The Grand Old Man of Evolution
by Michael Shermer and Frank J. Sulloway
Mayr was born in Kempten, Germany, on July 5, 1904, making him, at age 95,
the grand old man of evolutionary biology, one of the primary architects of
the modem synthesis of genetic and evolutionary theory, and arguably one of
the most influential scientists of the 20th century. His career interests
have spanned a remarkable five different fields, including: (1) ornithology,
(2) systematics, (3) zoogeography, (4) evolutionary theory, and (5)
philosophy and history of science. Such broad research interests grew from
his education at a German Gymnasium (the equivalent of American high
school, but at that time considerably more demanding), followed by a
Candidacy in Medicine at the University of Greifswald in 1925 and a Ph.D. in
zoology at the University of Berlin in 1926.
His lab training was quickly followed by three field
expeditions: (1) the Rothschild Expedition to Dutch New Guinea in 1928, (2)
the University of Berlin expedition to the Mandated Territory of New Guinea
in 1929, and (3) the American Museum of Natural History Whitney Expedition
to the Solomon islands in 1930. Upon his return from the field, Mayr landed
a position as Curator of the Whitney-Rothschild Collection at the American
Museum of Natural History in New York from 1932-1953, after which he began
his long tenure at Harvard University in zoology from 1953 to the present,
where he continues to make the trip into work several days a week.
Although Mayr is less well-known to the general public
than Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson, or Stephen Jay Gould, his impact on his
science has been both deep and far-reaching, and has been appropriately
honored with membership in 45 scientific societies, 14 lectureships and
visiting professorships, 16 honorary degrees, (including those from such
prestigious institutions as the University of Bologna, Oxford and Cambridge
Universities), and 20 special awards, including the Wallace Darwin Medal of
the Linnean Society in 1958, the Darwin Medal from the Royal Society in
1984, the Sarton Medal of the History of Science Society in 1986, and the Barzan Prize, the
Lewis Thomas Prize, and the
Crawfoord Prize in 1999.
He has authored a remarkable 21 books, 13 by himself, four
co-authored, and four edited or co-edited, many of which have become classics
in the field, including:
and the Origin of Species (1942),
Species and Evolution (1963),
of Biological Thought (1982),
New Philosophy of Biology (1988), and, his latest
Biology (1997). He has
staggering 704 scientific papers for an average of 9.3 papers per year since
1925, and he has three more books in the works and numerous papers in press.
Mayr married Margarete Simon in 1935 (deceased in 1990).
He has two daughters, five grandchildren, and eight great grandchildren. One
of us (FJS) studied under Mayr at Harvard. Sulloway first met Mayr in 1967,
when, as a junior at Harvard College, Sulloway was organizing the
Harvard-Darwin Expedition to South America in order to make a series of
films about Darwin's voyage. Mayr graciously agreed to chair the project's
advisory committee, and he was later one of the readers of Sulloway's senior
honor's thesis on Darwin and the Beagle's voyage. As a graduate
student at Harvard, Sulloway took a seminar course in evolutionary theory
taught by Mayr (together with Stephen Jay Gould), and he also served as
Mayr's teaching assistant in several other courses. Mayr became Sulloway's
closest and most influential mentor (Mayr privately told Shermer that
Sulloway was the best student he ever had), and Sulloway's first book,
Freud, Biologist of the Mind: Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend (1979),
was dedicated to Mayr.
We caught up with Mayr between work at Harvard and an
evening lecture on evolution at his retirement community, on a beautiful
fall New England day as he reflected on the great scientific issues of his
long and esteemed career.
Skeptic: Historians are interested in the
influence of family background on the development of a scientist's ideas, so
we thought we might start by asking you to reflect on your own family and
Mayr: I was a very lucky boy. I was the
middle of three brothers, and my parents were very much interested in nature.
