Obituary: Ernst Mayr 1904-2005
By Michael Ruse
Biology and Philosophy, 20 (2005): 623–631.
Ernst Mayr has died at the very old age of one hundred. It is hard to imagine that he is gone. I remember back in 1970 at a conference in Indiana, where Mayr rather dominated the discussion. I thought at the time: "Well, we won't have to put up with this much longer." It was not the last time or the only way in which I was very much mistaken about Ernst Mayr.
Ernst Mayr was born in Germany, in Bavaria. His father was a lawyer, but the family tradition was medicine and it was that profession towards which young Ernst was directed. He was a keen bird watcher and, through this, was diverted to a lifetime career as a professional biologist. German universities when Mayr was a young man were incredibly hierarchical. His professor (Erwin Stresemann) told him that, because there was another bright young scholar (Bernhard Rensch) ahead of him, there was little chance of the coveted professorship, and that hence he should seek other pastures. Mayr went west, and for the next two decades worked at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
For many reasons, this was an incredibly fortunate move. First, he was now working with one of the greatest collections of bird skins in the world. He was able to study variation in detail and range in a way that was impossible for virtually anyone else. He met and became close friends with a group of men who were determined to put evolutionary studies on a new and proper foundation. Most important of all was the Russian-born geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, closely followed by the brilliant paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson. He met Gretaa fellow Germanwho was to become his wife. And, more than anything, he missed the rise of the Nazis, and the corruption that that brought to his homeland.
As a student in Germany, Mayr had been rather disdainful of evolution. I do not mean that he was not an evolutionisthe never had any doubts on that score. It was just that he did not really think it a proper subject for a professional biologist. This may seem strange, and even stranger is the fact that the man who was to become one of the dominating figures of neo-Darwinism was at this time a committed Lamarckianhe believed that the main causal force was the inherited of acquired characteristics. In fact, the odd thing would have been if Mayr had thought evolution worthy of study by an ambitious young biologist, or had he been other than a Lamarckian. For all that Darwin, back in the mid-nineteenth century, had discovered the mechanism of natural selectionthe survival of the fittestevolution had been captured by those (Herbert Spencer, Ernst Haeckel, Thomas Henry and grandson Julian Huxley) who were determined to make evolution into a kind of secular alternative to the dominant Christianity. It was at best an inferior science and at worst a vehicle on which any enthusiast could hang wild metaphysical theories and hypotheses. Selection was thought a minor factor in significant change, and Lamarckism was one of the favored alternatives.
Theodosius Dobzhansky changed all of that. He was captivated by the adaptive landscape metaphor of Sewall Wright, and used it as the basis of Genetics and the Origin of Species, his paradigm-making survey of the forces of organic change, first given as lectures at Columbia University in 1936 and then published as a book the year following. As everyone knows, Dobzhansky was an enthusiast, gathering up co-workers and students. Mayr was brought into the circle, and at Dobzhansky's urgings gave his own lectures, and published the result as Systematics and the Origin of Species in 1942.
By this time, everyone was starting to see selection as the most important force for change, and Mayr's book reflected that. His main contribution was to demonstrate beyond doubt the variation that exists in nature, and how everything points to gradual changea key plank in the Darwinian program. Particularly important was the evidence of groups that range all the way from good species (interbreeding populations, isolated from others), to species-in the-making, with subgroups starting to break apart, and on to fully defined separate species. Although Mayr's actual examples have been challenged by later biologists, really significant were so-called "rings of races" where on has a chain of groups (sub species) touching and interbreeding, except at the ends that come together (completing the circle) where the touching groups behave as distinct species.
The work of Dobzhansky and Mayr and Simpson (who published the paleontological contribution, Tempo and Mode in Evolution, in 1944) collectively founded what came to be known in America as the "Synthetic Theory of Evolution" and in Britain as "Neo-Darwinism." (The botanical contribution was delayed. Edgar Anderson was supposed to write ithe gave lectures at Columbia at the same time as Mayrbut proved unable to produce the book. Dobzhansky then recruited G. Ledyard Stebbins, who published Variation and Evolution in Plants in 1950.)
