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Ernst Mayr, Darwin's Disciple

by Christine Bahls

is hair is pure white; his speech, still tinged with his native German, is a tad slow. The body bows a bit to its achieved 99 years—even living legends shuffle in slippers and need sweaters.

Ernst Mayr, who began studying birds and ended up studying the world, who introduced biodiversity into the synthesis of evolutionary biology, thereby evolving a new strain of study, cannot let science go. Each morning, he critiques someone's work, pours over his own pending publication, or reviews a book. "They're looking for a blurb," he says.

Mayr, who at one time read eight languages and writes with enviable clarity in his adopted English, has won biology's Triple Crown: the Balzan, the Crafoord, and the International Prize for Biology. Fellow evolutionary biologist and two-time Pulitzer winner E. O. Wilson wrote,[1] "Ernst Mayr not only ranks among the great evolutionary biologists of this century; he is also one of the best writers."

Mayr turns authoritative quickly. When asked to name his best science-based fight, he replies, "What you really should have asked: What were the 10 best." The first was over his thesis, earned in 1926.

Seventy-seven years later, after careers at the American Museum of Natural History and Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, he is still, biologically speaking, mixing it up. "For 99, I'm still pretty sharp."

What are you working on now?
I am working on too many things; that's always been my problem. [One] is a volume of essays, in the hands of the publishers, mostly of things I have published in journals. All are considered revised.…Lately, I have been making the start of writing a scientific autobiography, but I'm beginning to think I'm a little too old for that.

Were you ever wrong?
On many things. A good scientist goes beyond the data he has. He applies new concepts he hadn't applied before. Since 1950, I have published on the evolution of mankind. I am not an anthropologist or a paleontologist, but I interpret on the basis of the evolution of animals and other organisms. ... In 1950, I published a paper on the evolution of man.[2] On some things, I was not right, but…you can propose these ideas and stimulate thinking.

Is science today still affected by nonscientific beliefs?
[Yes.] Eighty percent of the South still rejects evolution.

Were your parents religious?
I am sure both of my parents were agnostics.

What influenced you?
I had a remarkably broad education: science, humanities, and a great deal of classical reading, Goethe, Kant. The basic theory of systematics, the history of biology and the philosophy of biology, these shifts from being just an ornithologist to these broad concepts of thinking came from being under the influence of the original German [education].

Is Darwin still your hero?
A) He still is, and B) he had the greatest impact on the thinking of modern man, of anybody.

What is stressful?
I never worried much about stress. I was a person who took things easy. When secretaries made a mistake, I just laughed. I've had a couple of serious illnesses in my life; I took them easily. I have always been able to cope with pressure. I spent 2 1/2 years in the tropics under highly stressful conditions. [At one point, he was presumed dead.] My rescuers said, "I am so glad that you are still alive." I took it for granted.

Your earliest memory?
I was about 4 years old, looking for Easter eggs.

But you weren't Christian.
That's a pre-Christian tradition.

You've made comments about the cultural ignorance of Americans.
[It's] always astonishing to anyone who is not an American.…In Boston, if you ask a kid who is the best pitcher on the Red Sox, he will immediately know that. In Germany, if you ask a kid who kicked the most goals, he wouldn't know it.

A very young Mayr [right], about 23, with his Malay mantri, in Kofo, Anggi Lakes, New Guinea. Mayr went to New Guinea in 1928 as part of an expedition to study the animal life of the South Sea Islands.

Who decides what is important?
That's a question for a sociobiologist.

Do you play games?
With Trivial Pursuit, when I play on my own, I flunk terribly.…Those questions about entertainment—a zero. When we play with teams, I am most desired.

How about cards?
I can't play bridge well. To [do so], I would have to devote quite a bit of time, which would be wasted [because] I have no interest. To be mediocre, that isn't good enough. I am quite competitive.

What thoughts have you about science?
I am interested in the world. The emphasis on the word science is a little bit biased. Science and religion are compatible, with one exception. All of the atheists I know are highly religious; it just doesn't mean believing in the Bible or God. Religion is the basic belief system of the person. Mankind wants the answers to all unanswerable questions.

