View Full Version : Ernst Mayr, 100, Premier Evolutionary Biologist

Friday, February 4th, 2005, 11:54 PM
Ernst Mayr, giant among evolutionary biologists, dies at 100

Acclaimed advancer of Darwinism had been member of Harvard faculty since 1953

By Steve Bradt
FAS Communications
Ernst Mayr, the Harvard University evolutionary biologist who has been called "the Darwin of the 20th century," died yesterday morning (Feb. 3) at a retirement community in Bedford, Mass. A member of the Harvard faculty for more than half a century, he was 100.

http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/daily/2005/02/photos/04-mayr.jpg Ernst Mayr (high-resolution photos (http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/daily/2005/02/photos/ernst.sit))

Mayr's death came after a brief illness, his family said. Widely considered the world's most eminent evolutionary biologist and even one of the 100 greatest scientists of all time, Mayr joined Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 1953 as Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and led Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology from 1961 to 1970. He retired in 1975, assuming the title Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology Emeritus.

"Professor Mayr's contributions to Harvard University, and to the field of evolutionary biology, were extraordinary by any measure," said William C. Kirby, Edith and Benjamin Geisinger Professor of History and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard. "As a professor, museum director, benefactor to our library of comparative zoology, and leading mind of the 20th century, he shaped and articulated modern understanding of biodiversity and related fields. With sadness, we note his passing; with gratitude, we thank him for his legacy."

Mayr's work in the 1930s and 1940s, while a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, quickly established him as a central figure in the neo-Darwinist evolutionary synthesis, the resurgence of evolutionary biology widely regarded as one of the most important scientific developments of the 20th century. He almost single-handedly made the origin of species diversity the central question of evolutionary biology that it is today. He also pioneered the currently accepted definition of a biological species: an interbreeding population that cannot breed with other groups.

Throughout his nearly 80-year career, as his research ranged throughout ornithology, taxonomy, zoogeography, evolution, systematics, and the history and philosophy of biology, Mayr maintained an unshakable faith in Darwin's theory of evolution.

"I'm an old-time fighter for Darwinism," he told the Harvard Gazette in a 1991 interview. "I say, 'Please tell me what is wrong with Darwinism. I can't see anything wrong with Darwinism.'"

Born July 5, 1904, in Kempten, Germany, Mayr earned a medical degree from the University of Greifswald in 1925. Descended from generations of doctors, he broke off his medical career and turned his attention to zoology, earning a Ph.D. from the University of Berlin just 16 months later.

"I was curious about far places," he told the Harvard Alumni Bulletin in 1961, "and decided that as an M.D, I should have but small chance of traveling."

His chance to do so came in 1927, at the International Zoological Congress in Budapest, when he met Lord Rothschild, who had been seeking someone to travel to New Guinea to collect birds of paradise. Mayr jumped at the chance, and spent the next two and a half years in the South Seas, seeking out populations of birds that, isolated from fellow members of their species, had accumulated genetic differences.

"I did one thing after another that I had no business of doing, but I was confident I could do it and, by God, I was able to do it," Mayr told the New York Times in 1997, describing his "appalling self-confidence" as a young scientist.

In his travels in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, Mayr showed what Darwin had never quite succeeded in establishing: that new species arise from isolated populations. He published his findings in the 1942 book "Systematics and the Origin of Species." Mayr eventually authored or co-authored more than 20 books, including the seminal texts "Animal Species and Evolution" (1963) and "The Growth of Biological Thought" (1982), and contributed to well over 600 papers published in peer-reviewed journals.

Throughout his career, Mayr fought tirelessly to ensure biology's place in the pantheon of "true sciences," alongside physics, astronomy, and chemistry a view not shared by many scientists as late as the 1960s. Driven by a lifelong interest in the "why" of evolutionary biology, he also pioneered the study of the philosophy and history of biology.

