Ernst Mayr

Ernst Mayr
Ernst Mayr

Ernst Mayr (July 5, 1904, Kempten, Germany - February 3, 2005, Bedford, Massachusetts USA), was one of the 20th century's leading evolutionary biologists. He was at the same time a naturalist, an explorer, an ornithologist and science historian.

His work contributed to the conceptual revolution that led to the modern evolutionary synthesis of Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution, and to the development of the biological species concept.

Neither Darwin nor anyone else in his time knew the answer to the 'species problem' : how could different species evolve from one common ancestor. Ernst Mayr brought the solution by defining the concept 'species'. In his book 'Systematics and the Origin of Species' (1942) he wrote that a species is not a group of morphologically similar individuals, but a group that can breed only among themselves, excluding all others. When groups of identical individuals get isolated, the sub-populations will start to differ by genetic drift and natural selection over a period of time, and thereby evolve into new species.

His theory of peripatric speciation based on his work on birds is considered as one typical mode of speciation, and is the basis of the theory of punctuated equilibrium.

Apart from biological subjects, his writings include works on the philosophy and history of science in general and of biology in particular.



Mayr started his career with an introduction to Erwin Stresemann due to his claimed sighting of Red-crested Pochards in Germany, a species that had not been seen in Europe for 77 years. After a tough interrogation, Stresemann accepted and published the sighting as authentic. Mayr was invited to work as a volunteer at the Berlin Museum while studying medicine. He subsequently took great interest in ornithology and earned a doctorate in ornithology. He was introduced, during a congress in Budapest, to Lord Walter Rothschild, a rich banker and naturalist, who had a comprehensive private bird collection in Tring, England. Mayr was sent by him to New Guinea, collectioned several thousands bird skins (he named 26 new bird species during his lifetime) and, in the process, naming 38 new orchid species. During his stay in New Guinea, he was invited to accompany the Whitney South Seas Expedition to the Solomon Islands.

In 1931 he moved to the American Museum of Natural History, where he played the important role of brokering and acquiring the Rothschild collection of bird skins, who had sold his collection in order to pay off a blackmailer.

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 "bean bag genetics". He continued to reject the view that evolution is the mere change of gene frequencies in populations, maintaining that other factors such as reproductive isolations 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 (possibly those with greater mobility) such as the birds, there are numerous cases of sympatric speciation in many invertebrates (especially in the insects).

Mayr joined the faculty of Harvard University in 1953 and 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. Even as a centenarian, he continued to write books. At his 100th birthday, he was interviewed by Scientific American magazine.

He received awards including the National Medal of Science, the Balzan Prize and the International Prize. He was never awarded a Nobel Prize, but he noted that there is no Prize for evolutionary biology, and that Darwin would not have received one, either.