My father was a judge, my mother was a housewife, as was the norm in those
days, and both were very intelligent and thoughtful people. Every Sunday we
went on a nature hike from our little German town, Würzburg. My parents knew
the flora and fauna of the areathey knew every mushroom in the woods,
where the heron colony lived, and so on. So I was raised as a young
naturalist, and this is very important because when you look at the people
usually mentioned as the architects of the original synthesis [the
evolutionary synthesis of paleontology and genetics]Theodosius
Dobzhansky, Julian Huxley, G. Ledyard Stebbins, myself, and so forthwe
all started out as young naturalists, or as Darwin said of himself, we're
"born a naturalist." The one exception was (George Gaylord Simpson, who
didn't take an interest in nature until he was a senior in college. He was
an English literature major before he switched to science. As a result, he
never really understood the species concept because he didn't have a
personal acquaintance with nature.
Skeptic: So you feel that in order to really
understand evolution on a deep level you have to have a passion for nature
from having been involved in it directlyit's not something you can pick
up in a textbook.
Mayr: Very few people succeed in picking it
up later, and if they do it is only one side of nature. Birdwatchers, for
example, know a handful of species very well but they may not know the
Skeptic: Darwin once wrote: "About thirty
years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not
theorize. I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as
well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours.
How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for
or against some view if it is to be of any service!" How does one make the
transition from being a pebble counter to a theoretician?
Mayr: The transition happens automatically
as you get older and develops from years of experience. You get a "feel" for
nature. For example, I'll be reading a paper in which the author makes some
observation and I'll think "no, that can't be," and that comes from
Skeptic: Why do some scientists, like
yourself, have a bent for the theoretical and others do not?
Mayr: I'm not sure, but in my case it came
from my education. I went to a German Gymnasium which was much more
demanding than American high schools, and they train students to ask
critical questions instead of just accumulating knowledge.
Skeptic: They taught you how to think?
Mayr: Yes, the emphasis was on principles
laid down by Wilhelm von Humboldt when he founded the University of Berlin
in 1810the whole idea was that our culture ultimately goes back to
the Greeks and that deep thinking comes from dealing with the most
fundamental questions about nature. I have always said that my achievements
are due to this heritage of the culture of the German Gymnasium.
Skeptic: Research shows that when children
lose a parent early in life that loss influences the way they develop as
thinkers; and oftentimes elder siblings become surrogate parents to their
younger siblings. How did the loss of your father when you were 12 affect
you and change the relationship with your older brother?
Mayr: The minute my father died my older
brother felt it was his duty to become the father of the family. But this
was the last thing I wantedI wasn't going to let him tell me what to
do and what not to do. And, of course, I wanted to excel over him, so even
though he was three years older I worked very hard as a student and even
finished before him, earning my Ph.D. at the age of 21.
Skeptic: How did those field expeditions
supplement your education?
Mayr: For two years I was in New Guinea,
and I was in the Solomon Islands for nine months, and I became a specialist
in ornithology. In fact, I came to the United States of America because the
Natural History Museum in New York had these fantastic collections from the
South Sea islands, but no specialist to work them up. When they looked
around for someone to hire, they found out that I was the most qualified.
That's how I came to be in America.
Skeptic: Were there social reasons to
emigrate to America as well?
Mayr: Oh yes. The Communists and the Nazis
were fighting, the Weimar Republic was trying to hang on, and there was a
lot of turmoil. I came to America in January of 1931 and although my position
at the American Museum of Natural History was a temporary one, I was very
anti-Nazi. So there was no way I could return. Fortunately, the museum
bought the greatest bird collection in the world from Lord Rothschild in
England280,000 bird skinsand they needed a curator, so it
immediately dropped into my lap.
Skeptic: In many ways your life and career,
have paralleled those of Darwin and Wallace, particularly with regard to your
three collecting expeditions. For you, were these explorations what the
Galapagos Islands were for Darwin and the Malay Archipelago was for Wallace?
Did you experience a scientific epiphany, or did your scientific ideas
Mayr: In New Guinea I could really study
evolutionary biology's two major problems. First the origin of
adaptationwhy do we have eyes and why do species interact as they do?
The second is the origin of diversitywhy do we have tiny bacteria and
giant sequoias, elephants and hummingbirds? When you work in islands you
can see the changes from island to island. In New Guinea you see this from
mountain to mountain. Every mountain had about the same number of bird
species, but they differed from range to range. And these two problems of
adaptation and diversity lead to solving the problem of the process of
speciation. This has been the major focus throughout my career, from my
first book, Systematics and the Origin of Species to the present.
