Why did it take so long for a Darwin to arrive on the scene? What delayed humanity's tumbling to that luminously simple idea which seems, on the face of it, so much easier to grasp than the mathematical ideas given us by Newton two centuries earlier - or, indeed, by Archimedes two millennia earlier? Many answers have been suggested. Perhaps minds were cowed by the sheer time it must take for great change to occur - by the mismatch between what we now call geological deep time and the lifespan and comprehension of the person trying to understand it. Perhaps it was religious indoctrination that held us back. Or perhaps it was the daunting complexity of a living organ such as an eye, freighted as it is with the beguiling illusion of design by a master engineer. Probably all those played a role. But Ernst Mayr, grand old man of the neo-Darwinian synthesis, who died in 2005 at the age of 100, repeatedly voiced a different suspicion. For Mayr, the culprit was the ancient philosophical doctrine of - to give it its modern name - essentialism. The discovery of evolution was held back by the dead hand of Plato.*
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