One must take some care however to understand the synthetic theory and Mayr's contribution to it. Most obviously the theory is an updating of Darwin's theory in the Origin. There, Darwin offered what his mentor, the great historian and philosopher of science William Whewell, called a "consilience of inductions." First Darwin presented and justified his causal heart, evolution through natural selection. Then he used this to explain biological phenomena across a wide range of subjectsinstinct, paleontology, geographical distribution, morphology, embryology, and more. He argued that the success in explanation in turn provides confirmation of the unifying mechanism.
Following Sewall Wright's work in population genetics, showing how Mendelism blends with selection, apparently Dobzhansky and the others worked in the tradition of Darwin, using population genetics (especially as incorporated in the adaptive landscape) as the updated version of Darwin's presentation of natural selection. Then, Dobzhansky having put empirical flesh on Sewall Wright's theoretical skeleton, the other synthesizers worked on the rangeMayr on biogeographical distribution, Simpson on paleontology, and so forth.
There is a lot of truth in this picture, although one should not over-emphasize the extent to which Wright and the early Dobzhansky were enthused by natural selection. Sewall Wright was (following both his own father and his Harvard teacher, L. J. Henderson) an ardent Spencerian, and for him upward progress and the balance between homogeneity and heterogeneity was what really counted. Selection was secondary, drift was highlighted, and the same was true for Dobzhansky in the first edition of Genetics and the Origin of Species. It was around 1940 that everything became a lot more selectionist, when Dobzhansky discovered synchronic chromosome changes in separate populations of fruitflies. Selection can explain these and drift cannot.
Mayr fits into this picture, but rather uncomfortably. The adaptive landscape model is there, but it is not dominant. Mayr used to deny (to me, very often) that he really cared about the model at allhe said that he just dropped it in to keep others happy. This is not quite true, but it is true that Mayr was not doing what Simpson was doing, namely trying to complete the neo-Darwinian picture as sketched above. Mayr was still fighting the battles of the 1920s in Germany. There, the big enemies of naturalists like himself were the geneticists. They were arguing that really significant change is caused by macromutations, jumps from one form to another. Mayr and his fellows knew that this could not be truenature showed them that there was gradual change.
This was the battle that Mayr was still fighting in Systematics and the Origin of Species. In fact, Germany had come to New York. One of the leading scientific refugees from the Nazi oppression was Richard Goldschmidt, who was arguing strongly for macromutations and jumpswhat are known in the trade as "saltations." Mayr took him on and wrestled him to the ground. In fact, there was a satisfying personal element here. Goldschmidt was a distinguished Herr Professor. Mayr was an upstart, a museum worker. (Hard to imagine him in this role, but it is true.) Personally they got on wellMayr loved to tell the tale of taking Goldschmidt home one Saturday lunch for soup prepared by Gretabut fighting this battle was for Mayr very much (to change metaphors) very much a matter of winning his spurs.
The battle also helps to explain what always struck me as a rather curious feature of Mayr's attitude to his science. For all that genetics was fundamental to the synthetic theory, and for all that in the early 1950s Mayr himself extended Sewall Wright's thinkingSewall Wright said that Mayr pinched Sewall Wright's thinkingabout the significance for evolution of isolated groups that undergo genetic revolutions and rapidly become new species (the so-called "founder principle"), Mayr was forever rude about and belittling of genetics. Not molecular genetics, so much, as Mendelian genetics. He spoke of it contemptuously as "beanbag genetics" (causing J. B. S. Haldane to speak in favour of beanbag genetics), he excoriated its reductionistic nature, and somewhat pettily when in the early 1970s he organized two major conferences on the founding of the synthetic theory, he did not invite Sewall Wright.
It would be easy to say simply that it was all simply personalfor the record, I think the founder principle does come out of Sewall Wright's work, but that Mayr deserves full credit for its development and application (and, for all that today evolutionists are questioning its significance, that the principle has proved itself a very important guide to productive research). It would be truer to say that the roots of Mayr's hostility lies back in the battles when he was a student and genetics was the enemy of naturalists, rather than the foundation of modern evolutionary theory.
It would be unfair to say that after Systematics and the Origin of Species, the rest of Mayr's career was simply footnotes and appendices. Apart from the founder principle, he was a very important systematist, working on the theory of classification. It is true that around him grew up the new taxonomic approach of phylogenetic systematics or cladism, and Mayr could never buy into this. In fact, in respects he became the Goldschmidt for the new generation of Young Turks. But without genetics, Mayr could not have been what he is, and I suspect that without Mayr modern taxonomy could not be what it is. However, one does sense that after Systematics and the Origin of Species, to use yet another metaphor Mayr was skiing down the other side. In 1963 he published a major synthesis, Animal Species and Evolution, but it was more a synthesis of what had been done than a work to inspire for the future.
