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Ernst Mayr at 93

by Natalie Angier


H
rnst Mayr, one of the world's greatest evolutionary biologists and the sort of living legend who's already in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, is ninety-three going on twenty-three-twenty—three books, that is. In the course of a long and surpassingly productive career, Mayr has written books on subjects as varied as evolution, ecology, ornithology, systematics, and the philosophy and history of biology, as well as publishing more than 600 scientific articles. He is a founder, along with Theodosius Dobzhansky, Julian Huxley, and George Gaylord Simpson, of the so-called modern evolutionary synthesis, the conceptual breakthrough that brought together a genetic understanding of how species adapt to their environment with an ecological consideration of why there is such a spectacular degree of biodiversity in the first place. Mayr (pronounced MIRE) also helped define the most enduring concept of a species—simply put, as a group of interbreeding populations—and established a philosophy of biology to rival the philosophical tenets of any other science.

Born and educated in Germany, Mayr emigrated to the United States in 193i, working first as a curator at the American Museum of Natural History, then moving to the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, where he is a professor emeritus. As a young man, he studied the magnificent birds of paradise in New Guinea, and he has described more species and subspecies of birds than any other biologist alive. Mayr is opinionated and elitist, courtly and generous, and still working two decades after his supposed retirement. His twenty-first book, This Is Biology: The Science of the Living World, has just been published by Harvard University Press; his twenty-second book is now being edited; and his twenty-third is in progress.

Natalie Angier, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer for the New York Times, visited him at his winter home in Winter Park, Florida, near Orlando, to talk about This Is Biology and Mayr's views on life as it is—and as it can never be.

How in the world did you end up here in Winter Park?

My life is nothing but a series of accidents. Coming here was an accident, too.


Did you want to be close to Disney World?

No, I've never been to Disney World. This is my fifth winter down here, and I haven't gone there. I said that to somebody and apologized for it, but he said, "Why apologize? You should be proud."


Your latest book goes over many of the themes that you've been interested in for much of your career. What is the take-home message of the new book?

The point of the book is that the great public, and that includes even most biologists, don't have the correct image of the science of biology. Many still have the idea that the physical sciences, physics, and the mathematical sciences are real science and everything else is inferior science. The physicist Ernest Rutherford once referred to the other sciences as postage-stamp collecting. Now, physics is perfectly good science, but it's a special science, and many things about it don't apply to the other sciences. By the same token, many things about the other sciences don't apply to physics. Yet they're all perfectly good science. Furthermore, I point out that at the present time, biology is the leading science. It has more to do with the problems we face, our contact with the environment, our future as a species, than does any other science. I come out very strongly in saying that understanding the principles of biology is what's most important for the future.


It seems that there's a real interest in Darwin now, almost a Darwin mania. People are writing about him, applying his ideas to human behavior, and so forth.

Owing to the power of physicalist and essentialist thinking, Darwin was neglected and misunderstood for seventy-five years after 1859. Indeed, it was widely believed that Darwin was no philosopher. Actually, most of the principles of biology were more or less proclaimed by him in 1859. Before him, you had a truly anthropocentric world. It was expressed in the Bible, where God says to Adam, this is your world, you can do with it what you please. Darwin, of course, showed otherwise, that we're descended from the apes. And as recent molecular research indicates, we're incredibly close to the apes, to the chimpanzees. But that doesn't mean man is "nothing but an animal." Two characteristics are unique to humans. One is language, grammar, and syntax, and all that. All our attempts to teach apes language have been totally unsuccessful. A chimpanzee cannot express something like, "Tomorrow I would like an apple for lunch." Another characteristic that we alone have, and Darwin stated this clearly, is an ethical system.


Has there been anything equivalent to Darwin's work in this century?

I don't know of anything. Freud's theory of the unconscious was a great achievement, but it wasn't comparable to Darwin's.


What do you make of the fact that people continue to resist the idea of evolution? About 40 percent of Americans do not believe in it.

At least that amount. It has something to do with the poor quality of education in America. Many students here don't even know where Mexico is located.


You talk at length in your book about proximate versus ultimate causes, and the importance of addressing both in trying to understand how life works.

Yes, this is part of the philosophy of biology, that there are two causations in biology, proximate and ultimate. The proximate causation is the one that answers the "how" questions. Physiology, molecular biology, and developmental biology all study proximate causations of how something works. But then we have the ultimate causations, which ask the "why" questions. Evolutionary biology, much of ecology, and behavioral biology are all concerned with the why questions. Why do birds migrate to warm climates in the winter? They've been selected to do so because otherwise they would die in the winter.


