The equally wonderful field: Ernst Mayr and organismic biology

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Biologists in the 1960s witnessed a period of intense intra-disciplinary negotiations, especially the positioning of organismic biologists relative to molecular biologists. The perceived valorization of the physical sciences by "molecular" biologists became a catalyst creating a unified front of "organismic" biology that incorporated not just evolutionary biologists, but also students of animal behavior, ecology, systematics, botany - in short, almost any biological community that predominantly conducted their research in the field or museum and whose practitioners felt the pinch of the prestige and funding accruing to molecular biologists and biochemists. Ernst Mayr, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and George Gaylord Simpson took leading roles in defending alternatives to what they categorized as the mechanistic approach of chemistry and physics applied to living systems - the "equally wonderful field of organismic biology." Thus, it was through increasingly tense relations with molecular biology that organismic biologists cohered into a distinct community, with their own philosophical grounding, institutional security, and historical identity. Because this identity was based in large part on a fundamental rejection of the physical sciences as a desirable model within biology, organismic biologists succeeded in protecting the future of their field by emphasizing the deep divisions that ran through the biological sciences as a whole.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)279-317
Number of pages39
JournalHistorical Studies in the Natural Sciences
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 2010
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History and Philosophy of Science


  • Ernst Mayr
  • Evolution
  • Evolutionary synthesis
  • History of biology
  • Molecular biology
  • National Academy of Sciences
  • Organismal biology


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