And that book has just been reprinted after 54 years, which tells us that it
is a classic.
Skeptic: What you are saying is that in
order to property study evolution you need an intuitive feel for organisms
and ecosystems, and to acquire that you have to go there and see it.
Mayr: Correct. Geneticists studying guinea
pigs in cages cannot see the evolutionary process. To truly understand
species as independent separate reproductive communities you need to see them
in nature. These field experiences led me to produce a definition of a
biological species in 1945 which is still accepted today.
Skeptic: In fact one of us (MS) had to
memorize that definition in a course on evolutionary biology: "A species is a
group of actually or potentially interbreeding natural populations
reproductively isolated from other such populations." But this brings up the
question of whether the species level of classification represents something
that actually exists in nature. When you went to New Guinea you recruited the
assistance of indigenous peoples in capturing birds. In the process, you
learned a great deal from them about their knowledge of the various species
living in their local environment. Did the fact that they classified the
birds in a remarkably similar fashion to that of a professional ornithologist
convince you that "species" really do exist in nature and are not just
arbitrary units in the minds of biologists?
Mayr: Yes, that is what I mean about going
out into the field.
Skeptic: In his book Dinosaur Lives,
the paleontologist Jack Homer argues that the Linnaean classification system,
which was constructed with a creationist model in mind, is a significant
inhibitor to a deep understanding of evolution because these Linnaean "kinds"
imply a reproductively isolated fixity from other "kinds," thus making it
difficult to grasp species change over deep time. Horner argues that we should
think of organisms as variations, like ever-evolving computer software
programs, Hominid 7.1, 7.2, 7.3, and so on, where 7.1 = Homo erectus,
7.2 = Homo neanderthalensis, 7.3 = Homo sapiens. Is cladistics
a good solution to the Linnaean anti-evolutionary system?
Mayr: Let's not get into cladistics.
Cladistic claims lead to all sorts of conclusions that are misleading. If
we want to find out if a group of organisms is a species, we have to have
a method. We can divide them by common characteristics, which is sound.
When we classify we make classes, and classes are groups that have features
similar to each other. Cladism is a good system for determining phylogeny
and descent, but it is not a good classification of living organisms. I
accept cladistic analysis, which is a very good method to determine whether
the characteristics of a group were derived from a common ancestor, but
you cannot arrange things merely by descent without coming into total
conflict with degrees of similarity, which is the whole meaning of
Skeptic: You were born in 1904 when the
grand old man of biology was Alfred Russel Wallace, who was 84 (and who
would live to be 91). Evolutionary biology was still largely pursued by
naturalists and was mostly an observational enterprise. The theory was
still struggling for acceptance as a serious science. Looking back on the
century, give us your opinion on the most significant contributions to
evolutionary biology that have helped it to the status it holds today.
Mayr: The first one was the great debate
that led to the evolutionary synthesis. Dobzhanskys book in 1937,
Genetics and the Origin of
Species, was very crucial because he was a "born naturalist," became
a beetle specialist and so forth. Then at the age of 27 he came to America,
worked for 10 years in Morgan's lab where he learned all about the genetic
aspects of organisms, then combined the two.
Skeptic: Did Dobzhansky's book influence
your work significantly?
Mayr: It didn't change it, but it filled
in the gaps in my knowledge of genetics. Dobzhansky's book was still weak
in the diversity aspects. He made a good start on defining the isolating
mechanisms, but he erred by including geographic barriers among them. At
the time, however, everyone thought that now all the problems were solved.
And it was almost true. But there was still one major problem and that was
the relative role of the gene versus the individual. I accepted the
individual as the target of selection. Geneticists said that evolution is
a change in gene frequencies among populations. But this is nonsense.
Changes in gene frequencies are the result of evolution, not the
mechanism. By about 1970s the majority of evolutionary biologists
agreed that the individual was the primary target of selection.
Skeptic: What about group selection?
