Content Review of Mayr’s One Long Argument  

Hiram Caton

Ernst Mayr. One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought. University Press Harvard 1991


The Darwin credo reaffirmed

Mayr belongs to the select company who devised, in the Forties, the reconciliation of Darwinism to Mendelian genetics called Neo-Darwinism. One monument to this synthesis is the University of Chicago Centenary volumes published in 1959, where leading lights exalted the vindication of Darwin’s theory. In the intervening decades enormous advances in all the sciences bearing on evolution have been made. Does Neo-Darwinism survive? Mayr believes that it does. To establish this improbable case, he begins his effort with a characterization of Darwin’s achievement in terms compatible with what he takes to be the current state of evolutionary theory.

A fundamental historical component of the Darwinist credo is that the publication of the Origin marks an abrupt break, styled the Darwinian Revolution, in European thought, not merely in science but across the board, starting with religion and theology. Mayr’s proposed characterization of this transformation is specified by four claims.

Claim 1. Darwin >refuted the belief in the individual creation of each species, establishing in its place the concept that all of life descended from a common ancestor<. The wording mirrors Darwin’s claim that at the time he published Origin, he knew of no naturalist who disbelieved in special creation. There was an outcry against this historical perversity, including objections from the true originator of natural selection theory (Patrick Matthew, in 1832), and the Oxford mathematics professor (Baden Powell) who from 1835 published philosophical essays defending naturalistic evolution against special creation. By 1850 the concept of naturalistic evolution including the origin of the human species had thoroughly penetrated theology, literature, polite conversation, and even the working class. Darwin was the late-comer whose disciples stole the credit on his behalf.

Claim 2. Mayr states that >Victorian notions of progress and perfectability were seriously undermined by Darwin’s demonstration that evolution …does not necessarily lead to progress…< He produces not a single contemporary witness to this sense of Darwin’s meaning. The facts are that the Origin equated adaptation with >improvement< (non-improvers are displaced). The book owed its celebrity in large measure to its scientific >proof< of the nearly universal belief in progress. Indeed the French translation of the Origin bore the title, De l’Origine des especes, ou Des Lois du progress chez les etres organizes. In her Introduction, translator Clémence-August Royer stated that >the doctrine of Darwin is the rational revelation of progress, pitting itself in its logical antagonism with the irrational revelation of the fall<. She related the survival of the fittest theory of organic change to the theory of change developed by free market economics. The same notion was promoted in England by Herbert Spencer. Darwin never repudiated these, for Mayr, gross misunderstandings. Why not? Perhaps because these views were his own.

Claim 3. Darwin pioneered a new concept of science based on >concepts of probability, change, and uniqueness< as against the then dominant methodology based on physical laws and determinism. Oh dear! Darwin’s comments on high level methodological issues are sparse. They are also conventional. Far from challenging the Newtonian model, he was anxious to bathe his theory in its prestige, especially after he was directly challenged (and thoroughly intimidated) by Briton’s leading physicist, Lord Kelvin. Darwin didn’t quantify because he had no head for maths. His one attempt, intended to relate species diversification to geographic distribution, was a flop, from which he was rescued by his friend John Lubbock. He was oblivious to advances in statistical demography, despite their direct relevance to his theory. The quantification of inheritance data was carried out by Mendel in his experimental work on peas and by Francis Galton in his writings on inheritance, whose sophisticated mathematical analysis Darwin admitted he could not follow. The struggle for existence did not figure in Mendel’s theory, which was the first statement of the laws of evolutionary stasis. The development of electromagnetism and statistical mechanics owed nothing to the Great Mind.

Claim 4. Darwin was >the first person to work out a sound theory of classification, one which is still adopted by the majority of taxonomists<. Crikey! Darwin’s theory of classification amounts to little more than the proposal that it be based on evolutionary descent. The proposal was made by pre-Origin evolutionists and sketches of plausible lines of descent, including the pithacoid origin of our species, were readily available. The first edition of the Origin presented but one descent scenario—of whales from bears—but it attracted such ridicule that Darwin withdrew it in the second printing. His few subsequent proposals of descent, eg, the origin of mammals and of the human species, reiterated proposals made by others. The first attempt at an evolutionary phylogeny stems from Darwin’s ardent discipline, Ernst Haeckel, which he based on the >biogenic law< (long since abandoned). Systematics has undergone profound change since 1959, first through Willi Hennig’s reconceptualization of classification as cladistics, and then the elaboration of cladism by molecular analysis. (When Mayr wrote this book, his own earlier contributions to systematics had been superseded). To suggest a connection of this development with Darwin’s modest contribution is to genuflect before the Holy Father.

These criticisms address statements made in but two pages of the text. The remainder of the book is of like character: Mayr pays no mind to the recent outpouring of history/philosophy of science literature that has placed Darwin in context. Thanks to these advances in historical knowledge, we now know that his original contributions were few, that his errors and oversights were many, and that he and his True Believer disciples relentlessly campaigned to promote the Cult of Evolution, whose dogmatism sometimes retarded or distorted the growth of evolutionary science. This book is a living fossil.

© 2008