How do you compare the sciences?
Biology has unique aspects that don't occur in physics. Physicists, chemists, logicians, they assume the framework of chemistry is the same as biology. In biology, particularly evolutionary biology, the most important concept is of the biological population, which…has uniquely different individuals; nothing like that exists in the physical sciences.

Six billion humans we now believe exist, and no two individuals are the same. It is impossible to compose a philosophy of biology unless you are aware of the uniqueness of every biological population. Anything in the inanimate world depends on natural laws. In the living world, it depends on the same things. However, in biology, there is a second set of causal agents, and they are the genetic programs that everyone has. Your genetic program determines who you are and what you do. These have to be, and should be, considered in any philosophy of biology. [Other philosophies] never point out that uniqueness.

In the last 15 years or so, I have been spending a lot of time preaching this message.…I am too much of a biologist, a naturalist. I don't know enough about the basics of philosophy. I started out too late for this.

Is science too reductionist?
Most people, possibly all, confound two very different things: reductionism and analysis. Analysis is the most heuristic method to science. It takes things apart, studies them, and separates them. However, philosophers, who are the leaders of the reductionist movement, have said that you have to take things down to their smallest parts, and then you really have the answers. The antireductionists say, if you do that, you won't nearly have the explanation that, of course, is true.

T.H. Huxley said, if you take water apart into hydrogen gas and oxygen gas, does that tell you all about the nature of water? It does not. That means you should apply analysis; don't say [reductionism] gives all the answers. The interaction among these parts is only revealed through analysis.

What still stumps science?
There are freshwater fish, the cichlids, in Lake Victoria that produce new species at an incredibly high rate. In 12,000 years, there have been 500 species created. Then, you have things like the horseshoe crab, which hasn't changed in 200 million years. The question is still: Why does one group diversify so rapidly and another stays constant for hundreds of millions of years?

"By the time I got to Harvard, six years ago, he had long retired. I was quite privileged to spend Tuesday afternoons with Ernst, and have lunch. The very first time...I wanted to talk with him about things we had been doing [I work on marine systems]. I was talking about a butterfly fish in the South Pacific called Chaetodon pelewensis. It lives out in French Polynesia, near Tahiti. 'Why is it called pelewensis?' Ernst asked, '[because] pelewensis would indicate that it comes from Palau.' I was completely nonplussed. Here he is, an expert on bird taxonomy, and he is asking me details...that I was completely unprepared to answer. That's what conversations with Ernst were like. You basically had to be willing to let the conversation go where it was going to go." —Steve Palumbi Professor, Stanford University

What nonscientific books do you read?

Do you watch television?
I watch the Weather Channel.

What would you change if you could?
I would devote more time to family. I have a feeling I neglected [them]. We went traveling together…but maybe I needed to cut out time from science.

What was your first scientific fight?
It started out with my PhD thesis [in which he proved that a certain bird was not native to central Europe and Scandinavia]. I showed how it had advanced in the last 150 years.

And, regarding evolutionary biology?
As to whether speciation in higher animals is geographic or grouped into several species with geographic separation [called sympatric], the answer wasn't that simple. The [debate] has gone on practically to the present time. I was right with the birds.

Are you annoyed that no Nobel Prize for biology exists?
It just shows you the ignorance of the donors.

Do you have a favorite paper?
Yes, it's one from 1954.[3] I showed how the rate of evolution and probability of speciation depends on the size of the isolated population. [Stephen Jay] Gould took over, and quoted me, then left my name out [in subsequent publications]. You have to take people as they are.

When you were young, did you know that you were intellectually different?
I was quite interested in this [question]. One of the boys I went to school with was still alive in Germany at age 96. I wrote him a letter. I said, "I am not bragging, but I'm reasonably famous now in my field.… Did I give you any indication at that time when we were in school together that I would be above average in my achievements?" The answer was no.


  1. E. Mayr, Evolution and the Diversity of Life: Selected Essays, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1976.
  2. E. Mayr, "Taxonomic categories in fossil hominids," Cold Spring Harb Sym, 15:109-18, 1950.
  3. E. Mayr, "Change of genetic environment and evolution," in Evolution as a Process, J. Huxley et al., eds., London: Allen and Unwin, 1954, p. 157-80.

