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Problems of the philosophy of biology


Darwin: beliefs and achievements
Ernst Mayr Scientist
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Darwin, of course, in spite of all the contributions he made, and in spite of the fact that basically what the modern evolutionist believes is remarkably similar to what Darwin had proposed in 1859. The only really major difference is that, well, two differences: Darwin did believe in some soft inheritance, some Lamarckian inheritance, that was one difference. And that was believed by everybody at that time. It wasn't until [August] Weismann in 1883 published a paper which he challenged this… that it was no longer considered the eternal truth with respect to evolution. And the second was that Darwin never understood, and as I mentioned earlier, never could understand the source of variation or anything about variation because one didn't have genetics yet, one didn't have molecular biology. Now, Darwin wasn't always right. For instance, he has been later in a very whiggish manner, been attacked for believing in the theory of pangenesis which is that little bodies, gemules, form in all parts of the body and eventually move back to the gametes and are the carriers of the information which, according to the theory of the inheritance of acquired characters, must be transferred from the body to the gametes. And he said, ‘Well if… if such an inheritance takes place it must be explained’, and that was his theory of pangenes. Now, if he had waited another year or two until Weismann had demolished this theory then he wouldn't have had to propose his theory of pangenes. He needed it to explain inheritance of acquired character. That was one of his failures. And the other one was that in the course of time he got quite confused about variation in the sense of particular the word ‘variety’ and the botanists had a totally different concept of variety from the zoologists. And Darwin first had the zoological concept and was able to develop a very sensible theory of geographic speciation. But then when he confused it with the concept of the botanists where the word variety referred to individual variants within a population, he switched over to a theory of sympatric speciation which was based on entirely misleading conclusions. So let us admit that even Darwin was human. Now… the thing about Darwin that in a way has always puzzled me is when we really look at his work, all of his publications, it is remarkable how much he achieved, and it is even more remarkable how often he was right. Practically all – except the… the few that I mentioned – practically all other instances what Darwin said eventually turned to be… turned out to be right, even though in his lifetime it was attacked and generally rejected. And not only in the field of biology, evolutionary biology, but as I already intimated, in the field of the philosophy of biology Darwin is the basis of all the modern thinking. So he was really the great man that a lot of people have always claimed he was, but this is something that far more people have challenged and rejected. But let us remember, Darwin was a very, very great thinker and it is still almost puzzling how he could have been right in so many different of his theories and conjectures.

The late German-American biologist Ernst Mayr (1904-2005) was a leading light in the field of evolutionary biology, gaining a PhD at the age of 21. He was also a tropical explorer and ornithologist who undertook an expedition to New Guinea and collected several thousand bird skins. In 1931 he accepted a curatorial position at the American Museum of Natural History. During his time at the museum, aged 37, he published his seminal work 'Systematics and Origin of the Species' which integrated the theories of Darwin and Mendel and is considered one of his greatest works.

Listeners: Walter J. Bock

Walter J. Bock is Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Columbia University. He received his B.Sc. from Cornell and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. His research lies in the areas of organismal and evolutionary biology, with a special emphasis on functional and evolutionary morphology of the skeleto-muscular system, specifically the feeding apparatus of birds.

Tags: 1859, 1883, Charles Darwin, August Weismann

Duration: 4 minutes, 37 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008