This really peeved me when it came to my attention, for the man up for cancellation—it’s not fully settled yet—was someone I knew, a a scientific hero of mine, and one of the great evolutionary biologists of the 20th century. I am speaking of Ernst Mayr. Further, there are NO grounds for effacing his name from an award—as proposed by the once-venerable Society of Systematic Biologists (SSB)—save that he was a white man. That’s it. He was not a racist—in fact, he fought for equality for all and repudiated racism (see below). Nor did he, as far as I’m aware, ever say anything “problematic”. His only sin was his pallid skin.
For this (there are dark hints that he said “problematic” things, but these aren’t identified in the SSB’s statement), the Society—partly founded by Mayr—is proposing to eliminate Mayr’s name from the Ernst Mayr Award, given annually to the best student paper presented at the SSB’s annual meeting (by the way, Mayr also endowed that award and left a sum in his will to keep funding it.) This makes it quadruply shameful that the SSB is voting whether to cancel him. The good news is that the members’ vote hasn’t yet been taken, and it requires two-thirds of the membership to take his name off the award. I’m hoping the SSB members are not such sheeple that they will vote for this misbegotten proposal.
Forgive me if I seem excessively steamed—after all, nothing permanent has yet been done—but Mayr was a good man, a superb biologist, and the man whose writings, more than anything else, helped inspire me to go into evolutionary biology and, in particular, the study of speciation. His early books, including Systematics and the Origin of Species (1942) and its large update, Animal Species and Evolution (1963) are classics of the genre, and helped bring to the attention of biologists that the origin of species was not only a problem that Darwin really didn’t solve, but also proposed a way to solve it (the “Biological Species Concept” combined with geographic isolation of populations, or “allopatry”). His work, combined with two charismatic undergraduate teachers at William & Mary (Jack Brooks and Bruce Grant) are what got me started working on speciation and its genetics, summarized in my 2009 book with Allen Orr, Speciation. I knew Mayr at Harvard and spoke with him occasionally, always finding him strongly opinionated (and sometimes wrong) but also polite and courtly. But he was wrong in matters of biology, not morality or ethics.
When Mayr turned 90, the Society for the Study of Evolution, which he also founded, put out a special issue devoted to him, and I was honored to write the chapter assessing his contributions to speciation (free access here or here). And when he died at 100, I wrote his obituary for Science, which you can see here. If you want a short take on how important he was, I’d suggest reading the Science obituary. You can read about his contributions to systematics here; I’m not as familiar with them as with his contributions to evolutionary biology, for I’ve never done systematics. Yet, as I said, he helped found the very society that proposes to erase him and the award that he endowed, also endangered.
The SSB announcement here, which I’ve reproduced below, notes that the Council (governing body) of the SSB voted to put to their members a proposal to eliminate the name of the award for the best student paper at the annual meeting. The proposal, as you’ll see, is to change its name from “The Ernst Mayr Award in Systematic Biology” to “The Outstanding Student Presentation Award in Systematic Biology.” That’s a nameless generic award, and I wonder if the proposers feel any shame at removing from the award the name of the man who funded it, and is still funding it. I consider that unethical as well as dumb.
So, here’s the announcement, and I’ve put my own comments and questions in bold brackets within the text.
SSB Council Review of the Mayr Award and Award Names
In the summer of 2020, the SSB Council began a discussion about potentially renaming the Ernst Mayr Award in Systematic Biology at the request of society members [How many society members asked? A handful? A lot? Does it take more than one?]. Since then, the SSB leadership have been working in conjunction with the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee to learn more about the origin of named awards and their representation of the diverse membership within the society. Renaming the award is one step toward greater inclusivity within the society, as named awards often lead to feelings of exclusion among those who are members of underrepresented groups whose scientific contributions continue to remain unrecognized. [ This keeps being asserted, but how true is it? Do minority students or women truly feel hurt and excluded at getting an “Ernst Mayr” award, or even by the existence of that award? That sounds unbelievable. If this is the case, though, then they should rename the Nobel Prizes, for Alfred Nobel endowed these most famous science awards in his will, and he was an Old White Man. Further, one must balance the degree of “hurt feelings”, if any, against perpetuating the memory of the name of Mayr and of his legacy. Students are already beginning to forget who he was, even as they labor in fields he started.] At a council meeting following Virtual Evolution 2021, the Council voted to propose to all members an award name change, in conjunction with other actions intended to better recognize SSB’s history and legacy. [I consider that last statement bogus, as how better to recognize the SSB’s legacy than to give an award in its founder’s name?]
