In his book titled What is Evolution, Ernst Mayr bravely attempts to explain the complex biological processes of the development of plants and animals. His book, however, reaches beyond the realm of the science text book. With What is Evolution he attempts to educate an audience which may not have a strong science background but instead a strong literary background. Through this book Mayr strives for "a mid-level account of evolution, written not just for scientists but for the educated public." In short, he attempts to write a (non-fiction) scientific novel. Though his attempt to combine great literature and hard science is admirable he often gets himself into awkward situations when trying to please both the scientific and artistic sensibilities. His major problem in the book surrounds the use of the word "perfect." As a biologist, it may be easy to pass this word off as a synonym of "adaptedness," simply meaning well-suited to one's environment. As a literary-minded person, let alone English major, however, this word cannot slip by so easily. To the novel-reader, more than to the science-reader, this word carries a lot of baggage which cannot be ignored. So, why does Mayr use this word and what is he really trying to say? Does Mayr truly believe that evolution can be perfect?
The baggage that gets snared when Mayr uses the word "perfect" in his discussions of evolution is the complicated literary definition given to this word. Exact and flawless are some common synonyms of the word perfect. Perfection is something that has reached the pinnacle, the zenith of existence. Nothing which is perfect needs any alterations, modifications or changes. When something is perfect it exists with ease. It does not struggle to remain where it is, and it does not struggle to remain alive; it works in harmony with its environment. Going beyond the definition, something that is perfect is commonly more highly valued than those things around it which have not yet reached perfection. People place a certain amount of value on things that occur with ease. The human race seems constantly to be striving for something that is faster, cleaner. Something that can achieve these goals with ease earns the title of perfection and is highly. The only problem with perfection, as least in the realm of science, is that once the peak of perfection is reached there is no place towards it can further develop. This obviously presents a problem when considering evolution, which by its very name and nature means the slow change over time of one organism into something separate.
Mayr, as an accomplished, intelligent and well-respected scientist, could not have over-looked the fact that by believing in the process of evolution, he cannot also believe organisms can (or have) reached perfection. The two simply cannot coexist. In fact, Mayr does not believe in perfection manifested in natural organisms, he says so many times over through the course of his novel. Often, when Mayr uses the word he is actually trying to distance himself from it, to slice it out of our concept of evolution. Perfection, he tries to tell us, has no place in the story of evolution.
Still, Mayr's approach to distancing himself from the word "perfection" is subtle and almost hesitant, as if deep inside he still wants perfection to have its place in nature. In the beginning of his novel he writes, "Evolution, indeed, was a change...a change towards greater perfection, as it was said at the time..." (p. 8). Mayr begins this sentence with a claim, that evolution is "a change towards greater perfection." This claim says that there is a purpose for evolution, a goal towards which it strives. This goal is for an organism to reach a point at which it lives and reproduces with complete ease within its own natural environment (otherwise known as perfection). This claim also states that the process is still in motion; we are moving