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The Grand Old Man of Evolution: An Interview with Evolutionary Biologist Ernst Mayr

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... Utility of simple, quantitative models, as opposed to qualitative or verbal, has been a concern for evolutionists ever since Darwin's verbal model for organismal diversification via natural selection. Most evolutionary and conservation biologists would agree with Ernst Mayr that it is mistaken to suppose that 'mathematics is the royal road to truth' (see Shermer & Sulloway, 2000). And it must be admitted that simulations can be problematic. ...
... Mayr 11 claims that in this paper he was the first to develop a detailed model of the connection between speciation, evolutionary rates and macroevolution. The 1954 paper was also apparently his favourite one 12 . In this paper, he proposed that founders from peripheral parts of the population of a species could, if isolated for a sufficiently long time, form separate species. ...
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Here, I attempt to explore the interactions between evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr and other biologists in the process that has been called the professionalizing of evolutionary biology, and in the defence of organismal biology and of systematics. I will use the tool of quoting from original writings rather than paraphrasing them, since it is necessary to preserve the flavour of the arguments and controversies that Mayr was involved in, and that led to Mayr's role in helping to build the edifice of evolutionary biology as it is known today.
... But Mayr's accomplishments have extended beyond the boundaries of any one discipline. He has made important contributions to the popular understanding of natural history and evolution, he has been a tireless defender of the naturalist tradition in biology, and he has produced a body of insightful and provocative work in the history and philosophy of biology (Bock, 1994; Gould, 1984; Junker, 1996; Shermer & Sulloway, 2000). Given the sheer volume, range, and depth of Mayr's published works, he occupies a unique place in the developments of twentieth century evolutionary biology, and to adequately understand those developments we need to understand his work. ...
Ernst Mayr’s typological/population distinction is a conceptual thread that runs throughout much of his work in systematics, evolutionary biology, and the history and philosophy of biology. Mayr himself claims that typological thinking originated in the philosophy of Plato and that population thinking was first introduced by Charles Darwin and field naturalists. A more proximate origin of the typological/population thinking, however, is found in Mayr’s own work on species. This paper traces the antecedents of the typological/population distinction by detailing Mayr’s changing views of species between 1942 and 1955. During this period, Mayr struggles to refine the biological species concept in the face of tensions that exist between studying species locally and studying them as geographically distributed collections of variable populations. The typological/population distinction is first formulated in 1955, when Mayr generalizes from the type concept versus the population concept in taxonomy to typological versus population thinking in biology more generally. Mayr’s appeal to the more general distinction between typological and population thinking coincides with the waning status of natural history and evolutionary biology that occurs in the early 1950s and the distinction plays an important role in Mayr’s efforts to legitimate the natural historical sciences.
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The first part of this chapter analyses what historian of human civilizations Arnold Toynbee would have thought and said of the Stephen Jay Gould and Simon Conway Morris debate regarding the Burgess Shale in relation to contingency (Gould’s point) and teleology (Conway Morris’). In addition, the views regarding the teleological interpretation of human history discernible in the Christian and Marxian ‘triumphalism’ of Saint Augustine and Karl Marx’s philosophies of history are also analysed. The views of the evolutionist and historian of science Ernst Mayr on the contingency/teleology debate are noted. The second part canvasses and juxtaposes the seventeenth century philosopher Spinoza’s sub specie aeternitatis with those of Toynbee’s exhortation to overcome ‘intellectual provincialism’ in viewing ‘human affairs’. Contemporary notions (in some circles) of (Intelligent) Design, Consilience and Emergence/Fine-tuning are also analysed from what the author of the Chapter considered to be Spinozist viewpoints.
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This paper takes a look at how reductionism is represented by popular science authors who have engaged in the disputes variously labelled the sociobiology, evolutionary psychology or Nature/Nurture debates. It shows how reductionism has become an identity marker through which authors on either side of the dispute signal adherence to a wider social identity, and that the philosophical content of what reductionism means gets reinterpreted according to which side of the debate the author stands on. This raises questions about the necessity to include insights from sociological theory when philosophical studies aim to include qualitative evidence on scientists’ thinking.
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This chapter provides a discussion of some important conceptual and empirical links between the lowest levels of evolutionary analysis (the genome and its components) and the highest (large-scale patterns in deep evolutionary time). The goal throughout this chapter is to provide an expansion of existing evolutionary theory and to build some much-needed bridges across traditionally disparate disciplines. The topics of genomics and evolutionary biology are deeply interconnected. The detailed study of complete genome sequences is best carried out in an evolutionarily comparative context, and in turn provides important new insights into evolutionary relationships. There are many ways of studying the mechanisms and outcomes of evolution, ranging from genetics and genomics at the lowest scales through to paleontology at the highest. As with life itself, evolutionary biology has passed through numerous major transitions that opened up new and previously inaccessible trajectories. The evolution concept first came approximately 150 years ago with Darwin's (1859) publication of his theory of natural selection. The (re)discovery of Mendelian genetics around the beginning of the 20th century marks another, as does the subsequent development of population genetics a few decades later. It is important to note that genomes are only one of many important levels of biological organization, and that genomic data are only useful when viewed in the context of morphological, cytological, developmental, physiological, and ecological information.
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