"This is Biology" by Ernst Mayr


Today is March 18, 2016. 10:49 in Marbella. Four days ago I found in Fnac "This is Biology", in a Penguin edition of this March. The original in English is from 1995. Mayr died in 2005 when he was already 100 years old. For my part, I barely knew anything about him or his work. I had seen him quoted in some of my readings but I had not given him importance.

I have read and underlined the book in three days. And it has seemed to me the most complete and understandable of all that I have read referred to the environment of my idea so far. On the internet they say that he was an atheist but when I read it I have not seen him biased to some side. He declares himself a disciple of Dobzhansky and agrees with him on what interests us.

He deals with all the questions that surround the basic ideas and almost sees and says them. But he does not. The book is from 1995 and in these 20 years technically has advanced a lot. But I already knew enough then. And he neither thinks on the basic objective nor "completes" the idea of altruism. In any case he is closer than Wilson and Ruse. Knows more.

The book for the layman is great, and I think that for specialists it also serves as a compendium of the different disciplines necessary to summarize these issues. For my part, I have emphasized a lot. But I will copy only the paragraphs that I find most interesting and that I do not think I have collected in the comments to the texts of other authors.

.P. eleven: I have been interested in the problem of biological causation since... 1926. And then:...the living and the inanimate world obey universal laws discovered and analyzed by the physical sciences, but living organisms obey are also a second set of causes, the instructions from the genetic program.

And then: Living organisms form a  hierarchy of ever more complex systems: from molecules, cells and tissues, through whole organisms, populations and species.

He is right on seeing and giving importance to the laws and causes of tasks or partial objectives. But he does not think of the law or primary mandate. Although obviously "it´s" implicit as the first cause at the base of what he calls "genetic program".

In the hierarchy of living organisms includes the species, provides the concept of population and does not review the genes. Throughout the book he does not mention Dawkins or his ideas. Neither includes Gould's demes and clades although he does mention him later.

.P. 17: ...living organisms ...have many unique characteristics -especially their genetic programs, acquired over time- that have not been found in inanimate matter. Organisms are systems arranged at many levels. (the bold are mine)

The concept of "genetic program" has seemed very important to me, where has to be, as a base, the vital mandate of survival. And that in the different levels of the different organisms, among them the species. They also have their own programs acquired over time. And although he does not say it, I understand that he assumes that these programs start with the mandate to survive. Without that mandate, first in time and order, they would not have developed any genetic program.

On p. 34 states the concept of emergency and "integron" and in 35 says:  ...it is now understood that the population (or the species), rather than the gene or individual, is the unit of evolution.  His parenthesis.

And he says: ...At every level they are adapted systems, because they contribute to the fitness of an individual.. And finally says: ...it is the genetic program that which controls the development and activities of the organic integrons that emerge at each successively higher level of integration.

He devotes almost all of Chapter 3 to the philosophy of science and to the different methods for the discovery and justification of conjectures, hypotheses or theories. And in summary, he says on p. 72 that: ...in biology a a flexible system of theory construction and testing would seem more appropriate than rigid principles".

And then deals with the different problems of language and the serious consequences that sometimes cause. 

On p. 65 and following deals with causation in biology. Says that: Every phenomenon or process in living organisms is the result of two different causes, which are often called proximal (functional) causations and ultimate (evolutionary) causations.

And he talks about the difficulty and even the impossibility of knowing Second causations. And it says in a footnote: "This leads us to the extremely complex philosophical problem of cause  and causation. And because of the thorny problem renounces: ... I will, therefore, not discuss Hume's critique of causation, according to which all we can determine is merely sequence of events.

It occurs to me that this difficulty of knowing the causes of behavior in the species, has been able to influence not to "see" the basic objective. And for this reason the first cause of evolution in the "mere sequence of events" of the evolution itself has been justified. Even at the cost of incurring the "naturalistic fallacy" admitted by Ruse himself and other sociobiologists. It is an occurrence about the cause of not seeing the Second causation.

I found interesting what, under the title of Cognitive Evolutionary Epistemology, he writes on p. 72: "The most plausible theory is that the ancestors of all organisms were able to survive and reproduce because they had the capacity to sense those aspects of their environment that are most important for their survival, and this, of course, id equally true for the human species."

Hopefully we, like our ancestors, will also be able to feel and anticipate the important aspects for our survival, including the mandate to survive. And we obey it rationally and accurately.

I was also struck by what, under the heading "Does Science Advances?, indicates on p. 101: Non-scientists often naively assume that once a new scientific explanation or theory has been proposed, it will quickly be adopted. Actually, cases where a sudden new insight led to a revolutionary instantaneous illumination of a field have occurred only very rarely. He cites six reasons for this.

And he says that it usually takes years since an idea is enunciated until it is accepted. I think I remember that Ortega also thought of fifteen years between one thing and another.

Another interesting idea is what he points out on p.104: Important work published in Russian, Japanese, or even non-English western European languages is likely to be widely neglected, if not ignored altogether. Even if the ideas contained in such neglected publications are eventually adopted, it is often because someone else rediscovered them subsequently, and the priority of the earlier publication is forgotten.  To be taken in account.