The SSB Council proposes to rename the Ernst Mayr Award in Systematic Biology to the Outstanding Student Presentation Award in Systematic Biology. Our scientific community is more diverse than the cohort of early scientists with recognized contributions to systematics and science generally [True: this is part of the history of the field, indeed of society, which has become more inclusive.] Many current members do not see themselves reflected in awards that bear the names of these early scientists and can feel excluded as potential recipients as a result. In a field whose composition still does not reflect global human diversity, having an award named after a particular individual reinforces that members with other identities are outsiders. [Here we see the key to why this is being proposed: members don’t “see themselves reflected in the award”, and what they mean is “in sex and race”. Women, as they imply, are too fragile to bear having an award named after a man, and minorities too fragile to accept an award named after a white person. They won’t say this explicitly, but it’s clear that this is what the proposal means. Are they saying that NO award should be named after any person? For, after all, if an award is named after anyone, it will limit severely the number of people who can “identify” with that person.] By proposing this name change, we hope to address this specific barrier [Is it a barrier? What is the evidence?] to making our society more inclusive and welcoming. [This, to me, is the most ludicrous part of the proposal. It is simply performative wokeness. Does the SSB council think that the award has actually hindered people from going into systematic biology? If so, then they have a low opinion of the ambition of future systematic biologists! Nobody thinks that blacks, women, Hispanics, and so on will come pouring into the SSB once the award is renamed. The proposal is performative wokeness alone, for it will accomplish nothing to promote racial or sexual equality. Rather, it is simply a big virtue signal meant to say, “Look how much we care about the oppressed!”] We, the SSB council, are made up of a diverse group of people who don’t all view Mayr in the same light. [Okay, what is the disagreement, then? I don’t think any two biologists view Mayr in the same light! If there’s controversy about his statements or activities, tell us what it is!] This proposal is not intended to cast judgement on the legacy of Ernst Mayr, who was a prolific and profound scholar of evolutionary biology and a dedicated champion of students, nor are we intending to defend the contents of his writings which some find problematic.[WHICH writings? How are they problematic? Note that they don’t list any, and I believe that whatever is considered “problematic” is at best trivial. Or perhaps it was Mayr’s controversial–and probably erroneous–views on founder-effect speciation?] We are grateful for Mayr’s generous gifts to our society, which created the endowment that allows us to support student research today. [Not grateful enough to keep his name on the prize! And of course this is a statement about the legacy of Ernst Mayr, which is that his mere name makes minority systematic biologists uncomfortable.]
The Council sees preservation of the society’s history and increasing diversity, equity and inclusion as synergistic endeavors toward the improvement of our community. The proposed change continues our history of becoming more inclusive over time: for example, in the 1990s we changed from the Society for Systematic Zoology to the Society of Systematic Biologists (and changed the journal name as well) to welcome members of our community who do not study animals. [Inclusivity of fields is not nearly as invidious as removing someone like Mayr’s name on the grounds of “inclusivity”. The only people who would be convinced by this analogy are those who aren’t thinking very clearly and are blinded by ideology.] Thus, SSB President Laura Kubatko has acted on the recommendation of the DEI Committee to form a new committee, the SSB Legacy Committee, that will be tasked with creating accessible content about our society’s history (e.g., as a section on our website). The formation of this committee is intended as a way to acknowledge the contributions of past members to the existence of the society and to the field broadly. In this way, the legacy of the society may be understood by our membership more comprehensively than is possible through named awards, and we have the opportunity to celebrate the many people of various backgrounds who have made systematic biology what it is today. [Does this mean that no award should bear a name, for that’s the logical conclusion of the argument they make above, or will they rename awards after members of minority groups?]