Other notable publications

  • 1923 "Die Kolbenente (Nyroca rufina) auf dem Durchzuge in Sachsen". Ornithologische Monatsberichte 31:135-136
  • 1923 "Der Zwergfliegenschapper bei Greifswald". Ornithologische Monatsberichte 31:136
  • 1926 "Die Ausbreitung des Girlitz (Serinus canaria serinus L.) Ein Beitrag zur Tiergeographie". J. fur Ornithologie 74:571-671
  • 1927 "Die Schneefinken (Gattungen Montifringilla und Leucosticte)" J. für Ornithologie 75:596-619
  • 1929 with W Meise. Zeitschriftenverzeichnis des Museums fur Naturkunde Mitteilungen aus dem Zoologischen Museum in Berlin 14:1-187
  • 1930 (by Ernst Hartert) "List of birds collected by Ernst Mayr". Ornithologische Monatsberichte 36:27-128
  • 1930 "My Dutch New Guinea Expedition". 1928. Ornithologische Monatsberichte 36:20-26
  • 1931 Die Vogel des Saurwagedund Herzoggebirges (NO Neuginea) Mitteilungen aus dem Zoologischen Museum in Berlin 17:639-723
  • 1931 "Birds collected during the Whitney South Sea Expedition. XII Notes on Halcyon chloris and some of its subspecies". American Museum Novitates no 469
  • 1932 "A tenderfoot explorer in New Guinea". Natural History 32:83-97
  • 1935 "Bernard Altum and the territory theory". Proceedings of the Linnaean Society of New York 45, 46:24-38
  • 1940 "Speciation phenomena in birds". American Naturalist 74:249-278
  • 1941 "Borders and subdivision of the Polynesian region as based on our knowledge of the distribution of birds". Proceedings of the 6th Pacific Scientific Congress 4:191-195
  • 1941 "The origin and history of the bird fauna of Polynesia". Proceedings of the 6th Pacific Scientific Congress 4:197-216
  • 1943 "A journey to the Solomons". Natural History 52:30-37,48
  • 1944 "Wallace's Line in the light of recent zoogeographics studies". Quarterly Review of Biology 19:1-14
  • 1944 "The birds of Timor and Sumba". Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 83:123-194
  • 1944 "Timor and the colonization of Australia by birds". Emu 44:113-130
  • 1946 "History of the North American bird fauna". Wilson Bulletin 58:3-41
  • 1946 "The naturalist in Leidy's time and today". Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 98:271-276
  • 1947 "Ecological factors in speciation". Evolution 1:263-288
  • 1948 "The new Sanford Hall". Natural History 57:248-254
  • 1950 The role of the antennae in the mating behavior of female Drosophila. Evolution 4:149-154
  • 1951 Introduction and Conclusion. Pages 85,255-258 in The problem of land connections across the South Atlantic with special reference to the Mesozoic. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 99:79-258
  • 1951 with Dean Amadon, "A classfication of recent birds". American Museum Novitates no. 1496
  • 1953 with E G Linsley and R L Usinger. Methods and Principles of Systematica Zoology. McGraw-Hill, New York.
  • 1954 "Changes in genetic environment and evolution". Pages 157-180 in Evolution as a Process (J Huxley, A C Hardy and E B Ford Eds) Allen and Unwin. London
  • 1955 "Karl Jordan's contribution to current concepts in systematics and evolution". Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society of London 107:45-66
  • 1956 with C B Rosen. "Geographic variation and hybridization in populations of Bahama snails (Cerion)". American Museum Novitates no 1806.
  • 1957 "Species concepts and definitions". Pages 371-388 in The Species Problem (E. Mayr ed). AAAS, Washington DC.
  • 1959 "The emergence of evolutionary novelties". Pages 349-380 in The Evolution of Life: Evolution after Darwin, vol 1 (S. Tax, ed) University of Chicago.
  • 1959 "Darwin and the evolutionary theory in Biology". Pages 1-10 in Evolution and Anthropology: A Centennial Appraisal (B J Meggers, Ed) The Anthropological Society of Washington, Washington DC.
  • 1959 "Agassiz, Darwin, and Evolution". Harvard Library Bulletin. 13:165-194
  • 1961 "Cause and effect in biology: Kinds of causes, predictability, and teleology are viewed by a practicing biologist". Science 134:1501-1506
  • 1962 "Accident or design: The paradox of evolution". Pages 1-14 in The Evolution of Living Organisms (G W Leeper, Ed) Melbourne University Press.
  • 1964 Introduction, Bibliography and Subject Pages vii-xxviii, 491-513 in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, by Charles Darwin. A Facsimile of the First Edition. Harvard University Press.
  • 1965 Comments. In Proceedings of the Boston Colloguium for the Philosophy of Science, 1962-1964. Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science 2:151-156
  • 1969 Discussion: Footnotes on the philosophy of biology. Philosophy of Science 36:197-202
  • 1972 Continental drift and the history of the Austrailan bird fauna. Emu 72:26-28
  • 1972 Geography and ecology as faunal determinants. Pages 549-561 in Proceedings XVth International Ornithological Congress (K H Voous, Ed) E J Brill, Leiden, The Netherlands.
  • 1972 Lamarck revisited. Journal of the History of Biology. 5:55-94
  • 1974 Teleological and teleonomic: A new analysis. Boston studies in the Philosophy of Science 14:91-117
  • 1978 Tenure: A sacred cow? Science 199:1293
  • 1980 How I became a Darwinian, Pages 413-423 in The Evolutionary Synthesis (E Mayr and W Provine, Eds) Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • 1980 with W B Provine, Eds. The Evolutionary Synthesis. Harvard University Press.
  • 1981 Evolutionary biology. Pages 147-162 in The Joys of Research (W. Shripshire Jr, Ed.) Smithsonian Institution Press.
  • 1984 Evolution and ethics. Pages 35-46 in Darwin, Mars and Freud: Their influence on Moral Theory (A L Caplan and B Jennings, Eds.) Plenum Press, New York.
  • 1985 Darwin's five theories of evolution. Pages 755-772 in The Darwinian Heritage (D. Kohn, Ed.) Princeton University Press.
  • 1985 How biology differs from the physical sciences. Pages 43-63 in Evolution at a Crossroads: The New Biology and the New Philosophy of Science (D. J. Depew and B H Weber, Eds.) MIT Press, Cambridge.
  • 1988 The why and how of species. Biology and Philosophy 3:431-441
  • 1992 The idea of teleology. Journal of the History of Ideas 53:117-135
  • 1994 with Walter J Bock. Provisional classifications v. standard avian sequences: Heurisitics and communication in ornithology. Ibis 136:12-18
  • 1996 The autonomy of Biology: The position of biology among the sciences. Quarterly Review of Biology 71:97-106
  • 2001 The philosophical foundations of Darwinism. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 145:488-495
  • 2002 with Walter J Bock. Classifications and other ordering systems. Zeitschrift für Zoologische Systematic und Evolutionsforschung 40:1-25

External links


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