Ernst Mayr: The Growth of Biological Thought

I’m reading The Growth of Biological Thought by Ernst Mayr.

Parts of it were assigned in my third year philosophy of science course a lifetime ago. Despite wanting to, I never got around to completing all 800 pages. But now I’m well on my way. I was surprised to find a brief reflection on the significance of evolutionary biology for political doctrines in his book. Here is what Mayr had to say on that topic:

“It was a tragedy both for biology and for mankind that the currently prevailing framework of our social and political ideals was adopted when the thinking of western man was largely dominated by the ideas of the scientific revolution, that is, by a set of ideas based on the principles of the physical sciences. This included essentialistic thinking and, as a correlate, a belief in the essential identity of members of a class. Even though the ideological revolution of the eighteenth century was, to a large extent, a rebellion against feudalism and class privileges, it cannot be denied that the ideas of democracy were in part derived from the stated principles of physicalism. As a consequence, democracy can be interpreted to assert not only equality before the law but also essentialistic identity in all respects. This is expressed in the claim, ‘All men are created equal,’ which is something very different from the statement. ‘All men have equal rights and are equal before the law.’ Anyone who believes in the genetic uniqueness of every individual thereby believes in the conclusion, ‘No two individuals are created equal.’

When evolutionary biology developed in the nineteenth century, it demonstrated the inapplicability of these physical principles to unique biological individuals, to heterogeneous populations, and to evolutionary systems. Nevertheless, the fused ideology of physicalism and antifeudalism, usually called democracy (no two people have exactly the same concept of democracy), has taken over in the western world to such an extent that even the slightest implied criticism (as in these lines) is usually rejected with complete intolerance. Democratic ideology and evolutionary thinking share a high regard for the individual but differ on many other aspects of our value system. The recent controversy over sociobiology is a sad illustration of the intolerance displayed by a segment of our society when statements of a scientist come into conflict with political doctrines. Orwell has well described this:

‘At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to state this or that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ so to say… Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the high-brow periodicals.’ Scientists, I am afraid, are not entirely innocent of such intolerance.

All social reformers from Helvetius, Rousseau, and Robert Owen to certain Marxists (but not Karl Marx himself) have accepted Locke’s claim that man at birth is a tabula rasa on which any characteristics can be stamped. Hence, by providing the proper environment and education, one can make anything out of any individual, considering that all of them are potentially identical. This led Robert Owen to the claim that ‘by judicious training, the infants of any one class in the world may be readily formed into men of any other class.’ Since classes were defined socioeconomically (at least by implication), Owen’s statement had considerable validity. When extended to individuals and stated in a somewhat more extreme form, as was done by the behaviourist John B. Watson in 1924, it becomes very questionable. No wonder that those who hold such optimistic views are dismayed by the claims of those who have investigated the genetics of human characteristics in twin and adoption studies.

The demonstration by systematics, physical anthropology, genetics, and behavioral biology that no two individuals in any species (including the human one) are identical has created deep concern among those who are sincere believers in the principle of human equality. As Haldane and Dobzhansky have pointed out, the dilemma can be escaped by giving a definition of equality which is consonant with modern biological findings. All individuals should be equal before the law and be entitled to equal opportunities. However, considering their biological inequalities, they must be given a diverse environment (for example, diverse educational opportunities) in order to assure equal opportunities. Paradoxically, identicism that ignores biological nonidentity is democracy’s worst enemy when it comes to implementing the ideas of equality.

Biology has an awesome responsibility. It can hardly be denied that it has helped to undermine traditional beliefs and value systems. any of the most optimistic ideas of the Enlightenment, including equality and the possibility of a perfect society, were ultimately (although very subconsciously) part of physico-theology. It was God who had made this near-perfect world. A belief in such a world was bound to collapse when the belief in God as designer was undermined. Hence Sedgwick’s justified anguish. Losing a belief in God led to an existential vacuum and an unanswered question as to the meaning of life. Leading thinkers, from the Enlightenment on, felt strongly that biology should not be merely a destroyer of traditional values but also the creator of new value systems. Virtually all biologists are religious, in the deeper sense of this word, even tough it may be a religion without revelation, as it was called by Julian Huxley. The unknown and maybe unknowable instills in us a sense of humility and awe, but most of those who tried to replace a elief in God by a belief in man took the wrong path. They defined man as the self, the personal ego, and promoted an ideology of self-concern and egotism which not only fails to bring happiness but is conspicuously destructive in the long run.

It would, of course, be equally simple-minded and dangerous to treat man simply as a biological creature, that is, as if he were nothing but an animal. Man, owing to his many unique features, has the capability to develop culture and to transmit acquired information, as well as value systems and ethical norms, to later generations. One would, therefore, get a very one-sided and indeed misleading concept of man, if one were to base one’s evaluation of man entirely on the study of subhuman creatures. And yet, the study of animals has given us some of the most significant insights on the nature of man, even where these studies have revealed nothing more but how different man is in some characteristics from his nearest simian relatives.

If, instead of defining man as the personal ego or merely a biological creature, one defines man as mankind, an entirely different ethics and ideology is possible. It would be an ideology that is quite compatible with the traditional social value of wanting to ‘better mankind’ and yet which is compatible with any of the new findings of biology. If this approach is chosen, there will be no conflict between science and the most profound human values.

Such an approach, at first sight, would seem to be in conflict with the principle of inclusive fitness. This, however, is not necessarily so, for two reasons. First, in the anonymous mass society of modern mankind, it might well contribute to one’s own inclusive fitness to work for the improvement of society as a whole. Second, man is a unique species, in that a large amount of cultural ‘inheritance’ has been added to biological inheritance, and that the nature of this cultural inheritance can affect Darwinian fitness. This interaction has, so far, not been sufficiently considered by those who were interested in the effect of Darwinism on human evolution. It is my personal conviction that the seeming conflicts between inclusive fitness, cultural inheritance, and a sound ethics can be resolved.”

Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, 1982): 79-82.

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