On page 119 as the end of questions about causes he says: The determination of proximate causations is usually facilitated by experimentation, of ultimate causations by inference from historical narratives. It is our case.

On p. 132 talks about the biological concept of species and says that: "It was, however, not generally adopted until I proposed a formal definition in 1940 and provided massive support for the biological species concept in myy 1942 book, Systematics and the Origin of Species.

From here he develops the concept of species widely. And I have been happy checking that my ideas are clearly confirmed in this regard. It deals with it very broadly. I copy only some phrases:

. Evolutionary biologists now know that the species is the crucial entity of evolution.

. A species regardless of the individuals of which it is composed, interacts as a unit with other species with which shares the environment.

In the case of animals, species are also important units in the behavioral sciences. Members of a species share many species-specific behavior patterns, particularly all those that have to do with social behavior.

In all these pages he does not speak or make direct or indirect reference to our species. He is in another matter. In the wide world of the rest of living beings. We are worth everything.

I pick up from the page 168 the picture of his organism classification system, because it seems good to me and because I always forget the names. He does not call Protists to the unicellular Eukaryotes and speaks of two empires:

Prokaryota: with his kingdoms Eubacteria and Archaebacteria, and

Eukaryota: with its kingdoms of Archezoa, Protozoa, Chromista, Metaphyta (plants), Fungi and Metazoa (animals).

In chapter 9, from page 175 to 206 deals with evolution and I think that summarizes in a masterful way all that is important in the matter. I copy only some phrases that I find especially interesting:

. According to the biological species concepts, species are defined as aggregates of populations that are reproductively isolated from one another. Although the concept is known, it seems important to keep this excellent definition in mind. He speaks then of the different types of speciation: allopatric (the most frequent by geographic isolation), dichopatric (geographical barrier emerged), peripatric (few and in the periphery) and sympatric (ecological specialization)

Although he does not say it, it occurs to me that our species could "be born" in a peripatric way, from a single pair, which would make Genesis compatible with science. On this form of periptetric speciation says Mayr as a scientist:

In peripatric speciation, a founder population is established beyond the periphery of the previous species' range. Such a population, founded by a single inseminated female or by a few individuals [...] Such a founder population may undergo a drastic genetic modification and may speciate rapidly. Furthermore, such a founder population, owing to its narrow genetic base and drastic genetic restructuring, is in a particularly favorable position to undertake new evolutionary departures, including those that may lead to macroevolutionary developments.

When reading the above it seems that I am seeing Eva and Adan, ...founder population, in the Eden, ... .beyond the periphery of the previous species' range. With the mandate to be fruitful and multiply, to survive as a new species, exposed ... undertake new evolutionary departures.  Starting from their awareness of good and evil, of their capacity for reason and their new ethical judgment, ...a drastic genetic modification ...in a particularly favorable position to undertake new evolutionary departures, Until now.

                     Veluti Deus daretur! und ...etsi Deus non daretur!

Changing the subject, page 215 confirms another of my ideas about evolution and its progress as means and not as the first objective of the sociobiologists. He says:

There simply is no indication in the history of life of any universal trend to, or capacity for, evolutionary progress. And it puts several examples of lineages and collectives that have hardly evolved (prokaryotes) or that have evolved backwards (some parasites and other inhabitants of special niches).

And in the following pages tries to: the great uncertainty that exists in the recent literature about whether, in addition to individuals, entire populations and even species can be targets of selection. And he argues clearly in favor of the group selection.

He deals extensively with Wilson and his theories, which he does not share in this aspect, since, although Wilson calls himself a sociobiologist, both he and Ruse when talking about human social behavior do so, only by taking into account the interaction of two individuals and only in relation to the behaviors about sexual selection.

And among other important things he says:

. The modern biologist knows far too much to want to revive the old polarized nature-nurture controversy, because he knows that almost all human traits are influenced by the interaction of inheritance with the cultural environment.

And ends chapter 9 saying that in addition to having multiple causes, almost all evolutionary problems have multiple solutions. Compatible with the Darwinian paradigm. He adds that in evolutionary biology generalizations are almost never correct. And goes without "discovering" the most obvious generalization: the basic idea. A shame.

Chapter 10 deals with ecology and although it is very interesting, I do not copy anything.

From page 227, deals with how humans fit into evolution. And makes an excellent historical-scientific description of the development of human biology. Everything highlighteble. But I only copy some phrases that have caught my attention:

. P.240: when the big hordes became the norm among humans, ...once larger troops became the norm among humans, the reproductive advantage of the presumably better-endowed leader would have been reduced. the boss's reproductive advantage was reduced. And later...the greater social integration of humans, while it contributing enormously to cultural evolution, might have caused humans to enter a period of stasis in the evolution of the genome." Darwin predicted it.

And on the same page, as for the human mind:

. Researchers in animal behavior have now established that there is no categorical difference between the mental activities of certain animals (elephants, dogs, whales, primates, parrots) and those of humans. The same is true of consciousness, traces of which are found even among invertebrates and perhaps protozoans. Mind and consciousness do not form a demarcation between man and "the animals".  His quotation marks.

