On July 5, renowned evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr celebrated his 100th birthday. He also recently finished writing his 25th book, What Makes Biology Unique?: Considerations on the Autonomy of a Scientific Discipline [Cambridge University Press, in press]. A symposium in Mayr's honor was held at Harvard University on May 10. Scientific American editor and columnist Steve Mirsky attended the symposium and wrote about it for the upcoming August issue. On May 15, Mirsky, Brazilian journalist Claudio Angelo and Angelo's colleague Marcelo Leite visited Mayr at his apartment in Bedford, Mass. Edited excerpts from their conversation appear below.
For a PDF of the entire interview, click here.
Claudio Angelo: What is the book about?
Ernst Mayr: What the book is about. (Laughs.) Primarily to show, and you will think that this doesn't need showing, but lots of people would disagree with you. To show that biology is an autonomous science and should not be mixed up with physics. That's my message. And I show it in about 12 chapters. And, as another fact, when people ask me what is really your field, and 50 years or 60 years ago, without hesitation I would have said I'm an ornithologist. Forty years ago I would have said, I'm an evolutionist. And a little later I would still say I'm an evolutionist, but I would also say I'm an historian of biology. And the last 20 years, I love to answer, I'm a philosopher of biology. And, as a matter of fact, and that is perhaps something I can brag about, I have gotten honorary degrees for my work in ornithology from two universities, in evolution, in systematics, in history of biology and in philosophy of biology. Two honorary degrees from philosophy departments.
Steve Mirsky: And the philosophical basis for physics versus biology is what you examine in the book?
EM: I show first in the first chapter and in some chapters that follow later on, I show that biology is as serious, honest, legitimate a science as the physical sciences. All the occult stuff that used to be mixed in with philosophy of biology, like vitalism and teleology-Kant after all, when he wanted to describe biology, he put it all on teleology, just to give an example-all this sort of funny business I show is out. Biology has exactly the same hard-nosed basis as the physical sciences, consisting of the natural laws. The natural laws apply to biology just as much as they do to the physical sciences. But the people who compare the two, or who, like some philosophers, put in biology with physical sciences, they leave out a lot of things. And the minute you include those, you can see clearly that biology is not the same sort of thing as the physical sciences. And I cannot give a long lecture now on that subject, that's what the book is for.
I'll give you an example. In principle, biology differs from the physical sciences in that in the physical sciences, all theories, I don't know exceptions so I think it's probably a safe statement, all theories are based somehow or other on natural laws. In biology, as several other people have shown, and I totally agree with them, there are no natural laws in biology corresponding to the natural laws of the physical sciences.
Now then you can say, how can you have theories in biology if you don't have laws on which to base them? Well, in biology your theories are based on something else. They're based on concepts. Like the concept of natural selection forms the basis of, practically the most important basis of, evolutionary biology. You go to ecology and you get concepts like competition or resources, ecology is just full of concepts. And those concepts are the basis of all the theories in ecology. Not the physical laws, they're not the basis. They are of course ultimately the basis, but not directly, of ecology. And so on and so forth. And so that's what I do in this book. I show that the theoretical basis, you might call it, or I prefer to call it the philosophy of biology, has a totally different basis than the theories of physics.