Some personal recollections of Ernst Mayr.
I have known Ernst Mayr since 1932, when he arrived in the United States to begin his long period of service at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). As a student, recently arrived from the mountains of Virginia, I first met Mayr in the bird department at the AMNH, where Frank M. Chapman reigned, but it was at the meetings of the Linnaean Society that I came to know him well. That society consisted of a small, eager, and thoroughly dedicated group of amateur birders. The meetings consisted mainly of reports on what the members had seen since the last meetings. One person, for example, kept us fully informed on the avian comings and goings in a cemetery in the Bronx. Some of the members were splendid field naturalists and especially interested in field identifications--what were the key differences that could be used to distinguish closely similar species. (The classical system of shooting the puzzling individual and then identifying it from the literature--"tarsus 60% of wing length"--had passed.) Among them, if I remember correctly, was Roger Tory Peterson, who was following this path in earnest and would produce a type of field guide that set the standard for the future. His contributions have vastly increased the number of people who can learn enough to take great joy in observing birds, flowers, seashore life, or any aspect of nature.
Ernst Mayr broadened this dedicated field naturalist tradition. He introduced us to a different approach to birds--their total biology. He formed a small discussion group of Linnaean Society members to read and report on such broader subjects as bird behavior, for example. I can still remember the first topic: the classic study on the behavior of song sparrows by Margaret M. Nice, its completion encouraged in no small degree by Mayr, published by our Linnaean Society. This opened the eyes of many of us. We no longer stopped looking at a bird once we determined what the species was; we kept on looking and often observed that it did all sorts of interesting things.
Years later, Ernst Mayr started another group at the AMNH that starred such informed and eager participants as Max Hecht, Karl Koopman, and Sam McDowell. Seemingly every aspect of holistic biology was considered in that forum (such meetings continue to this day but with different participants).
During the 1930s, Ernst Mayr also began his association with the Zoology Department at Columbia University. He attended many of the weekly seminars and came to know the professors and graduate students. He was especially close to the cytologists Franz and Sally Schrader.
At that time--the pre-Dobzhansky years--there was little interest in evolution at Columbia. During my undergraduate and graduate courses, the subject was mentioned only briefly and then to say only that Darwin was right and Lamarck was wrong. To be sure, James Howard McGregor's famous Zoology 2 course presented comparative vertebrate anatomy, with its aortic arches and three kinds of kidneys, as reflections of phylogeny.
But soon things changed. In the fall of 1936, the famous but long dormant Jesup Lectures in the Zoology Department at Columbia started up again with Theodosius Dobzhansky's Genetics and the Origin of Species. This was published the following year as volume XI of the Columbia Biological Series. (The series had begun with a book about evolution: Volume I in 1894 was entitled From the Greeks to Darwin, written by Henry Fairfield Osborn).
The Jesup Lectures were to play a key role in the Evolutionary Synthesis, partly because they brought Dobzhansky and Mayr together. Their contacts become close when, in 1940, Dobzhansky moved from Cal Tech to Columbia. Thereafter, they became good friends. Both had personalities that made effective communication possible; they could really talk to one another--and be interested. Although Mayr's contributions to biology at that time were mainly in systematics and Dobzhansky's mainly in genetics, Dobzhansky bad done considerable work in systematics as well. Both were thoroughly familiar with the phenomenon of geographic speciation, which was to play such an important part in the Evolutionary Synthesis. The interaction of these two, I believe, was the effective basis of the Synthesis. Although both were friends of another key person in the Synthesis, George Gaylord Simpson, there was little oral communication with him. Simpson was effective through his writings. For biologists, it was Mayr and Dobzhansky, vigorous, dedicated, and gifted scientists, who initiated and helped sustain a period of active concern with the problems of evolution. And to do so at that time, just when the Western World was to be torn asunder by World War II, is astonishing.
Although one's memory of events more than half a century ago must be accepted with caution, I suspect that no one would have held this vigorous renewal of interest in evolution as anything remarkable. The major elements of the Synthesis were known, but the problem was that individual geneticists, naturalists, and paleontologists usually were unfamiliar with the data from disciplines other than their own. If we were in an intellectual revolution, no one realized it.
Mayr gave the Jesup Lectures in the spring of 1941 jointly with Edgar Anderson. Mayr's lectures were carefully prepared but Anderson's were not. Mayr's alone were expanded and published in the Columbia Biological Series as Systematics and the Origin of Species. This was his initial major contribution to the Synthesis. It proved an eye-opener to those who were ignorant of geographic races and subspecies, which were to become the basic evidence for allopatric speciation. Much to his embarrassment, some seemed to believe that Ernst Mayr had discovered geographic variation.