Conceptually that is. Because Mayr was now about to make an even more significant contribution to twentieth-century, evolutionary biology. The 1940s saw major moves by the evolutionists to bring workers together and to make a formal discipline from and for evolutionary studiesa journal, a society, grants, students, jobs, and the rest. Mayr was in the thick of things. He was the first editor of the new journal Evolution, and showing that he was German in more things than one, whether accepting papers or rejecting them, he never wrote a sentence when a paragraph would do. He ran the society. Once, somewhat sardonically he said to me: "Unlike my good friends Dobzhansky and Simpson, I never thought that the only position I could take in an organization was that of president." He moved to Harvardthe immigrant boy made good, as Dobzhansky once said of himself and Mayrand worked unceasingly to promote organismic biology at that institution, at a time when the molecular biologists were all conquering, and not very nice about it either.
To quote Ed Wilson: "Jim Watson? The most unpleasant man I ever knew." (Actually, one of Mayr's daughters dated Watson for a while. Although more on this topic in a moment.) The fact is that without Ernst Mayr we would not have the professional discipline of evolutionary biology that we have today. I do not mean that nothing would existothers were organizing, including Dobzhansky with his many students and (over in England) E B "Henry" Ford was also showing himlsef a master of organization and funding finding. But without Mayr, things would simply not be as well developed as they are now.
But Mayr had many more years of active life. Even last year he was scrounging one of my books from our shared publisher, Harvard University Press, so that he could put the boot into me one more time before he was done. By about 1960, Mayr was starting to move interests from pure science to its history and its philosophy. I know only second-hand about the history, although I do know that he was much involved in the development of the History of Science department at Harvard, he worked hard to promote the careers of young scholars (Frank Sulloway, notably), he himself organized the above mentioned conferences on the history of the synthetic theory (and then co-edited with Will Provine the collection of the proceedings) and Mayr was one of those who worked hard to get the Journal of the History of Biology off the ground.
Mayr himself was much interested in the history of biology and eventually was to write a massive work on the history of evolutionary biology, the only volume of what had been intended to be a complete history of the life sciences. When he had finished the evolutionary side, he realized that he had said what he wanted to say. For one should never think of Mayr as interested in history for its own sake. He was always writing for a purposea purpose that I would describe as philosophical.
As a student in Germany, Mayr had studied the classics of philosophyand he came from the cultured middle-classes, where discussion of philosophical issues would have been normal rather than a sign of pretensionand so, at one level, philosophy was part of his very being. But, by about 1960, it became much more. It became a tool in his fight for his vision of the life sciences, where evolution took an honored and central place. (When Dobzhansky said that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, he was not just making an epistemological claim. He was making a political statement. A war cry to rally the troops.)
I have said that I never sensed in Mayr's attitude towards molecular biology, the deep hostility he felt to the genetics of the 1920s. Early fights and hatred run more deeply and last forever. I have disliked people in my life, but never with the visceral hatred that I still feel towards my headmaster. (Mark you, he was late middle-aged, and I suspect his feelings about me prove the exception to what I have just said about early experiences causing the really deep antagonism.) However, whatever the ordering of the threats that Mayr felt, it is undoubtedly true that with good reason he could see that by 1959the year of the centenary of the Origin and of the celebration of the triumph of neo-Darwinismthe molecular biologists were grabbing all of the goodies.
Not just the Nobel prizes, but the students and grants and research space and much more. The biology of whole organisms was being pushed aside. (Read Jim Watson's Double Helix if you want more proof.) Mayr was ever a fighter. He was not about to sit by and let this happen. He turned to philosophy to prove that organismic biology will always have a place in the sciences, that it cannot simply be subsumed underabsorbed intothe molecular sciences, of physics and chemistry. In other words, he started a fight against what he saw as unwarranted reductionism. Not because he was a Marxist (like Steve Gould and Dick Lewontin in the decades later), but because he wanted to preserve the autonomy of those parts of the life sciences that had evolutionary thought as central. If he could make his case, then biology as he knew it could continue to survive and flourish.
