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Biographical Sketch

On March 23, 1923, a young German medical student named Ernst Mayr chanced to spot a pair of very rare ducks—the 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
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 ornithology.

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 the spot.

Within the year, Ernst Mayr had traveled through six unexplored New 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 time—a 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 speciation.

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 rare birds.

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 interesting.

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 species.

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 established—the 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 "peripatric 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 history—a 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, The 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 evolutionary biology."

    "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 contribution—in awakening in thousands, if not millions, of his readers an enthusiasm for the secrets of this wonderful world of ours."

    "This View of Stephen Jay Gould" Natural History 108 (Nov. 1999): 54.

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