International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Toward a New Philosophy of Biology: Observations of an Evolutionist

by Ernst Mayr

Introductory Essay by Michael Ruse

Ernst Mayr was one of the leading evolutionists of the twentieth century. Through his long career he turned increasingly to philosophy in order to defend the autonomy of organismic and evolutionary biology in the face of the perceived threat of molecular biology. His inclinations, as very much shown in this collection, were holistic and non-reductionistic, something undoubtedly reinforced by the philosophical influences of his early years in Germany.

There are nearly thirty articles in this volume, written over nearly half a century and covering a wide range of topics. Several focus on the father of evolution, Charles Darwin. Mayr has little time for those who would belittle the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection. However, Mayr stresses that we must see the issues as going beyond surface processes, to broader topics such as common descent (the tree of life). Writing with an obvious eye to critics such as the late Stephen Jay Gould (author of the theory of rapid changes known as ‘punctuated equilibrium’), Mayr also stresses the essential gradualness of the evolutionary process, noting that this is a necessary condition in a theory like natural selection.

A major concern of Mayr’s is the forward-looking nature of biology, its so-called “teleological” dimension. We can ask what something like the eye is for, namely what do we expect it to do. We would never ask what a planet is for. Planets just are. In a series of now-classic discussions, Mayr teases apart the main factors at stake here. He argues that, on the one side, there is nothing illicit about biological teleology. It does not at all commit us to unseen forces of a vital nature. On the other side, teleology plays a major role in the life sciences. Talk of its elimination is misplaced, although Mayr does suggest that we might be better off using a new, less emotive term like “teleonomy.”

As one who made major advances in our understanding of biological species (breeding groups) and the processes involved in their production, naturally Mayr has significant things to say on those topics. Above all, he wants us to get away from crude understandings based purely in terms of physical or morphological features. Going that way traps us into ignoring the essence of the revolution wrought by Darwin, namely that the living world is in flux and that no longer can we see biological groups as static, pale images of Platonic essences. This might work in mathematics and even physics. It will not work in biology.

The essays in this collection represent one of the most important formative influences on the development of modern philosophy of biology. Perhaps reflecting that these were largely written in the earlier stages of his career, there is less on moral and social issues than one might expect from a collection penned today. However, throughout, one senses a deep reverence for life and a burning moral passion for understanding. Mayr was fond of quoting Julian Huxley to the effect that one can be deeply religious in the total absence of theology. This collection shows that he was right.