Here are some anecdotes from Ernst Mayr's life provided by his biographer, Jürgen Haffer.

Arfak Mountains, Vogelkop, NW New Guinea (1928).
"The Papuas always have great admiration for athletic feats. They are not at all impressed by the fact that I can write letters and that I have a precise idea of the value of each species of birds. This they take for granted. But when I lift a particularly heavy load with the little finger of my left hand and none of them can do that or when I toss a heavy rock a whole meter or more further than even the strongest among them then they really are full of admiration." On the occasion of an eclipse of the moon, when the natives showed no signs of interest or excitement, Mayr asked them if they had no myth about it. When he continued questioning them, one of the men slapped his shoulder in a fatherly fashion and said soothingly: "Don't worry, master, it will become light again very soon."

A village chief proposed to Mayr a friendly scheme, a rejection of which might have gotten him into trouble: "He appeared before me leading a girl of about twelve years by his hand, his daughter. He proposed that I should marry this girl and become permanent resident of his village. They would build me a house, they would give me a piece of land for my "garden," they would plant my fields, and provide everything I need for living, and I wouldn't have to do anything, as I interpreted it. All I had to do was lend my prestige for his greater glory and that of the village of Kofo. As preposterous as the idea was, for a fleeting moment, I thought that if I accepted it, life for me would suddenly be easy, no more worries of any kind, but of course I knew it was impossible. Yet, if I declined the offer, I would insult him and I might get into immediate trouble. Most of all, I would not get the porters that I needed to get back to my base camp, so I gave the chief a very evasive answer stressing that half of my party was back at Ditchi and I had to take care of them and of my Malay assistants and I referred to the future rather vaguely. Fortunately, he accepted my answer and I rejected a carefree life as the guest of a proper mountain tribe."

Mandated Territory, New Guinea (1929).
"On the way to the coast we had to cross a torrent on a native bridge which essentially consisted of three rope-like lianas. One walked on the bottom liana, which was somewhat widened by additional vegetable material, and held on by the arms on the two other lianas. All the time the "bridge" was swaying quite frighteningly. Even the natives were rather scared using it and the women in front of us at first refused to do so and wailed and cried. The men literally had to beat them to make them cross. What a pity I didn't have a movie camera."

His life on the motorized sailing vessel of the Whitney South Sea Expedition in the Solomon Islands (July 1929 - February 1930):
"The 'France' was not a luxury expedition ship, but a converted copra carrier. Her greatest virtue was her sea worthiness. After I left, she was able to ride out a taifun in Micronesia, during which she was blown a thousand miles out of her way. But she did not sink. Comfort she had none. There was not even a working flush toilet on board. Unless prevented by the weather we had to sit on the railing to do our daily business. Whenever it was sunny, it became insufferably hot below deck and we had to sleep on top. But this being the tropics there was a downpour virtually every night and we got soaked. There was an awning, but it was old and leaked so that it was not of much help.

The ship was heaven for the cockroaches, they bred in the bilge but at night crawled and flew all over the cabin and in large number. I don't know how often in my sleep I hit my face by reflex, when a cockroach crawled over it, while I slept, and I squashed it on my face; not a pleasant experience.

The food was terrible. Usually rice and some canned goods, like canned Alaskan salmon (at that time the cheapest canned good) or corned beef. Hardly ever, except when we were on land, fresh fruit or vegetable; no dessert.

What I did enjoy was that I had to work like a sailor, hoisting the sail, heaving up the anchor, etc. There was, of course, no machinery for such tasks. I also had to take my regular turns at the wheel.

Ultimately, it was of course, my participation on the Whitney South Sea Expedition that permitted me to place my foot, so to speak, in the door to America. But I was a rather disappointed young man in the first months after joining the 'France.' The situation was aggravated by a jaw operation and my illness with dengue fever.

The trip to the highest peak of Choiseul and later the work on San Cristobal and Malaita Islands eventually made me forget my disappointments. Lack of any news from home, of course, had made matters worse."

[ Christine Bahls, "Ernst Mayr, Darwin's Disciple" The Scientist 17 (Nov. 17, 2003): ]

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