Systematics and the Origin of Species was the beginning of a flood of broad synthetic articles and books by Ernst Mayr that defined the developing Synthesis from year to year and decade to decade. Because others will deal with this history, I will comment more on some of his personal characteristics. As is the case with all highly gifted, outgoing, dedicated, and vigorous individuals, evaluations of them by different observers remind one of the fable of the blind men describing an elephant. But I believe I can describe the whole, not the different parts available to those with restricted vision.
Throughout his career, Mayr has been concerned mainly with science, not self. He fights for ideas and the advancement of knowledge. "Fights" is the proper verb here because he is relentless in trying to discover what is confirmable and to discard what is not. For example, he was relentless in opposing continental drift when the evidence was inadequate and relentless in supporting it when the evidence became adequate. The point here is that the idea is important, not its protagonist. For many years, one of his main concerns was whether or not sympatric speciation was possible, he thought the evidence for such inadequate. He was quite forceful on this subject and I remember once, when sympatric speciation was not the topic of our conversation, saying how interesting it was that the parasitic European cuckoos in a given region might be externally uniform but consist of different host specific groups, each specific group producing eggs that resembled those of the host species. His immediate answer was, "That is not evidence for sympatric speciation!" And, of course, it was not. One can complain, with considerable justice, that Mayr was most unfair as a protagonist. This was a consequence of his having read, seemingly, everything relating to evolution and, moreover, remembering and synthesizing what he had read. This ability is clearly demonstrated in the magisterial nature of his many books.
Any historical account of science, such as Ernst's own The Growth of Biological Thought, shows that its course is influenced in no small part by the personalities of its leading figures. An important reason that the Synthesis prevailed and persisted is that the giants who initiated it remained for decades as its guardians. And Ernst Mayr is a giant among giants who remained the most active and who saw the Synthesis in its broadest context.
Mayr was concerned with more than ideas in science; he worked vigorously for the common good. Two examples to be described elsewhere are his work in founding the Society for the Study of Speciation and his editorship that got the journal Evolution on its way. A third example was his ensuring the completion of the Checklist of Birds of the World, following the death of Peters. He was also deeply interested in the work of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. These were all cooperative efforts, and his dedication and willingness to work hard for them set him apart from many of his contemporaries.
His concern for the welfare of the field of evolutionary biology extended to the individual level. During the 1940s, seemingly every person who prepared a manuscript on evolution sought his counsel, which was readily given. When he finally moved to Harvard, students not only in biology but also in history and philosophy sought and received his valuable advice. A few years ago, in part to avoid the rigors of a Cambridge winter, Ernst visited the University of California, Riverside, and gave a seminar for graduate students in the Biology Department. He did not regard this as a sinecure but worked individually with the students. Each had to prepare an oral presentation, and Ernst had several long interviews with each before they presented their papers.
Now for a more personal side of Ernst. He and his wife, Gretel, were a devoted and understanding couple, and he maintains a warm relationship with his two daughters.
He has a wonderful sense of humor--even telling stories on himself, of which I will mention two, one from long ago and one more recent. His most extensive field work was collecting birds in the Southwest Pacific when a young man. He was the first white person to visit many places, where just keeping alive was a problem. One expedition found him in a remote area of New Guinea. Upon checking his almanac, he found that an eclipse of the moon was to occur in a week or so. Thinking he could vastly increase his standing with the natives, he announced (through an interpreter), that in a few days the moon would go dark. This pronouncement produced no evidence of interest or concern. With each passing day, he repeated his prophesy with increasing vigor. No response. Finally the night of the eclipse arrived, but Ernst was alone in his interest and concern. Finally, the moon did start to become dark and Ernst reached a crescendo: "The moon is getting dark!" The old chief put his arm around Ernst and said, "Don't worry, my son, it will soon get light again." On that trip, it was necessary to live partly off the land, so after being skinned, every bird went into the pot. Ernst probably holds the world record for having eaten more birds of paradise than any other modern biologist.
Now for the other story: Ernst has always taken great pleasure in observing birds. Several years ago when Ernst was visiting southern California, my daughter and I took him to a nearby reservoir, where golden eagles are common in the winter. I first spotted one resting on the ground some distance away and asked if Ernst and my daughter could find it. They could not. With considerable pleasure, I pointed it out to them. Ernst's reply: "Oh, I saw that but thought it was just a statue of an eagle."
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|Author:||Moore, John A.|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1994|
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