On March 23, 1923, a young German medical student named Ernst Mayr
chanced to spot a pair of very rare ducksthe first fateful "accident" of a
brilliant, unplanned and unexpected career. Recently graduated from the Dresden
secondary school, he had thought his life was set: to follow the four-generation family
tradition of successful physicians. He certainly did not expect to become an explorer,
naturalist, ornithologist, philosopher-historian of science, Harvard professor and one
of the 20th century's greatest evolutionary biologists. The ducks changed everything.
Ernst Mayr, Harvard.
A birdwatcher since childhood, Mayr had
bicycled into the countryside on spring break to hike around the wooded parklands and
lakes of Moritzburg, a former hunting preserve of Saxon kings. When the two ducks with
brilliant red bills and crests swam into view, he realized they were extraordinary.
Immediately he cycled back to Dresden, but was unable to find anyone to come and
confirm his sighting. Upon checking bird books, he discovered they were red-crested
pochards, a species not seen by anyone in nearly 80 years.
When he told his birdwatching friends of his
discovery, no one believed him, and the young man felt totally crushed. At a party
soon after, he poured out his heart to a stranger, a pediatrician, and told him the
duck story. Improbably, the man knew the greatest ornithologist in Berlin, one
Professor Erwin Stresemann, and promptly wrote a letter of introduction. But when
Mayr journeyed to Berlin, he received a rough reception. Stresemann quizzed him
mercilessly, probed his knowledge of natural history and asked to see his prior
notes and journals of field observations. At last convinced that Mayr was a
firstrate observer, he published the sighting as genuine.
Impressed with the young man, Stresemann invited him to work in
the Berlin Museum that summer as a volunteer, classifying bird specimens received
from the tropics. Fascinated by the rain-forest wildlife, Mayr thought he was "given
the keys to heaven" and continued to work at the museum during breaks from medical
school. Just before he was to receive his degree, his mentor Stresemann offered to
send him to the tropics, if he delayed his medical career and earned a doctorate in
By age 21, Mayr had earned that doctorate and accompanied
Stresemann to the International Zoological Congress at Budapest in 1927, where he
was introduced to Lord Walter Rothschild, titular head of the wealthy European
banking family. At his own private museum at Tring, in Hartfordshire, England,
Rothschild was assembling the world's largest and most comprehensive bird
collection. Again, Mayr benefited from a well-timed accident of circumstance.
Rothschild's staff naturalist in New Guinea had suddenly died after many years of
service, and he was desperately seeking a new bird collector. Mayr was hired on
Within the year, Ernst Mayr had traveled through six unexplored
Guinea mountain ranges, eventually collecting 3,400 bird skins and discovering
38 new species of orchids. In 1930, while suffering from malaria and dysentery in
his mountain camp, he received an urgent invitation to join an expedition to
the West South Seas sponsored by the American philanthropist Harry Payne Whitney.
Again, Mayr was in the right place at the right timea week before departure,
the expedition had suddenly found itself without a leader. He accepted.
The Whitney South Seas Expedition was an epic scientific
adventure, which made important contributions to biology, discovered scores of new
species and provided the American Museum of Natural History with the materials for
a new hall. In 1931, after collecting in the Solomon Islands, Mayr was hired to
come to New York and work with the bird specimens at the museum. He asked his
chairman, Frank Chapman, what he should do first. Chapman replied, "You've been
cracked up to me as an expert on South Sea island birds. You should know what you
should be doing." "I had been raised in the Central European tradition where the
boss tells you what to do next," Mayr recalled years later, "and I was shattered
by such freedom."
In his first year at the museum, Mayr published a dozen papers,
describing scores of new species and subspecies. The following year Rothschild's
curator retired; Mayr was invited to take charge of the collection at Tring. There
he worked up a series of related species from different islands, a convincing and
dramatic demonstration of geographic
In 1936, he invited the evolutionary geneticist
Theodosius Dobzhansky to study the
series. He was impressed and Mayr's study influenced Dobzhansky's important book
Genetics and the Origin of
Species (1937), the founding work of the Synthetic Theory of evolution.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Mayr collaborated with Dobzhansky, Julian Huxley, and
George Gaylord Simpson to help formulate the
modern evolutionary synthesis, incorporating new discoveries by naturalists and
population geneticists into the framework of Darwinian theory.