"Much as we know about the 'how' of human evolution, the 'why' is still a great puzzle," he wrote in 1963, a theme still very much in evidence in his most recent books.

Among his many honors, Mayr captured the three prizes widely regarded as the "triple crown" of biology: the Balzan Prize in 1983, the International Prize for Biology in 1994, and the Crafoord Prize in 1999. In accepting these awards, Mayr donated the hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money to such organizations as Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology and the Nature Conservancy. "The money is the least important part of the prize," he told the Harvard Gazette upon winning the Balzan Prize.

Mayr was also awarded the National Medal of Science in 1970.

Mayr's wife Margarete died in 1990 after 55 years of marriage. He is survived by two daughters, Christa Menzel of Simsbury, Conn., and Susanne Harrison of Bedford, Mass., five grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren. Plans for a memorial service on the Harvard campus will be announced at a later date.

steve_bradt@harvard.edu (steve_bradt@harvard.edu)


friedrich braun
Saturday, February 5th, 2005, 04:23 AM
Ernst Mayr, 100, Premier Evolutionary Biologist

Published: February 4, 2005

r. Ernst Mayr, the leading evolutionary biologist of the 20th century, died on Thursday in Bedford, Mass. He was 100.

Dr. Mayr's death, in a retirement community where he had lived since 1997, was announced by his family and Harvard, where he was a faculty member for many years.


He was known as an architect of the evolutionary or modern synthesis, an intellectual watershed when modern evolutionary biology was born. The synthesis, which has been described by Dr. Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard as "one of the half-dozen major scientific achievements in our century," revived Darwin's theories of evolution and reconciled them with new findings in laboratory genetics and in field work on animal populations and diversity.

One of Dr. Mayr's most significant contributions was his persuasive argument for the role of geography in the origin of new species, an idea that has won virtually universal acceptance among evolutionary theorists. He also established a philosophy of biology and founded the field of the history of biology.

"He was the Darwin of the 20th century, the defender of the faith," said Dr. Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis, a historian of science at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

In a career spanning eight decades, Dr. Mayr, the Alexander Agassiz Professor Emeritus of Zoology at Harvard, exerted a broad and powerful influence over the field of evolutionary biology. Prolific, opinionated and dynamic, Dr. Mayr had been a major figure and intellectual leader since the 1940's. Setting much of the conceptual agenda for the field, he put the focus just where Charles Darwin first placed it, on the question of how new species originate.

Though Dr. Mayr will be best remembered for his role as a synthesizer and promoter of evolutionary ideas, he was also an accomplished ornithologist. In fact, it was with the sighting of a pair of very unusual birds that Dr. Mayr's long career in biology began in 1923 at 19.

Born in Kempten, Germany, in 1904, Dr. Mayr, while still a boy, was instructed in natural history by his father, quickly becoming a skilled birdwatcher and naturalist. Intending to become a medical doctor like others in his family, Dr. Mayr altered the course of his own history when, shortly before leaving for medical school, he sighted a pair of red-crested pochards, a species of duck that had not been seen in Europe for 77 years.

Though he took detailed notes on the pair, he could not get anyone to believe his sighting. Finally, he met Dr. Erwin Stresemann, then the leading German ornithologist, who was at the Berlin Zoological Museum. Dr. Stresemann recognized the young man's talents and invited him to work at the museum during school holidays.

After two years of medical studies at the University of Greifswald (chosen because it was the most interesting region for birdwatching in Germany), Dr. Mayr, like Darwin before him, traded in a career as a medical doctor for the study of natural history. Quickly fulfilling the promise he had shown, he completed his doctorate at the University of Berlin in just 16 months.

From there Dr. Mayr went on to fulfill what he called "the greatest ambition of my youth," heading off to the tropics. In the South Pacific, principally New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, Dr. Mayr collected more than 3,000 birds from 1928 to 1930.