Mayr: George Williams and Richard Dawkins
have made a mistake, in my opinion, in completely rejecting group
selection. But we have to be careful here to define what we mean by a
group. There are different kinds of groups. There is one type of group
that is a target of selection, and that is the social group. Darwin knew
this and identified it very clearly in 1871 in The Descent of Man.
Hominid groups of hunter-gatherers were constantly competing with other
hominid groups; some were superior and succeeded and others were not. It
becomes quite clear that those groups who had highly cooperative and
altruistic individuals were more successful than the ones torn apart by
internal strife and egotism.
Skeptic: The social environment is as
important as the physical environment?
Mayr: The essential point is that if you are
altruistic and make your group more successful, you thereby also increase the
fitness of the altruistic individual (yourself)!
Skeptic: But isn't it still the individual
being selected for these characteristics, not the group?
Mayr: There is no question that the groups
that were most successful had these individuals that were cooperative and
altruistic, and those traits are genetic. But the group itself was the unit
that was selected.
Skeptic: You developed your theory of
allopatric speciation in the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1970s Niles Eldredge
and Stephen Jay Gould applied that to the fossil record and called it
punctuated equilibrium. Was this just a spin-off from what you had already
done? What was new in punctuated equilibrium?
Mayr: I published that theory in a 1954
of Genetic Environment and Evolution," in Huxley, J., A.C.
Hardy, and E.B. Ford, Eds., Evolution as a Process, London: Allen
and Unwin), and I clearly related it to paleontology. Darwin argued that
the fossil record is very incomplete because some species fossilize better
than others. But what I derived from my research in the South Sea Islands
is that in these isolated little populations it is much easier to make a
genetic restructuring because when the numbers are small it takes rather
few steps to become a new species. A small local population that changes
very rapidly. I noted that you are never going to find evidence of a small
local population that changed very rapidly in the fossil record. My
essential point was that gradual populational shifts in founder populations
appear in the fossil record as gaps.
Skeptic: Isn't that what Eldredge and
Gould argued in their 1972 paper, citing your 1963 book
Species and Evolution several times?
Mayr: Gould was my course assistant at
Harvard where I presented this theory again and again for three years. So
he knew it thoroughly. So did Eldredge. In fact, in his 1971 paper
Eldredge credited me with it. But that was lost over time.
Skeptic: Okay, but since you are also a
historian and philosopher of science surely you recognize that there is a
social factor herethe marketing and selling of an idea to a
community of scientists.
Mayr: There are two kinds of scientists:
media scientists and scientist's scientists. Gould, Dawkins and E.O. Wilson
are media scientists (in the sense of publishing for the public).
Skeptic: Hasn't Wilson taken your early
philosophy of biology distinction between how and why questions to the nth
degree in Consilience in looking for the ultimate causes of
Mayr: Wilson is difficult to evaluate. To
give him justice, he is a tremendous enthusiast. He is always euphoric. The
future is always beautiful. He's an evangelist, a scientific evangelist.
Skeptic: You are smiling when you say
Mayr: He's such a nice guy and so optimistic.
Maybe because I grew up in Germany where things always went wrong, and I lost
my father at a young age, I grew up to be a realist, maybe even a pessimist.
I can't make all these enormous predictions as Wilson does in his books.
Skeptic: How does evolution as a historical
science differ from experimental sciences?
Mayr: If you go to the literature in the
philosophy of science you read about how
experiment is the key to science. Hell no! Experiment in evolutionary biology is not
useful at all accept in certain cases. Darwin's method of asking "why" questions,
then developing historical analogies, is how we "test" evolutionary hypotheses. If
you want to explain why the dinosaurs became extinct you cannot run an
experiment. You construct a scenario and see how well it explains the data. Could
it have been microbes that wiped them out? Gradual environmental changes? A
meteor? You see which of these different scenarios best explains all the data.
If Wilson has taken anything of mine without giving
sufficient credit it would be the theory of island biogeography. You will
find papers by me in 1939 and 1941 about continuous colonization and
extinction. Wilson and MacArthur have even used figures that I published in
those papers, but nowhere do they say that this theory of theirs was similar
to mine. And the irony is that they may have never noticed the
Skeptic: Now wait a moment. Are you talking
about Robert MacArthur and E. 0. Wilson's theory of island biogeography? Are
you saying that it is a derivative of your own ideas?
