The National Academy honors Ernst Mayr

November 24, 2014 • 8:06 am

by Greg Mayer

Ernst Mayr (1904-2005) was one of the greatest biologists of the 20th century, an architect of the “Modern Synthesis” of evolutionary biology which harmonized Mendelism and Darwinism and showed that the Mayr NAS Biog Mem coverphenomena of paleontology, systematics, and genetics formed a mutually consistent and coherent whole. Mayr in particular identified and explicated the importance of the discontinuities in the diversity of life we identify by the name species, characterized the nature of species through the biological species concept, and forcefully argued for the importance of geographic isolation as a key ingredient in the origin of species. Although some of his greatest contributions were yet to come, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1954.

The Academy honors its members who have died in its Biographical Memoirs, and last week they released the Memoir for “Uncle Ernst” (as he was affectionately known to graduate students at the Museum of Comparative Zoology). The Memoir, by Walter J. Bock, perhaps Mayr’s most distinguished graduate student, was previously published in 2006 in the equivalent series of the Royal Society, the Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. It consists of a short, fact-filled biography, highlighting both Mayr’s life and scientific contributions, a chronological list of his various professional appointments and numerous awards and honors, and a selected bibliography of his most important books and papers. The Academy has made the Memoir available as a free pdf (as has the Royal Society), and it serves as a nice introduction to Mayr and his work. (There is an amusing typo on p. 10, uncorrected from the Royal Society version: referring to Mayr’s dissatisfaction with certain aspects of his positions in New York, Bock writes “…he became more and more reckless in his situation in New York City”; “restless” is obviously intended– Mayr soon left for the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard.)

The first full biography of Mayr (the manuscript of which was available to Bock) appeared in 2008: Ornithology, Evolution, and Philosophy: The Life and Science of Ernst Mayr 1904–2005, by Juergen Haffer. Haffer, who passed away in 2010, was a field geologist by profession, but also an accomplished avocational biologist, well known for his monograph on speciation in Amazonian birds. He was a friend of Mayr’s, and his biography includes much information provided by Mayr himself over many years of interviews and discussions. The biography is, in fact, more akin to a primary document, and will be a rich resource for future biographers.

Jerry has written two important papers on Mayr, one being Mayr’s obituary for Science. Written under a tight time deadline, I recall worrying with Jerry about getting certain details right: who did send Mayr on his momentous, life-changing expedition to the South Pacific in 1928? Looking back at our correspondence, I see that I suggested that Walter Bock would know, but there was no time to make inquiries. It turns out that what Jerry eventually wrote is about right, that the full answer is rather complex, and Walter Bock did know. And by reading the memoirs — and even more so Haffer’s book — everyone can know.

h/t Neil Shubin


Bock, W.J. 2006. Ernst Walter Mayr 5 July 1904 — 3 February 2005. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 52:167-187. pdf

Bock, W.J. 2014. Ernst W. Mayr 1904-2005. Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences 29 pp. pdf

Coyne, J.A. 1994. Ernst Mayr and the origin of species. Evolution 51:19-30. pdf

Coyne, J.A. 2005. Ernst Mayr (1904-2005). Science 307:1212-1213.

Haffer, J, 1974. Avian speciation in tropical South America, with a systematic survey of the Toucans (Ramphastidae) and Jacamars (Galbulidae). Publications of the Nuttall Ornithological Club 14. Buteo

Haffer, J. 2008. Ornithology, Evolution, and Philosophy: The Life and Science of Ernst Mayr 1904–2005. Springer, Berlin. Amazon

20 thoughts on “The National Academy honors Ernst Mayr

  1. Did Mayr appreciate the importance of genetic drift, and did he accept the prevalence of sympatric speciation as evidence for it grew?

    1. There’s still not that much evidence for sympatric speciation (see Chapter 4 of Coyne and Orr’s Speciation), though the Lord Howe plant stuff has increased the possible cases somewhat), and Mayr admitted later in his life that it might be frequent in phytophagous insects (we still have little evidence on that).

      Genetic drift was an integral part of what Mayr considered one of his great theories: that of “genetic revolutions”. Of all of his accomplishments, though, I think that one was way off the mark, and I talk about this in Mayr’s obituary that I wrote for Science, and at greater length in the Evolution piece.

    1. That’s so true.
      One of the best piece’s of advice I ever got, about anything, came from my high school chemistry teacher, Mrs. LuRohnda Weems.

      “Every error is an opportunity to refine your experiment and reevaluate your hypothesis.”

      I don’t know if that was hers, or whether she was quoting someone else, but that statement holds true in just about any given situation . . . even golf.

  2. I read somewhere he rejected the “selfish” gene theory and also thought SETI was a waste of time and money. Looking forward to reading more about him and his ideas: right or wrong, I don’t get exposed to much thoughtful science that challenges current ideas that I think are “true.”

    1. I think the selfish gene is a very useful tool, but I don’t think even Richard himself would identify it as the only tool you need.

      SETI makes the most sense when paired with more prosaic forms of astronomy. If you’re doing radio astronomy, it makes perfect sense to copy the data off to a signal analyzer to check for obvious signs of intelligence. But it doesn’t make much sense to build a radio telescope that’s never going to do anything other than analyze sources for signs of intelligence.

      Probably its best use is as a bullet point in budget proposals to help gain interest. “With our new radio telescope array, we’ll be able to image the galactic center like never before; and, we should be able to gather valuable data on the structure and formation of object types A, B, and C. Plus, we’ll also share our full data feed with the SETI folks in case there’s somebody out there talking to us.”


      1. As I understand it they need dedicated receivers.

        Anyway, the idea is a testable hypothesis. Given enough resources would empty out the search space in a few decades and put an upper limit on talkative civilizations. (Or possibly even find a signal.) It would be nice to “X” that off the list, but so is lot of other work.

        1. You want to think of something really depressing?

          Even relatively minor military expenses — say, a single new aircraft carrier or one year’s worth of war in Afghanistan — would be far more than enough to pay for any and all wet dreams of research projects.


    2. ” . . . [Mayer] thought SETI was a waste of time and money.”

      I’ll look forward to reading his justification(s) for that opinion.

      Am reminded of Fermi’s Paradox. I similarly need to read Fermi’s justification(s).

      1. I know that G.G. Simpson made caustic statements about SETI (concentrating on a couple of terms in the Drake equation), but I’m not sure if Mayr also did.
        Both great scientists in an age when almost nobody, including them, was getting evolutionary theory right.

  3. I always believed that “the work” is always so much more important than “the man” and yet it’s so very hard to overcome ones natural curiosity about the lives, world view and personal struggles of great scientists like Mayr. I’ve found a great source of such information in “Web of Stories” which focuses on video autobiographies of many such famous scientists.
    Mayr is here:;jsessionid=EF77B7BAD80809FF30C49829CC4BDB90

    Also I find the interview of John Maynard Smith by Richard Dawkins one of the most moving views ever of the human side of the scientific life, if anyone is interested:

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