And so from Mayr, as from others working alongside him (notably Simpson), we got a stream of articles and writings and conference interjections promoting the autonomy of whole-organism biology. We learnt that (unlike the physical sciences) it has a differentiating historical dimensions, that it deals with unique phenomena, and that above all it is teleologicalforward-looking. Although, in a clever move, realizing that teleology has a bad name in biologyMayr himself battered would-be contributors to Evolution for teleological tendencieshe took up the name of "teleonomy." This is sanitized teleologyforward-looking, dealing with functions, without the unneeded vital forces and so forth.
Above all, Mayr was a holist, meaning that he thought breaking things down to small components is not only not necessarily the right way to go in biological science, it is often positively exactly the wrong way to go. For this reason, when Michael Ghiselin and David Hull in the 1970s began arguing that species are not classesgroups of member organismsbut individualsintegrated wholesMayr embraced their thesis with enthusiasm. And it was for this reason that Mayr wrote a lot of his history.
It is true that old battles were not forgotten. Those dreadful geneticists had ignored variation, the basis of Mayr's gradualism, and so a lot of the history was devoted to showing that that rotter Plato had illicitly introduced essentialismthe idea that groups have no variationinto biological thought. Only slowly and gradually, thanks primarily to Darwin and to a certain immigrant to the United States of America, had population thinking finally triumphed. But this history telling was only part of the story, for the important underlying message was that whole-organism thinking has a grand tradition and, as one recognizes this, one recognizes that such thinking has its own autonomous problems and ways of solution. Molecular biology is important, but only a molecular biologist would think it all important. And that in itself tells you something about their limitations.
Was Mayr successful in his efforts? Well, yes I think he was, although how much was due to Mayr himself and how much to others, and what the nature of that success are perhaps questions that yield answers Mayr would not entirely have liked. On the one hand, Mayr's labours in the history and philosophy of sciencealways as much organizational as conceptualpaid off greatly in the development of both the history and philosophy of biology as thriving enterprises as we have them today.
Mayr encouraged many of us, and helped in so many ways. He may have irritated meI have never been much of a holistbut he encouraged me and said very kind things when my first book appeared. When I founded Biology and Philosophy, I knew that Ernst Mayr (and David Hull) would always write a report on a paper. I generally knew what he would say before I sent it to him, but it always came back with lots of useful comments. And I know that others have had the same experiences.
At the same time however, in history particularly, my suspicion is that generally the (justified) feeling is that Mayr's extra-historical motives distort his thinking to the point where what he wrote is of minimal value. Certainly the feeling among historians is that not only is the essentialism thesis just plain false, but that we have wasted a lot of valuable time getting over it. Perhaps this is just a reaction of the present, but I suspect there is some truth to it.
On the other hand, today organismic biology does have a full and honored place in the biological spectrum. Far from the molecular biologists swallowing up evolutionary biology, the molecular biologists have been turned on by the problems of evolution. Witness the thriving success of the field of evolutionary development (evo-devo). But this in a way is the very point. Evolutionary biology today is so exciting because of molecular biology, not in the face of it. Bring on the molecules, we all say. A rather different cry from that of the Ernst Mayr of the 1960s.
What sort of man was Ernst Mayr? I trust that Ed Wilson of Harvard and Guy Bush of Michigan State, both men who encountered Mayr at Harvard when they were very junior, will not think I am betraying confidences when I say that he was not always much fun for the young and less established. He could be formidable to the point ofbeyond the point ofbullying. As is often the case, one suspects that this concealed certain insecuritiesthe foreigner in the new world, in a field that is under siege.
But it does not make for easiness, whatever. At times, Mayr was desperatelyalmost patheticallyeager to make his own place in history. He truly loved Dobzhansky and admired him greatly, but worried that he (Mayr) would always have second place. It is easy to joke about this, as I did above, but it has an edge nevertheless. He was deeply hurt that, at the Origin centenary celebration in Chicago in 1959, Dobzhansky, Simpson, and Julian Huxley were given honorary degrees and not him.
