From: Wesley R. Elsberry
To: Joe Morlan 93-11-09 22:42:24
Subject: Mayr on Darwin
I've been checking the TAMU library pretty regularly, and just this
evening was able to check out Mayr's "One Long Argument: Charles
Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought". It was worth
One thing that it clears up is exactly what Mayr's opinion on Darwin
and species is. Mayr is critical of Darwin's stance as published in
the Origin Of Species, but never did Mayr get to the "scathing" level
that has been elsewhere imputed to him, at least not in what I've
I'm going to resurrect a post from September 25 from Joe Morlan. In
two separate messages, Joe has indicated an unwillingness to discuss
anything further with me, based upon age of messages (Joe stated that
he wasn't interested in defending ancient messages that had expired
off his local BBS, which is an excellent tactic when reminded of the
indefensible) and upon the contention that he won't talk to me until
I issue an apology for accusing Joe of altering quoted messages such
that the original meaning was inverted (I've got the messages; Joe
did delete and split quoted text and claim meanings for the remainder
that were not what I had entered; I'll provide them for download if
anybody is interested. Since I'm the one with a legitimate claim to
an apology, it is likely to be a while before Joe makes any responses
to my messages.).
[Quotes from a 25 Sep 93 post by Joe Morlan]
WRE> While I was looking up the context in the original message,
WRE> I found an interesting claim of yours:
"Darwin never defined the species concept. In fact Darwin
had only a vague idea of what a species is." -- Joe Morlan,
3 September 1993
WRE> I've got my copy of Darwin's Origin of Species [first
WRE> edition, of course] here in front of me right now, and I was
WRE> wondering if I could get your opinion on this:
WRE> This I feel sure, and I speak after experience, will be no
WRE> slight relief. The endless disputes whether or not some
WRE> fifty species of British brambles are true species will
WRE> cease. [I don't imagine that this was one of Darwin's
WRE> better predictions. -- WRE] Systematists will have only to
WRE> decide (not that this will be easy) whether any form be
WRE> sufficiently constant and distinct from other forms, to be
WRE> capable of definition; and if definable, whether the
WRE> differences be sufficiently important to deserve a specific
JM> Darwin provides an ill-defined, currently discredited,
JM> morphological species concept. It is not the biological
JM> species, nor the phylogenetic, nor is it any other
JM> currently accepted concept of species. Darwin is saying
JM> that a species is whatever a systematist says it is.
JM> This is not a workable definition.
Let's see what Mayr says, hmm?
"The species concept [interesting wording there, wouldn't you say,
Joe?] at which Darwin finally arrived is clearly described in the
Origin. There is nothing left of the biological criteria of the
notebooks, and his characterization of the species now is a mixture
of the typological and nominalist species definitions."
WRE> This latter point will become a far more essential
WRE> consideration than it is at present; for differences,
WRE> however slight, between any two forms, if not blended by
WRE> intermediate gradations, are looked at by most naturalists
WRE> as sufficient to raise both forms to the rank of species.
WRE> Hereafter we shall be compelled to acknowledge that the only
WRE> distinction between species and well-marked varieties is,
WRE> that the latter are known, or believed, to be connected at
WRE> the present day by intermediate gradations, whereas species
WRE> were formerly thus connected. [Note the prediction of
WRE> discontinuity here. I'll come back to that. -- WRE]
JM> You might interpret Darwin as predicting discontinuity
JM> via extinction of intermediate forms. But he is not
JM> talking about species as we know them today. He's
JM> talking about any discontinuity in variation regardless
JM> of whether they are biological species or not.
Really? Mayr again:
"However, each of the three major species concepts (typological,
evolutionary, and biological) has a certain legitimacy in some areas
of biological research, even today. [...]"
That would certainly seem to take a bit of steam out of the absolute
statement, "he is not talking about species as we know them today".
Given the criticism of Sokal and Crovello, it is an open question as
to just how operational the biological species concept is. Something
is being applied, but that something is not likely to be the BSC.
There may be more life in typology than you've imagined.
I think the BSC is a great concept. It just doesn't seem to be
followed with any great frequency or regularity.
WRE> Hence, without quite rejecting the consideration of
WRE> intermediate gradations between any two forms, we shall be
WRE> led to weigh more carefully and value higher the actual
WRE> amount of difference between them. It is quite possible
WRE> that forms now generally acknowledged to be merely varieties
WRE> may hereafter be thought worthy of specific names, as with
WRE> the primrose and cowslip; and in this case scientific and
WRE> common language will come into accordance. In short, we
WRE> shall have to treat species in the same manner as those
WRE> naturalists treat genera, who admit that genera are merely
WRE> artificial combinations made for convenience.
JM> Here Darwin is saying that species have no more objective
JM> reality than genera. They are simply a matter of
JM> opinion. This is not science. This is babble.
Really? Mayr quoted the very same passage that I did, and his
immediately following commentary is:
"The example set by Darwin was followed by just about every
taxonomist and evolutionist in the nineteenth century except for a
few enlightened field naturalists. It clearly was the species
concept of the Mendelians. [...]"
While critical, the above could hardly be considered congruent with
terming Darwin's quoted text as "babble".
WRE> This may not be a cheering prospect; but we shall at least
WRE> be freed from the vain search for the undiscovered and
WRE> undiscoverable essence of the term species."
JM> He's offering a heuristic approach to avoid having to
JM> define a the term, "species." This is what creationists
JM> do when asked to define the term "kind." It's like the
JM> old definition of pornography. "I cannot define it, but
JM> I know it when I see it."
