The late Ernst Mayr speaks

October 13, 2010 • 10:19 am

by Greg Mayer

Ernst Mayr was one of the greatest biologists of the 20th century, an architect of the evolutionary synthesis, and chief exponent of the biological species concept and geographic speciation. Jerry and I both had the privilege of knowing him. I was fortunate to be able to attend his 100th birthday party in 2004 (at the end of which he gave a brief impromptu talk on his life and achievements, which he summarized by saying “I’ve had a wonderful life.”), and Jerry wrote what I regard as the canonical obituary in Science (not open access, unfortunately) after his death in 2005. A biography of Mayr (the first, but probably not the last) by Jurgen Haffer was published in 2007

I was greatly pleased, therefore, to run across, more or less accidentally, Web of Stories, a website which features videos of long interviews with interesting people, including Ernst Mayr. The Mayr interview, conducted in 1997 by Mayr’s student Walter Bock, a famous biologist in his own right, consists of 150 high quality video segments, each a few minutes long, with their content identified by subject matter.

Here’s a clip in which Mayr discusses the founding of the Society for the Study of Evolution and its journal, Evolution. (For a full scholarly account of this, see Betty Smocovitis’s paper on thesubject.) You’ll have to click the link to see it; I’ve tried very hard to embed the video, but the provided code doesn’t work.

In lieu of embedding the Web of Stories video, here’s another, shorter interview done in 2000.

11 thoughts on “The late Ernst Mayr speaks

  1. This’ll probably draw some fire, but I’ve never really subscribed to the BSC. That said, my admiration for Ernst Mayr is in no way diminished. He was a giant in the world of biology.

  2. Wow! Mayr was clearly a fantastic communicator. I feel like I have just had a personal tutorial in the main issues of Biology over the last century. So many interesting things – ‘cladification’ is ‘not classification’; genes as the unit of selection ‘Dawkins was one of the last to believe that obsolete idea’; group selection etc. Must now read his book ‘What makes Biology Unique?’. Many thanks for that.

  3. Mayr uses the term teleonomy, noting no teleology behind natural causes.
    And since no intent then all arguments with intent fail, and He has no referents, affirming the ignostic challenge to supernaturlists.

  4. I’m a bit confused by him saying that the individual is the object of selection, and not the gene. Even going so far as to say Dawkins was one of the last to subscribe to this idea.

    This seems exactly backwards to me.

    1. I’m no expert on these things, but I think the argument is that selection “clearly” operates on the individual because it’s the individual phenotype that interacts with the environment. Environmental forces don’t directly affect the genome, so it’s the individual that’s “selected” to reproduce or not based on its fitness.

      On the other side, they’d say that the gene is clearly the unit of selection because individuals die, and it’s the alleles that are “selected” to cause the gene pool to change over time. And anyway, the individual is a manifestation of the genome.

      I don’t think they actually disagree that much. For all I know they’re mostly arguing over terminology. My (relatively uninformed) personal opinion, though, is that a gene-centered view easily explains the evolution of genes that actively copy themselves in the genome while contributing nothing to the individuals containing them, while also being able to explain everything you’d see in an individual-centered view, so I think the gene-centered view is superior.

  5. Thanks a lot for that! By coincidence I happen to live about a minute by foot away from Mayr’s birth place in Germany. When I find the time I’ll take some photos of it and send them over. Although the place is being now used as part of a mall it sure lost some of it’s flair as opposed to the old photographs featured in Jürgen Haffer’s biography.

  6. Ernst Mayr was a formative influence in my education on evolution. I especially like his emphasis on population thinking vs typology. My favorate books of his are The Growth of Biological Thought (1982) and his quasi biography of Darwin One Long Argument (1991). Along with Fisher, Wright, Haldane, Maynard-Smith and a few others, he certainly ranks as one of great evolutionary biologists of the 20th century.

  7. While I enjoy watching all of these great men’s tales on web of Stories, I am a little frustrated by having to watch them in tiny segments with a significant pause between. Are these interviews available all in one piece anywhere?

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