For the peace of humanists and believers, I add that the animal consciousness, of which Mayr deals and which includes man, is different from the human consciousness which is something very different. A fundamental difference that also does not need to question the existence of God. Each thing is a different thing.

On page 262 he says something very important in relation to some of the ideas I have written in the applied ethics part of "Survive" (p.95). He says:

"...But for the most part monogamy became a means to ameliorate conflict, and marriage eventually became a strategy to cement connections between families that might otherwise be competitors.  And later:…

...Throughout he hominid line, the family has been the foundation of group structure. And then:…The breakdown of the extended family and even the core family is one of the basic roots of the cultural breakdown in inner-city slums...

On page 244 et seq. Thinks on the future of the human species. And among other things says:

"...all the so-called human races are very closely related to one another and are simple variable populations"

"The questions is sometimes asked what chance there is for the human species to be break up into several species. The answer is: None at all.".

I correct because he bases his affirmation (negation) on that humans occupy all the imaginable niches on Earth. He has not thought about the possible human bases on the moon or other planets where new periphratrid species could be created. And we could also create "new" species with genetic engineering. I think he thought of "natural" speciation, with the historical evolutionary system.

He says, pessimistically, that: ... What is far more frightening and threatening to the future of human kind is the deterioration of the value systems of most human societies.

In chapter 12, last, asks if evolution can explain ethics. He says the great impact that Darwinian revolution meant for the theories of human morality. And develops some known aspects. I pick up some more significant phrases from p. 248 and following.

. Much of the literature on the relation between ethics and evolution of the last 130 years has been devoted to a search for a "naturalistic ethics," and several volumes on the subject appear annually, 125 years after Darwin first posed the problem in 1871.

On the other hand, considers: ...that a genuinely biological ethics, which takes into account cultural evolution as well as the human genetic program truly into consideration, would be far more consistent internally than ethical systems which ignore these factors."

But immediately before he wrote:

Ethicists insist, and they are quite right to do so, that science in general, and evolutionary biology in particular, are not constructed to provide a reliable set of specific ethical norms. But it is important to add that a genuinely biological ethics which takes human cultural evolution...go to the previous paragraph and I excuse me for the literary hopscotch).

And then, in the following pages, he tackles the problem of altruism and advances on the usual reductionist ideas, but stays short. Says on page 251:

. I contend that it does not represent the normal usage of the term "altruism" to restrict it only to instances involving potential danger or damage to the altruist.

Then he speaks of inclusive altruism and reciprocal altruism. And he goes further following Darwin with group altruism. But then links it with Simpson's and Ayala's ethics of their three human ethical conditions: anticipation, judgement and selection. And stays with the ethics of the philosophers without daring or seeing the efficacy of the total and egoistic biological altruism.

Right then, when dealing with individuals partial and group ethics... Which are the result of the combination of innate tendencies and learning.

He then makes a vehement appeal to warn of the moral degradation that he attributes to the faulty ethical instruction of our young people since he says that the first years are vital (an open program) for the acquisition of ethical values. And he preaches the need to increase ethical instruction and start at the earliest possible age.

And he sustains that the "traditional" problems of humanity are being dealt with more and more success: wars, diseases, food shortages... On the other hand, problems that have to do with values are increasing: family breakdown, drugs, violence in the home, addiction to television and video games, waste, depletion of natural resources, destruction of the natural environment...

He says that the traditional norms of Western culture, based on the Judeo-Christian tradition are too rigid for now and that:ethical norms must be versatile enough to be able to adapt to a change of conditions.

And raises three major ethical problems of the modern world. I try to summarize:

The first is what Singer (1981) refers as the problem the "expanding circle." [There are different ethics for foreigners and different: Europeans with natives, whites with blacks, Christians and Muslims with respect to women he says:] the ethics of the future must address the problem of how to proceed when one's own values clash with those of another group.

. The second great ethical problem of our time is excessive egocentricity and attention to the rights of the individual. Lack of "obligations." Problems when there is a choice between individual ethics and social or community ethics.

. The third great ethical problem of our day is posed by the discovery of our responsibility for nature as a whole.

The three problems would be solved or mitigated with the assumption and application of our Ethical Principle. Based on the priority of the survival of the species, to try to achieve with the method of broad altruism.

And ends without clearly explaining the basic objective of survival. Says on p. 268 to finish, weakly and as a "humanitarian" wish:

"And yet if the human species and the natural world as a whole are to have a future, we must reduce selfish tendencies in our current value system in favor of a higher regard for the community and for the whole of creation."

 It is undemanding with "if we want", insufficient when speaking of "the community" instead of the species, and strange with "the whole of creation".

And he almost get it, but he does not dare at all because he says: ..."...and our most basic ethical principle should be to do everything toward enhancing the future of mankind. All other ethical norms can be derived from this baseline..

It is not improving. Every effort must be made to survive. Naturally improving everything we can: to survival and improvement itself. But first and foremost to survive, to survive. And not because we want to but because our own nature mandates it, the basis of our generic program.

He ends with "evolutionary humanism" and its demanding ethics. Good but without foundation.