However, insecure or not, no one could deny that Ernst Mayr had a deep love of the living world. To walk with him around his cottage in New Hampshire was to see a man who simply loved animals and plantsloved them for their own sake, loved them because he was trying to understand them. Mayr was a man who could think of no higher calling. He told me that reading Ernst Haeckel as a child had turned him away from Christianity. He joked, when I admired a photo of him in his twenties in New Guinea, where he was wearing a beard, that people took him for a missionary and he shaved at once! He was much influenced by Julian Huxley's Religion without Revelation. He told me that he felt with Huxley and with others (including, very much, Wilson) that it is possible to be a deeply religious person in the complete absence of theology. He meant it and proved it.
It is certainly true that, although Mayr may have been rough on people like Wilson and Bush, he respected them and other biologists in a way that he never felt about others, including historians and philosophers. I always felt a bit like a court eunuch when I was around him. Useful and interesting, but ultimately not a real man. Or perhaps court jester. Mayr was much easer on us than on the biologists, but that was because we existed only to help biology. This did not preclude real friendship. Over the years he and I built up a close relationship. I did earn some respect. At a discussion group in the 1980s at Harvard, I told him to his face that I thought the species-as-individuals thesis is nonsense. He came at me across the room, shaking his finger, and yelling. I stood my gourd, and got invited to lunch the next day!
I never sensed that Mayr was a man deeply engaged in politics. He told me once that as a young man, like everyone in his class, he was mildly anti-Semitic, and then mentioned the Holocaust and remarked how far we had moved since then. After Mayr retired, one of his secretaries was a gay man, who died of AIDS. I saw genuine concern and affection. He liked kidsmy children thought he was a terrific old manand he (unlike a lot of academics) always treated my wife Lizzie with affection. He remembered her name without prompting. Some of my fondest memories are of lunchtime soup with the Mayrs and of his wife pushing him around and making him go for an after-lunch walk.
My favorite Mayr story is of an event about twenty years ago. A French film company decided to do a one-hour biography of Mayr. When finished, flyers were sent far and wide, advertising this film. Memorably, it described Mayr as a man of intelligence, a man of humility, a man of humor. I wrote to Ernst saying that I certainly thought of him as a man of intelligence, and that although he was a German I was sure that at least once in his life he had cracked funny joke, but thatthink goodnesshe was not a man of humility. He was a man of pride and determination and no nonsense about falsely putting himself down.
Mayr was absolutely livid. What did I mean by saying that he had no sense of humor? He was the funniest man that he knew. The next time we met, he would order me to listen to his jokes and to laugh. (Actually, his favorite joke with me was to call me at about ten in the morning and apologize for getting me out of bed. Mayr was famously an early riserfour in the morning, every day. He told me that at the beginning of the War, when he was an enemy alienhe had not then taken out citizenshipand fearful for his job at the Museum, he had decided to be a milkman if all else failed. He liked getting up early in the morning, and he liked the outdoors life.)
My final memory is four years old. I had just retired from thirty-five years of teaching in Canada, and moved to Florida State University here in Tallahassee. With my professorship comes money for (and expectations of) putting on conferences. So for the first, in 2001, I organized a conference on the philosophy of biology. Mayr was still in the habit of spending the winter at a small college in central Florida, and Betty Smocovitis at the University of Floridaan old friend of both Mayr and mearranged to bring Ernst along. All sorts of prior warnings were sent that Ernst was old and frail and would need lots of time out. Although the conference was from Friday to Sunday, he would need to leave on Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately he would not be able to go on the field trip to Wakulla Springs, a nature reserves full of birds and alligators (and the site of the original Tarzan movies as well as of The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Airport 77.)
Along came Betty and Ernst. Inevitably as soon as the paper was over, Ernst was on his feet. This continued for the rest of Friday and all day Saturday. Who, on Saturday at Wakulla, was at the front of the boat? You guessed it! Ernst Mayr having a wonderful time, telling us that this was his first visit to Wakulla since 1931. And who saw the Saturday barbecue out to the bitter end, until finally I said: "Ernst go to bed." None other than our frail old friend and evolutionist.
Mayr once told me that the greatest influence on his life had been his mother, who had impressed upon him the obligation of people with his talents and background and education to serve others. I wish I could tell his mother how proud she could be of him. I wish I could tell his father, a deeply educated and cultured man, how proud he could be of his son. The truly great person is not he or she who simply does things easily, without strain. The truly great person triumphs above his or her limitations, and makes them seem trivial and unimportant. Ernst Mayr was a truly great man. What a life. What vitality. What service. What a privilege to have known him.