The experience, he once said, "had an impact on my thinking that cannot be exaggerated." For it was his detailed observations of the differences among geographically isolated populations that contributed to Dr. Mayr's conviction that geography played a crucial role in the origin of species.

Though Darwin titled his book "The Origin of Species," little in the book, in fact, addresses the question of how new species arise.

Today allopatric speciation (allo, from the Greek for other, and patric, from the Greek for fatherland) is accepted as the most common way in which new species arise: when populations of a single species are geographically isolated from one another, they slowly accumulate differences until they can no longer interbreed. It was Dr. Mayr who first convinced evolutionary biologists of the importance of allopatric speciation with the detailed arguments in his seminal book "Systematics and the Origin of Species."

"Organic diversity had at last received a convincing explanation," Dr. Jerry A. Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, wrote of the arguments made in Dr. Mayr's book. Dr. Coyne called the work "one of the greatest achievements of evolutionary biology."

Similarly, the most commonly held view of what constitutes a species remains the one that Dr. Mayr promoted more than 50 years ago, known as the biological species concept. Simply put, the concept, first explicitly defined by Dr. Theodosius Dobzhansky, states that populations that can successfully interbreed are the same species and those that cannot are different species. While numerous other species concepts have been proposed and debated, this one continues to reign supreme.

Dr. Mayr's focus on species, both their nature and origins, appears to have derived from his experiences in the South Pacific.

When he went to New Guinea, Dr. Mayr once explained in an interview with Omni magazine, there was a popular school of thinking known as the nominalist school of philosophy that held that species did not, in reality, exist. They were merely arbitrary categories, little more than names.

"But I discovered that the very same aggregations or groupings of individuals that the trained zoologist called separate species were called species by the New Guinea natives," Dr. Mayr said. "I collected 137 species of birds. The natives had 136 names for these birds - they confused only two of them. The coincidence of what Western scientists called species and what the natives called species was so total that I realized the species was a very real thing in nature."

Beyond the importance of his work, Dr. Mayr himself eventually became a living symbol of the beginnings of the modern field of evolution, one of the last survivors of a handful of biologists, including Dr. Dobzhansky and Dr. George Gaylord Simpson, who came to be known as the architects of the evolutionary or modern synthesis.

In the evolutionary synthesis, neo-Darwinism took its place as today's dominant theory of evolution. Taking place between the 1920's and 50's, the synthesis is recognized as a period of conceptual unification, a time of "mutual education," as Dr. Mayr once described it. Laboratory geneticists, studying mutations and population genetics, began merging their views of evolution with those of field scientists, like Dr. Mayr, who studied the diversity and origins of different species. New findings, in genetics as well as other fields, were reconciled with Darwin's theories of evolution. Competing theories, including Lamarckism (the inheritance of acquired characteristics), were tossed aside, producing a much more unified view of evolution at work.

Before, during and after the synthesis, over the course of a remarkably productive career, Dr. Mayr wrote or edited 19 books and wrote more than 600 journal articles. In fact, he was more prolific after his official retirement in 1975 (publishing more than 200 of the articles) than many scientists are in their entire careers. He received numerous major awards, including the National Medal of Science, the Balzan Prize and the International Prize. He once noted that Nobel Prizes are not given in evolutionary biology, saying, "Darwin wouldn't have won it either."

In addition, Dr. Mayr was an ardent promoter of the academic discipline of evolutionary biology, perhaps its most energetic organizer, playing a critical role in founding the Society for the Study of Evolution in 1946 and serving as the first editor of its journal, Evolution, still the leading journal in the field. Yet throughout this work to define his field with broad conceptual brushstrokes and nitty-gritty organizational details, his birds were never forgotten.

As a collector, ornithologist and curator, first at the University of Berlin, then the American Museum of Natural History and finally at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, Dr. Mayr made his mark.

By the time he turned 90, in 1994, he had named more than 24 valid bird species, more than had any other living ornithologist at the time. He had named more than 400 subspecies and several new genera of birds as well.

