said at the time," also indicates that it is not said now. Suddenly, perfection switches from being a truth or a viable outcome of evolution to an out-dated, inaccurate theory. People today, Mayr included, do not care to believe in this struggle towards perfection. The way in which Mayr includes, "it was said at the time," however, makes him seem less convinced in the falasies of perfection than he should be.

Mayr's use of the word "perfection" could be attributed not so much to a subconcious desire for perfection, but as simply a sense of literary style. Since What is Evolution is not written simply a biology text book but also as a piece of literature, Mayr is placed in a very delicate situation. His purpose in this book is not only to declare the yet understood "facts" of biology and evolution, and help the reader to process them; he is also responsible for keeping his readers wrapped up in a good story. As Mike Grant writes in the Biological Sciences Review, people, like Mayr, who wish to coherently communicate the workings of science, must "[use] the beauty of language to communicate [their] enthusiasm for a discipline." As long as Mayr is simply taking Grant's advice, the use of the word "perfect" can be easily explained. Using "perfection" in this context is not so much a statement or a claim as a literary embellishment. It is added to evoke a feeling or an image. Grant writes, "the profound implications of a perfect DNA double-helix," to create for the common reader a sense of awe for the DNA. He wants to recreate the same feeling a scientist might have viewing a strand without actually meaning to attribute the dictionary understand of the word "perfect" to the DNA sequence. Grant wants to excite his readers and make biology interesting, so too does Mayr.

Another explanation for the use of the word "perfection" in What is Evolution is that Mayr, like many other humans, is uncontrollably attracted to the idea of the existence of flawlessness, even if he does not necessarily belive it exists. Mayr's relationship with "perfection" parallels the basic human relationship with genius, it is looked for in every corner, on every street, and in every organism. In the December 2002 issue of The Atlantic Monthly Marjorie Garber explored what she called "our genius problem." She argued that people are naturally attracted to the idea of "a certain level of achievement, a gold standard, that [is] nonnegotiable, beyond mere opinion." This "gold standard," is Ian McEwan's (who Garber quotes) definition of genius, but it could just as easily be the definition for perfection. Perfection is the peak of performance, beyond which there is no room for improvement. It is the highest bar; it is that goal to end all goals. Genius, similarly, is the peak of human mental and creative performance. Both perfection and genius are actively sought and rarely, if ever, achieved.

Genius, like perfection, is measurable but elusive. People constantly search for genius through methods such as the IQ test, which measures "intelligence quotient." People also set standard by which they can compare and recognize genius. One of these standards is what Garber calls "natural genius." A "natural genius" is one who possesses extraordinary natural or god-given powers of the mind which cannot be attributed to any amount of schooling. In other words, genius is born with someone and will emerge within their lifetime, with or without the help of a formal education. Shakespeare and Einstein are two clear examples of "natural genius." Shakespeare's schooling appears to have not extended much past our equivalent of grammar school, and it is commonly believed that high school bored Einstein so much that he skipped out on most of his classes.

Much like the people who search for genius, Mayr looks for "perfection" using tools and units of measurement of his own design. On page one-hundred and forty he lists and described eight measurements for perfection, or as he calls it "adaptedness," within living organisms. These measurements all come to the conclusion that perfection is not manifest in living organisms, still if the conditions were right some organisms could develop perfection. "Constraints of phyletic history" is the number-four big glitch in our evolutionary pursuit of perfection. Mayr argues that over time adaptations were made which lost their usefulness, but which cannot now be reversed. We are forever stuck with the end of our tailbone and an imperfect, up-right skeletal structure which places high amounts of pressure on our hips and backs. By recognizing this phyletic history as a root to our imperfection, however, he creates a path towards that elusive goal of flawlessness. If only there were time, if only our genetic make-up could change or work in reverse, we could achieve perfection. After all, "The human species...has not yet completed the transition from quadrupedal to bipedal life in all of its structures. In that sense is it not perfect." (p. 282)

All of the tests and all of the observations that Mayr makes leads to one answer, perfection is not the goal of evolution and is not possible to achieve through evolution. Still, Mayr insists on using this confusing and frustrating word throughout his novel. His unwillingness to let "perfection" slip from our scientific vocabulary may be a scienctist's attempt at expanding and energizing a literary work. However, his subtlty in rejecting perfection, and the tools by which he tries to measure it point to a different expaination. Mayr still clings to a hope that some day perfection will be reached, whether through natural evolutionary processes or alternative, man-made schemes.


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