Mayr seems to think that the passage I quoted contained a clearly
described species concept. So did I. Which leaves you, once again,
on the other side of the fence.
WRE> This seems to be a compact operational definition of
WRE> "species" as it was understood in 1859, with predictions on
WRE> what it would become.
JM> These predictions were wrong, and what you call an
JM> "operational definition" is what I call a crock.
We've already seen that Mayr asserts that Darwin's species concept
was the operational one for quite some little time.
Earlier in the book, Mayr says,
"[...] Darwin was the first person to work out a sound theory of
classification, one which is still adopted by the majority of
Pretty good for someone that you've claimed had nothing to say about
species, I'd say.
WRE> I do believe that demolishes your assertion given
JM> In your dreams.
Mayr's as well as mine, it would seem.
WRE> I had wondered about your assertion before, given Darwin's
WRE> work on the taxonomy of barnacles and insectivorous plants.
WRE> If Darwin had been inept or incorrect in his grasp of where
WRE> to differentiate between species, I would have expected to
WRE> find an indication of that reflected in the biographies that
WRE> I've read. Amazingly, though, this fellow with "only a
WRE> vague idea of what a species is" published quite a few
WRE> volumes of systematic work without engendering commentary or
WRE> criticism out of the ordinary for such work. Maybe we could
WRE> ask Duane Gish to derive a probability for *that* unlikely
JM> Darwin's concept of species has come under scathing
JM> criticism by Ernst Mayr. Please read "Animal Species and
JM> Evolution" before concluding that Darwin's species
JM> concept has not engendered "commentary or criticism out
JM> of the ordinary for such a work."
Again, Mayr's work is contemporary, so there's no chance that
"biographies of Darwin" would record Darwin's reaction to Mayr's
criticism, is there? Also, Mayr has critiqued the Origin of Species
in the two works I have here, not Darwin's systematic work. Two
strikes on this one section, and ...
Mayr is certainly critical of Darwin's later writings on defining
species. However, Mayr notes that Darwin's notebooks indicate that
Darwin utilized a variant of the biological species concept for a
period of some fifteen years, and only ran aground on the shoals of
botany prior to penning the Origin of Species. Having developed and
defined two of the major species concepts within one lifetime is
quite an achievement for that fellow who said "nothing about species"
or who only had a "vague idea about what a species" was, eh?
JM> Standard Creationism (that all life was created as it is
JM> now) predicts that life will be organized into
JM> discontinuities (separate species). Evolution, in and of
JM> itself, does not predict that life will be organized into
JM> the discontinuous gene pools which we observe today.
WRE> Note that the sentence beginning, "Hereafter we shall be
WRE> compelled to acknowledge ..." nicely rebuts your assertion
WRE> that evolutionary theory does not predict discontinuity in
WRE> heredity. While Darwin didn't have the jargon "gene pools"
WRE> to kick around, it sure looks like that is what he is
WRE> talking about here.
JM> Darwin is claiming that extinction of intermediates will
JM> result in "species" as long as the differences are
JM> sufficient for a systematist to warrant their
JM> recognition. Darwin views species as any discontinuity
JM> regardless of reproductive isolation. Darwin's theory of
JM> evolution, does indeed predict such discontinuities. But
JM> since Darwin's "definition" of species has no resemblance
JM> to the modern idea of "species" Darwins's theory of
JM> evolution does not (and could not) predict speciation as
JM> we now understand the concept.
Really? Again, let's hear from Mayr:
"(3) Multiplication of species. This theory explains the
origin of the enormous organic diversity. It postulates
that species multiply, either by splitting into daughter
species or by 'budding,' that is, by the establishment of
geographically isolated founder populations that evolve
into new species."
This is theory number three of five which Mayr identifies
as contributions of Darwin in the Origin. You remember
Mayr, the fellow who is the main proponent of the BSC?
He didn't seem to have terrible difficulty in recognizing
in Darwin's writing the same thing that I did.
WRE> From your September 3 post again:
WRE> JM> I know this stuff, guy.
WRE> How do you propose that we go about finding out when you
WRE> actually "know this stuff" as compared to when you merely
WRE> think that you "know this stuff"? The level of confidence
WRE> with which you forward assertions does not appear to vary
WRE> between the two cases, which makes that an unreliable
JM> I always appreciate the obligatory personal insults at
JM> the end of each of your messages. They give the echo a
JM> unique warm, cozy atmosphere.
JM> Have a great day.
It isn't "insulting" to have shown your statements to be founded
on something rather less stable than Birnam Wood, and ask how
we should treat further items in this vein in the future. It
does appear to be a problem, and given the attitude you have
toward hearing corrections, it would seem to be intractable.
I mean, all the fun would have gone right out of this if you
had responded to the quote from Darwin with something like,
"Gee, I must have missed that on my previous reading. It looks
like Darwin did say something about species, even if he was
wrong." Instead, your going ballistic over the mere thought
that someone might actually question your assertion has provided
a few months worth of low grade amusement.
It is really a very nice day here, snuggling up to Mayr's book,
and finding I have every justification for saying, "I told you so."
Well, I did tell you so. You told me off, and now you may do the
same for Mayr. I'm sure he'll understand.
Have a simply peachy day, Joe.
--- msgedsq 2.0.5
* Origin: Central Neural System 409-589-3338 (1:117/385)