Perhaps Dr. Mayr's most unusual ornithological accomplishment dates from his earliest work as a biologist. With his having to live off the land while on his New Guinea expeditions, every bird that was skinned for study went into the pot. As a result, Dr. Mayr is said to have eaten more birds of paradise than any other modern biologist.

Though he began his career with his binoculars focused on birds, Dr. Mayr took a serious interests in numerous organisms, resulting in a remarkable breadth of publications ranging from species delineations in plants to hybrids formed by snail species, courtship behavior in fruit flies and the evolution of human blood groups.

Of all his many achievements in the science of evolution, Dr. Mayr may have taken the greatest pride in his theory of what he called peripatric speciation and genetic revolutions, an idea he called "perhaps the most original theory I have ever proposed." It was also his least successful.

According to the still controversial theory, new species can be produced when very small populations are cut off from the rest of the species. Unlike the more general theory of allopatric speciation in which isolated populations slowly accumulate differences until they can no longer interbreed, in peripatric speciation, extremely small populations, isolated in unusual habitats, undergo what Dr. Mayr termed a "genetic revolution." Undergoing drastic changes in their genome, populations evolve quickly to become new species.

The theory has met with considerably less enthusiasm than other of his arguments. Some scientists have said that it is unlikely, unsupported and untestable. Others have defended the proposal of the theory, saying that while the idea itself may not stand the test of time, it remains significant as one of the first explicit theoretical models of speciation and its genetic consequences.

Dr. Gould has also credited Dr. Mayr with sowing the seeds for the "flowering of modern macroevolutionary theory."

While microevolutionary theory seeks to explain, for example, how species adapt to particular environments or how evolution among populations can give rise to new species, macroevolution encompasses a much bigger picture. Macroevolutionary theories examine, for example, how some species survive better than others and how likely or unlikely they are to give rise to other species. It was Dr. Mayr's concept of the species and its role in the evolutionary process, according to Dr. Gould of Harvard, that laid the foundations for many of the theories being tested by macroevolutionists today.

In addition to his several lifetimes worth of work in the science of evolution, Dr. Mayr also fathered an entirely new field of study.

"He created the field of history and philosophy of biology, almost single-handedly," said Dr. Smocovitis of the University of Florida. "By the 1960's there was a generation of historians of science but nobody doing history of biology. He argued for the autonomy and sovereignty of the biological sciences, and that's when philosophers began to rush in. His idea was, we have a brand new science here that doesn't behave like physics and chemistry."

As with the infant discipline of modern evolutionary biology, Dr. Mayr nurtured the new discipline of history and philosophy of biology as organizer, mover and shaker. His own contributions to the field are numerous, including the field-defining tome "The Growth of Biological Thought," as well as books on the philosophy of biology, Darwin and the evolutionary synthesis.

Dr. Mayr was also known as a man of definitive proclamations, a strong believer in the Hegelian dialectic as a way of advancing understanding. As a result, his pronouncements often inspired as many heated rebuttals as nods of vigorous agreement.

Dr. Mayr is survived by two daughters, Christa Menzel of Simsbury, Conn., and Susanne Harrison of Bedford, Mass., five grandchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren. His wife, Margarete Simon, died in 1990.

With so long to consider the great pageant of the history of life, Dr. Mayr, in his many papers and books, seems to have taken on every subject of interest in evolutionary biology. As a result his views were and still are an excellent and unavoidable point at which to begin nearly any argument of substance.

At the time of his 90th birthday in 1994, with Dr. Mayr as active and engaged in the field as ever, Dr. Douglas J. Futuyma, an evolutionary biologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, wrote, "No one will agree with all his positions, analyses, and opinions." But he added, "Anyone who has failed to read Mayr can hardly claim to be educated in evolutionary biology."

Dr. Solar Wolff
Saturday, February 5th, 2005, 05:34 AM
Somehow, you think the great people will live forever. This is sad news.