Ernst Mayr

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Ernst Mayr : biography

July 5, 1904 – February 3, 2005

Mayr joined the faculty of Harvard University in 1953, where he also served as director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology from 1961 to 1970. He retired in 1975 as emeritus professor of zoology, showered with honors. Following his retirement, he went on to publish more than 200 articles, in a variety of journals—more than some reputable scientists publish in their entire careers; 14 of his 25 books were published after he was 65. Even as a centenarian, he continued to write books. On his 100th birthday, he was interviewed by Scientific American magazine. Mayr died on 3 February 2005 in his retirement home in Bedford, Massachusetts after a short illness. His wife, Margarete, died in 1990. He was survived by two daughters, five grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

The awards that Mayr received include the National Medal of Science, the Balzan Prize, the Sarton Medal of the History of Science Society, the International Prize for Biology, the Loye and Alden Miller Research Award, and the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science. In 1939 he was elected a Corresponding Member of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union. He was awarded the Linnean Society of London’s prestigious Darwin-Wallace Medal in 1958 and the Linnaean Society of New York’s inaugural Eisenmann Medal in 1983. For his work, Animal Species and Evolution, he was awarded the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal from the National Academy of Sciences in 1967. In 1995 he received the Benjamin Franklin Medal for Distinguished Achievement in the Sciences of the American Philosophical Society. Mayr never won a Nobel Prize, but he noted that there is no Prize for evolutionary biology and that Darwin would not have received one, either. (In fact, there is no Nobel Prize for biology.) Mayr did win a 1999 Crafoord Prize. It honors basic research in fields that do not qualify for Nobel Prizes and is administered by the same organization as the Nobel Prize.

Mayr was co-author of six global reviews of bird species new to science (listed below).

Mayr said he was an atheist towards "the idea of a personal God" because "there is nothing that supports [it]"

Mayr’s ideas

As a traditionally trained biologist with little mathematical experience, Mayr was often highly critical of early mathematical approaches to evolution such as those of J.B.S. Haldane, famously calling in 1959 such approaches "beanbag genetics". He maintained that factors such as reproductive isolation had to be taken into account. In a similar fashion, Mayr was also quite critical of molecular evolutionary studies such as those of Carl Woese.

In many of his writings, Mayr rejected reductionism in evolutionary biology, arguing that evolutionary pressures act on the whole organism, not on single genes, and that genes can have different effects depending on the other genes present. He advocated a study of the whole genome rather than of isolated genes only. Current molecular studies in evolution and speciation indicate that although allopatric speciation seems to be the norm in groups (such as in many invertebrates—especially in the insects), there are numerous cases of sympatric speciation in groups with greater mobility (such as the birds).

After articulating the biological species concept in 1942, Mayr played a central role in the species problem debate over what was the best species concept. He staunchly defended the biological species concept against the many definitions of "species" that others proposed.

Mayr was an outspoken defender of the scientific method, and one known to sharply critique science on the edge. As a notable recent example, he criticized the search for aliens as conducted by fellow Harvard professor Paul Horowitz as being a waste of university and student resources, for its inability to address and answer a scientific question.

Mayr rejected the idea of a gene-centered view of evolution and starkly but politely criticized Richard Dawkins’ ideas:

Mayr insisted throughout his career that the gene as the target of selection cannot and should not be considered a valid idea in modern evolutionary thought.

The idea that a few people have about the gene being the target of selection is completely impractical; a gene is never visible to natural selection, and in the genotype, it is always in the context with other genes, and the interaction with those other genes make a particular gene either more favorable or less favorable. In fact, Dobzhanksy, for instance, worked quite a bit on so-called lethal chromosomes which are highly successful in one combination, and lethal in another. Therefore people like Dawkins in England who still think the gene is the target of selection are evidently wrong. In the 30s and 40s, it was widely accepted that genes were the target of selection, because that was the only way they could be made accessible to mathematics, but now we know that it is really the whole genotype of the individual, not the gene. Except for that slight revision, the basic Darwinian theory hasn’t changed in the last 50 years.