Mayr might have stayed on as Rothschild's curator at Tring, but
for another "great accident." Rothschild had been involved with a married, titled
woman who was now blackmailing him with threats of a family scandal. Her merciless
and increasing demands for large sums of money ruined Rothschild, forcing him
first to cut back on staff and finally to sell off his beloved and precious
collection. New York's American Museum of Natural History purchased 280,000 bird
skins from Rothschild, courtesy of the Whitney family, in the hardest year of the
Depression. Mayr helped pack and ship 185 cases, each containing 7,000 skins of
Mayr then returned to the New York museum to continue his work
on speciation, and published an influential study on organic diversity, based on
a series of bird species collected in the Solomon Islands and Fiji. With the
island's robins, he was able to show that different colors among sexes are not
determined by sex hormones, but by geographic isolation. On one island, both
sexes of the robin species were drably colored; on the next island they were both
brightly colored; on still another the male was bright and the female drab. His
lectures on this research were well received at scientific meetings. But Mayr has
claimed he was then invited to give the prestigious Jessup Lectures at Columbia
University only because at one meeting at which he spoke, the preceding speaker
(the brilliant geneticist Sewall
Wright) had seemed particularly dull. According to Mayr, Wright had turned
his back to the audience and mumbled inaudibly as he filled a blackboard with
mathematical equations, thus making Mayr's presentation appear even more
Mayr was asked to give two lectures on "Speciation in Animals"
at Columbia, while a botanist, E. Anderson, was to give two on plants; the
lectures were to be published together as a book. But Anderson, who suffered from
manic-depression, was unable to submit his lectures, and Mayr was asked to fill
in the rest of the volume. It became Systematics and the Origin of Species
(1942), an unplanned but influential classic that redefined species in terms of
breeding populations. If two subpopulations of geese that look alike are in
contact but do not interbreed, they are considered separate species. On the other
hand, the snow goose and the blue goose look very different and were considered
different species. But when naturalists found that they flock together and
interbreed, they were reclassified as color phases belonging to a single
Building on his decades of familiarity with island populations
of birds, Mayr advanced a general theory (in 1954) of how
species evolve. Either through the appearance of geographic barriers or by a few
"founders" settling in a new area beyond the species' customary range, a very
small population can become establishedthe first step toward reproductive
isolation. Over time the little colony inbreeds, local conditions exert their
selective pressures, and descendants become increasingly different from their
ancestral population. If they are ever reunited, the two populations may no
longer be capable of interbreeding or producing viable offspring. This kind of
rapid evolution at the edge of a species' range (technically called
evolution") was emphasized by Mayr in the 1950s, and became one of the
foundations for the punctuated
equilibrium theory of Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould in the 1970s.
The apparent quickness of such evolutionary change, however, is only from the
geologist's long perspective. In fact, it is gradual and occurs over many
thousands of generations.
Amused at the chancy, undirected path of his own career, Mayr
enjoys describing it in terms of contingent historya process that parallels
evolution itself. Had Rothschild's former lover not blackmailed him, Mayr might
have spent his life at Tring in England and never had contact with Columbia and
Harvard, which eventually led him from his work as taxonomist (classifier) to
historian of science, to philosopher of evolution. Had Wright not been such an
inaudible speaker at the meetings, had Rothschild's field collector not died, had
Mayr not seen those rare ducks or met the pediatrician who knew the ornithologist,
he claims he would not have had his remarkable career at all.
[ Richard Milner,
Encyclopedia of Evolution, NY: Facts on File, 1990, pp. 295-297. ]
Ernst Mayr on Gould
"The widespread neglect of the role of speciation in macroevolution
continued until Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould (1972) proposed their theory of
punctuated equilibria. Whether one accepts this theory, rejects it, or greatly
modifies it, there can be no doubt that it had a major impact on paleontology and
"Speciational Evolution or Punctuated
Equilibria" In Albert Somit and Steven Peterson, The Dynamics of Evolution.
New York: Cornell University Press, 1992, pp. 23-24.
"The importance of such contraints was, however,
neglected after 1900, when the geneticists thought of evolution as a matter of genes
rather than of whole organisms. And for this reason it has been whloesome that authors
such as Gould and Lewontin (1979) have again called attention to the power of the
constraints on selection."
"An analysis of the concept of natural selection," Toward a New Philosophy of
Biology. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1988, p. 106.
"What is particularly delightful about Steve's
writing is the virtuosity with which he connects seemingly unrelated subjects to
illuminate and strengthen his arguments. Whether right or wrong, Steve is always
stimulating, and this is perhaps where he has made his greatest contributionin
awakening in thousands, if not millions, of his readers an enthusiasm for the secrets
of this wonderful world of ours."
View of Stephen Jay Gould" Natural History 108 (Nov. 1999): 54.
[ More Quotations ]
Articles and Essays by Mayr
[ Bibliography ]
Biographical and Scientific Profiles
- Ernst Mayr (1904–2005): by Jared Diamond, Nature
- Ernst Mayr, a Retrospective: by William Provine, Trends in Ecology and Evolution
- Ernst Mayr, 1904–2005: Remembrances & Tribute: by Frank Sulloway, eSkeptic
- Eulogy: Ernst Mayr 1904-2005: by Michael Ruse, Biology and Philosophy
- Ernst Mayr, Biologist Extraordinaire: by Lynn Margulis, American Scientist
- In Memoriam, Ernst Mayr, 1904-2005: by Walter J. Bock, The Auk
- Seminal Evolutionist Ernst Mayr Dies: by Patrcia Sullivan, The Telegraph
- On the Importance of Being Ernst Mayr: by Axel Meyer, PLoS Biology
- Evolutionary Biologist Ernst Mayr Dies at Age 100: by Joe Palca, NPR
- Ernst Mayr: Veteran biologist who synthesised Darwin's theory: from The Times
- Ernst Mayr, giant among evolutionary biologists, dies at 100: by Steve Bradt, Harvard Gazette
- An appreciation of biologist Ernst Mayr (1904-2005): by Walter Gilberti, World Socialist
- Ernst Mayr, evolutionary biologist, died on February 3rd, aged 100: from The Economist
- Ernst Mayr was ‘Darwin of the 20th century’: from Reuters
- Evolution pioneer dies aged 100: from BBC News
[ Remembrances ]
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