Mayr: I published the fundamental principles
of that theory in 1939 and 1941. Others have pointed this out as well. It's
not just my claim. But MacArthur and Wilson probably didn't think they were
the same ideas because they believe something isn't scientific until it has
been translated into mathematics, which they did.
Skeptic: You mean the equilibrium model?
Mayr: Yes, but they didn't realize that this
is dangerous because there are too many exceptions and, of course, you can be
proven wrong. For example, they were wrong in their predictions about bird
colonization of Krakatoa and Hawaii. So Wilson wrote this paper that said
that island biogeography is dead. But because I did not make my ideas
mathematical they are still viable science.
Skeptic: Are you saying that they were wrong
because they gave incorrect figures, or that they were wrong to even be
making such specific predictions?
Mayr: The mistake is in thinking that
through mathematical formulae, you can arrive at the truth. That's wrong. I
used the naturalist's way of thinking and predicted that there should be,
say, 73 species colonizing or whatever. I didn't use any formula or
mathematics. I just used the empirical evidence. I find that this
invariably gives you better figures. The problem is the belief that
mathematics is the royal road to truth.
Skeptic: Is this a problem of physics envy
Mayr: Wilson is just full of physics envy.
Wilson was always trying to get mathematicians into the department. He's
entitled to that and he might have been right, but it turns out that he was
Skeptic: In 20th century philosophy and
history of science, the publication of Thomas Kuhn's classic work
Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) appears to mark a
watershed. One could almost say there was a paradigm shift in this field,
from science as progressivism to science as social constructivism. How
would you characterize this shift and, indeed, is this the watershed that
many think it is?
Mayr: Kuhn's description of how scientific
revolutions happen does not apply to any biological revolution. To be very
frank, I cannot understand how this book could have been such a success.
The general thesis was not new, and when he did assert specific claims he
was almost always wrong!
Kuhn's book mainly appealed to historians and social
scientists. It was they who built it up into a big thing. It was vague,
and vagueness always appeals to historians and social scientists.
Skeptic: Do the biological sciences need
a different explanation for how they developed?
Mayr: My recent book, This Is
Biology, if I say so myself, is in many ways quite revolutionary. I
don't think anyone before me has said quite so strongly, and documented so
carefully, the differences between the physical and biological sciences.
The physical sciences have characteristics to them that do not help us
understand the biological sciences, and the biological sciences have
characteristics to them that are not applicable to inanimate objects.
This is Biology should have had a much greater impact than Kuhn's
book. I get letters from scientists saying that This Is Biology has
changed their whole way of thinking about these problems, but the general
public doesn't even know about the book.
Skeptic: How has your personal study of
the history and philosophy of biology influenced the way you do science,
and how has the way you do science affected your interpretation of the
history of biology?
Mayr: The problem with the history of
science profession today is that historians have little training in the
sciences so they don't really understand the importance of the development
of scientific ideas. They give you all these different social and cultural
influences on a scientists thoughts, but not enough on the ideas themselves.
These historians need to take courses in biology so that they really
understand how these historical ideas fit into the larger picture of the
Michael Ruse, for example, is not trained as a biologist
so his knowledge of biology is limited. He says rather questionable things
and he does not realize that he is not fully qualified. Richard Lewontin is
brilliant, but his theorizing is affected by his Marxist political beliefs.
This is the problem with philosophy of science today. There needs to be more
science and less philosophy.
Skeptic: Do you acknowledge that social
influences do shape the development of a scientists' ideas? It seems fairly
clear, for example, that Darwin's idea of natural selection was indirectly
influenced by Adam Smith's concept of the invisible hand. Natural selection
is, in fact, the invisible hand of nature. But I suspect you would say that
it doesn't matter because it is a correct interpretation of nature.
