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Ernst Mayr, Biologist Extraordinaire

An appreciation of Harvard's visionary of modern evolutionary synthesis

Lynn Margulis

What Evolution Is

We celebrated the publication of our books, both brought out by Basic Books, in the summer of 2002. At his lovely retirement village, with the help of many friends as well as family (including Mayr's daughters Susanne and biologist Christa Menzel of Simsbury, Connecticut), we had a wonderful bibliophilic party. For our book (Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species), Mayr had written the fascinating, not uncritical, foreword. But Mayr's book was what we all came to celebrate. For readers unfamiliar with his comprehensive opus spanning more than 75 years of scientific productivity on a panoply of evolutionary themes, I recommend that you begin with this one, his 24th: What Evolution Is. Designed for the curious, nonspecialist reader, it is a fine read for those interested in the achievements of importance in 20th-century evolutionary biology.

Not immodestly, Mayr considered his 2002 trade book to be the single best summary of uncontested, documented evolutionary thought. "Evolution" refers to the results of experimental, observational and theoretical science that support the common ancestry of all life on Earth. Yes, of course, people are primates directly related to other great apes such as gorillas, chimps and bonobos. Yes, of course, humans were not made by an all-seeing, all-knowing white-man deity. Indeed, evidence points to the possibility that several species of nonhumans became extinct because of our aggressive, even murderous, greedy ancestors. These early Homo sapiens, related to us, displayed traits that still abound!

The questions and answers, at the end of the book especially, help any reader, even one naive with respect to science, to understand the basic concepts of this most important area of study. Mayr's reasonableness is especially pertinent today in the face of ignorance, prejudice and religious fundamentalism. For those who try to deny the validity of science that uses carefully collected evidence from investigators worldwide, this book is a responsible antidote.

Some three weeks before his death, I called him at home in Bedford and asked, "Ernst, how are you? How do you feel?" He responded cheerily, "I feel fine. That is, I feel exceptionally well given the diagnosis." "What diagnosis?" I asked. "Didn't I tell you? The doctors tell me I have cancer. It has already metastasized, but I don't feel sick at all." "Oh, Ernst, I'm so sorry," I responded. "Well, Lynn," he said cheerfully, "I will have to die of something."

© Lynn Margulis

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