Do you think the proximate fields like molecular biology are in ascendance these days? You've quoted biochemist George Wald, who said, "All biology is molecular."

George Wald's claim was based on strict reductionism, and reductionism is dead. It's now so clear that every time you have a more complex system, new qualities appear that you could not have predicted from the components. That's the principle of emergence. I once gave a lecture in Copenhagen, and I said something I now realize to be wrong. I said, emergence is characteristic only of biology. That was in 1953, when emergence was very suspect, nobody believed it. The famous physicist Niels Bohr got up to object, and I thought he'd say emergence was metaphysical and supernatural and all sorts of things. Instead he said, "We have emergence all over the inanimate world," and he gave the famous example of water. If you know all the characteristics of hydrogen and all the characteristics of oxygen, you still couldn't predict that the product would be liquid. So that's the end of reductionism. As for molecular biology, there's no branch of biology that doesn't use molecular techniques now, because they're so extraordinarily powerful. But since we have the problem of emergence, it's clear that molecular biology alone isn't the whole answer.


The concept of group selection was once taboo, but now it's undergoing a kind of resurrection. What do you think of it?

In my book, I focus on two kinds of group selection, which I call soft and hard group selection. If a group is superior because all of its individuals are superior, and it's still individual selection, then I call it soft group selection. However, if the social group as an entity has more success in the struggle for existence because there's internal cooperation--they jointly search for food, they have sentinels warning of enemies--then we have hard group selection, which goes beyond the average fitness value of the components.


In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Exactly. Hard group selection is very important for human evolution, because our ancestors consisted exactly of these cooperating social groups. And as anthropologists have known forever and ever, some of these groups were more successful than others at driving away competitors from a water hole, or just wiping them out. Genocide is a part of our history. On the other hand, I think it was exactly the selection of social groups that furthered the development of the ethical system, including altruism. Here I disagree with those sociobiologists who don't believe in group selection.


How much do you think we can understand about our nature by taking the perspective of sociobiology, or evolutionary psychology as it's called nowadays? The relationship between men and women,for example?

Most of the behaviors between males and females have nothing to do with sociality. They're behaviors between two individuals, each acting with the ultimate objective to enhance individual reproductive success. This is true even of things like sibling rivalry. Most of these interactions are not social phenomena in the broad sense, and that's why I don't like to call it sociobiology. But when you come to the real social phenomena, the migrations of wildebeests or whales, you won't read a word about them in the sociobiological literature.


Where do you think the human species is going? Do you believe we can continue to evolve in a genetic sense?

There's absolutely no chance of the human species evolving. First of all, we can never speciate. We cover every niche, every spot on the earth, so there's no opportunity for isolation. Moreover, I do not feel there's any natural selection in any positive sense going on right now. Of course, there are those who have talked about eugenics, but we all know that eugenics is impossible for many reasons. I can't see the development of man into superman or anything like that. Theoretically we could have cultural evolution and develop higher and better concepts. But if you have no basis for a change in genes, then unfortunately you can only develop through cultural evolution.


Why do you say "unfortunately?"

Because the cultural things can be lost so quickly.


On the subject of ethics and eugenics, your own background is interesting. You left Germany in 1931, at the start of the Nazi era.

I had a very interesting life, no question about it. I came from the fourth generation in which there was a medical doctor, and I was to be a medical doctor. But I switched to zoology because I was very adventurous and wanted to see the world.. I wanted to go on an expedition. Fortunately just as I was finishing my doctorate, Lord Rothschild needed somebody in New Guinea.


Did you like being in New Guinea?

Well, it's exciting, but it's a tough life, I'll tell you that. I had malaria, I had dysentery, I had dengue, I had everything you can have. Weeks would go by and there was no one to talk to except natives, and I was always alone.


I understand you were living off the land and eating birds of paradise, among other things. What does a bird of paradise taste like?

Most land birds really taste almost about the same. They have a soft and rather flavorful meat. I ate only one bird that was absolutely awful, and that was a cormorant. That was so fishy it was almost inedible.


Do you keep a regular schedule for work?

More or less. I have an alarm that wakes me up at 6:15 every morning. I have a little kitchenette. I take one meal outside, and one I make myself. I'm quite active. I write, give lectures, travel abroad.


Have you had any major disappointments, any regrets?

Well, I probably do, but I'm one of these euphoric guys. I always look to the future and never look back.


[ Natalie Angier "Ernst Mayr at 93," Natural History 106 (May 1997): 811 ]


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