Mayr: Well, actually, Darwin's metaphor of
selection turned out to be wrong. Natural selection is not a process of
selection, it is a process of elimination. Herbert Spencer, who was otherwise
usually wrong, had the right idea of the "survival of the fittest," defined
as those individuals that have certain characteristics that prevent them from
being eliminated. Nothing is being selected. Nature is just eliminating the
Skeptic: Um, that's a debatable point. Is
nature selecting for certain traits or selecting against other traits? It's
not just eliminating, it is also selecting for certain characteristics, such
as bigger brains. Or are you saying there was simply a selection against
Mayr: We have to be careful here to use the
right words. You have to make a distinction between selection of and
selection for. Certain individuals survived because they had certain
characteristics, but they weren't selected. The process consists of
eliminating all the others. There is also an important distinction between
natural selection and sexual selection. In sexual selection the female is
actually selecting males for certain traits, and this is different from
Skeptic: To you, all these debates about
selfish genes and group selection and punctuated equilibrium must seem like
minor variations on Darwin's grand idea.
Mayr: I've said this many times. Al these
discussions over the years haven't affected Darwin's basic ideas one bit.
The only change I make is that I consider the production of variation as
part of natural selection. They are inseparable. Each is meaningless without
the other. Natural selection is a two-step process: (1) variations produce
and (2) variations sorted, with the elimination of the less fit so that you
end up with a "selection" of the best.
Skeptic: Looking forward as well as back,
what's important now in evolutionary theory, and what do you anticipate on
Mayr: The basic theory has not really
changed in the last 30-50 years, and I have a very strong feeling that it
isn't going to change much in the next 30-50 years. We are fine-tuning the
theory, for example, gaining a deeper understanding of the genetics of
evolutionary change. If you look through the most prestigious scientific
journals in evolutionary biology today, just about every paper is devoted
to some aspect of DNA.
Skeptic: Outside of evolutionary theory,
what are some of the great mysteries remaining to be solved?
Mayr: Where are the greatest gaps in our
(1.) The brain. We understand neurons remarkably well.
What we don't understand is their interactions. Just how do the billions
of neurons in my brain remember my childhood experiences? What
constellation of connections between neurons triggered some memory that
was previously hidden? This business of the interaction of the components
of complex systems is a field with an exciting future.
(2.) In a similar way there are still problems to solve
in understanding embryonic development and how genes code for cellular
differentiation. And how does the environment of the surrounding tissues
affect that development? There is much work here still to be done.
(3.) Ecosystems: How do different species interact in a
complex ecosystem to produce equilibrium and change?
Skeptic: Let's stift to another hot topic
in the field sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. Are these just
spin-offs from Darwin?
Mayr: I don't use the word sociobiology.
Neither do people like William Hamilton, Richard Alexander, or Robert
Trivers. I think Wilson was envious, in fact, that others had contributed to
the evolutionary synthesis, so he wanted to create another great synthesis.
So he nominated social behavior as a candidate and called it a synthesis.
Skeptic: Surely you don't object to the
principle of applying Darwinian thinking to studying social behavior?
Mayr: Lots of people were already doing
that. And, furthermore, look at his sociobiologymost of that was
already done before by ethologists. And he left out a lot. He neglected
the establishment and maintenance of social rank order. He completely
ignored the study of social migrations, which had been done for
decadesthis is the study of social behavior. So he singled out
portions, what I call selection for reproductive success, and calls it
Skeptic: Let's look at this from a
historical perspective. It seems that the first couple of people into a
field lay the groundwork for all the rest to follow. Yet because people
like Wilson and Gould and Dawkins are extremely bright and have healthy
egos, they want to make major contributions. But it's almost as if you
are saying that they can't because the first ones into the field already
Mayr: I'm sure there are areas where you can
still make major contributions, but they just happened not to pick the right
areas! Gould, for example, has this big volume on evolution soon to come out.
So over the years he has launched these trial balloons to see how they float.
For example, his original punctuated equilibrium paper largely followed my
1954 paper. But then in 1980 he came out with
another version that was very saltational,
and deemed that it completely refuted the evolutionary synthesis, and that we
need to revive Goldschmidt,
and all that. This was total nonsense. Then five years later he revised it
again and you don't see a word about Goldschmidt and saltation in his recent
writing. That's what makes people like Gould unpopular. He should understand
that. As for his fight with the British about contingency, well, they are
both right if you look at it in the light of the two-step process of natural
selection of variation produced and variation selected, there is an element
of predictability and randomness in both. I fully endorse adaptation, but
like Gould I strongly endorse the frequency of contingency.
Skeptic: It seems like ego and personality
can sometimes get in the way of resolving these great debates.
Mayr: That's why I spoke of the media
scientists. That's a problem. On the occasion of my 94th birthday a German
newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which
is the New York Times of Germany, wrote an article about
me. When he interviewed scientists in the field he got comments of the highest
praise, such as "one of the leading scientists in the world" but when the
author talked to the man in the street they never heard of me.
Skeptic: So you feel you have not gotten the
recognition your ideas deserve.
Mayr: Of course I have received enormous
recognition by peers. Just look at the list of my honors, but I don't write
for recognition. I've often been asked to write popular books, or my
autobiography, but these would only interfere with what I see as more
important scientific research. I'm not after that kind of recognition. I
have been disappointed that the public isn't more discriminating.
Skeptic: Looking back, who were the two or
three most influential people on your career and your thinking as a
scientist? Who were your heroes?
Mayr: As a student, ornithologist Erwin
Stresernann was my hero. Later on Dobzhansky. Now? I would have to say
Skeptic: To what do you attribute Darwin's
Mayr: First he was a brilliant observer.
Everything he saw he asked questions about. He wanted to know why things were
a certain way. He was always asking questions. Then he let the facts speak
for themselves. Plus, of course, he was very intelligent.
Skeptic: But why Darwin and not Lyell or
Huxley or one of the other brilliant men of the age?
Mayr: Because they were unable to see the
data in a new light. Lyell was never quite able to accept the idea of
evolution even in the face of the overwhelming evidence. Darwin was able to
give up his preconceived ideas in the face of new evidence. Most people
cannot do that. Then he had this incredible curiosity. Read the Voyage of the Beagle again. On every page he asks
questions. With every new place they visited he asked questions. He was not
a narrow specialist. He was interested in everything. In that respect I am
very similar to Darwin. All my life I have been interested in a wide variety
of ideas and subjects.
Skeptic: What is the proper relation between
science and religion? Where do they intersect, if at all, and where are they
Mayr: Well, I have a different definition of
religion. All my atheist friends are deeply religious. They don't believe in
God or anything supernatural, but they believe that they don't live in this
world just to have a good time, but to improve mankind.
Skeptic: Do you consider yourself a humanist?
Mayr: Yes, I do.
Skeptic: You don't believe in God, but are you
an agnostic or an atheist?
Mayr: I have the honesty to say I'm an
atheist. There is nothing that supports the idea of a personal God. On the
other hand, famous evolutionists such as Dobzhansky were firm believers in a
personal God. He would work as a scientist all week and then on Sunday get
down on his knees and pray to God.
Skeptic: What accounts for this style of
Mayr: Frankly I've never been able to
understand it because you would need two totally different compartments in
your brain, one that deals with religion and the other with everything
Skeptic: What can we expect from your pen
Mayr: I'm working
on three more books. I've got one coming out soon with Jared Diamond on the
northern Melanesia. Then I've written a short book, entitled simply
that will be for general readers. And I'm doing a hermeneuticsa type of
content analysisevery sentence Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species,
to see where he changed his mind and how he developed his ideas.
Skeptic: Someday someone is going to write
your biography. How would you most like to be remembered as a scientist?
Mayr: One of the things that most people
don't see is that basically I'm a modest person. They think I'm a great
egotist and pusher of my own ideas. But I'm a humble man. I just want to
understand nature and make a contribution to the body of knowledge about the
natural world. And nothing else.
I will add that except for losing my father when I was 12,
and my wife a few years ago, I've been an extraordinarily lucky person.
Skeptic: As has science for the contributions
of Ernst Mayr. Thank you.
[ "The Grand old Man of Evolution: An interview with evolutionary biologist
Ernst Mayr," Interview by Michael Shermer and Frank J. Sulloway,
Skeptic 8 (January 2000): 76-82. ]
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