Because the award is named in our Constitution, the name can only be changed by a formal amendment to the Constitution. Following the procedure outlined in our Constitution, the SSB Council thus voted in August 2021 to propose an Amendment to the Constitution to be submitted to the SSB Membership for a vote. The Constitution specifies that the proposed Amendment will pass if at least 2/3 of the members vote in favor. This issue will be presented to the membership on the Spring 2022 ballot. The proposed amendment is shown below.
1) The Ernst Mayr Award in Systematic Biology given for the outstanding paper presented at the Annual Meeting by a student member of the Society or a member who has received the Ph.D. degree within the last 15 months;
1) The Outstanding Student Presentation Award in Systematic Biology given for the outstanding paper presented at the Annual Meeting by a student member of the Society or a member who has received the Ph.D. degree within the last 15 months.
So, first, if you’re a member of the SSB, you must vote in the Spring 2022 election. If you’re not, lobby your systematist friends to vote.
I’m not even going to be neutral enough to tell you to “vote your conscience”. For unless you want to change science from a way to understand the universe to a misguided and ineffectual way to achieve Social Justice, there is only one rational way to vote: against the defenestration of Mayr. I know that you may be thinking, “Surely more than a third of members will oppose the name change,” but I wouldn’t be so sure about that. After all, more than half the members of the SSB Council voted for this ludicrous proposal.
I end by trying to suss out what statements of Mayr are considered “problematic”. I’ve read a LOT of what he wrote, though I haven’t read his bird work, and I know of nothing that is “problematic.” In cases like this one, “problematic” is a euphemism for “racist”, but Mayr was not a racist, but an egalitarian!
Here’s one example. In 1951 UNESCO issued a statement “The Race Concept: Results of an Inquiry,” which analyzes the biology of race and declared no substantive differences among races that would support racism. The UNESCO document was apparently disseminated to biologists and their reactions are given in the report itself. Here’s the take Ronald Fisher, who already has been cancelled, making pretty racist criticisms of the Report:
. . .Darlington, Fisher, Genna and .Coon are frankly opposed to the Statement.
Sir Ronald Fisher has one fundamental objection to the Statement, which, as he himself says, destroys the very spirit of the whole document. He believes that human groups differ profoundly “in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development” and concludes from this that the “practical international problem is that of learning to share the resources of this planet amicably with persons of materially different nature, and that this problem is being obscured by entirely well intentioned efforts to minimize the real differences that exist”.
. . . Fisher’s attitude towards the facts stated in this paragraph is the same as Muller’s and Sturtevant’s, but this is how he puts his objections: “As you ask for remarks and suggestions, there is one that occurs to me, unfortunately of a somewhat fundamental nature, namely that the Statement as it stands appears to draw a distinction between the body and mind of men, which must, I think, prove untenable. It appears to me unmistakable that gene differences which influence the growth or physiological development of an organism will ordinarily pari passu influence the congenital inclinations and capacities of the mind. In fact, I should say that, to vary conclusion (2) on page 5, ‘Available scientific knowledge provides a firm basis for believing that the groups of mankind differ in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development,’ seeing that such groups do differ undoubtedly in a very large number of their genes.”
In contrast, Mayr approved of the UNESCO report and its conclusions. This is a direct quote from page 18:
Mayr also hopes that “the authoritative Statement prepared by Unesco will help to eliminate the pseudo-scientific race conceptions which have been used as excuses for many injustices and even shocking crimes”. “I applaud and wholeheartedly endorse [it],” he writes, adding: “It cannot be emphasized too strongly that all so-called races are variable populations, and that there is often more difference between extreme individuals of one race than between certain individuals of different races. All human races are mixtures of populations and the term “pure race” is an absurdity. The second important point which needs stressing is that genetics plays a very minor part in the cultural characteristics of different peoples. . . . The third point is that equality of opportunity and equality in law do not depend on physical, intellectual and genetic identity. There are striking differences in physical, intellectual and other genetically founded qualities among individuals of even the most homogeneous human population, even among brothers and sisters. No acknowledged ethical principle exists which would permit denial of equal opportunity for reason of such differences to any member of the human species.”
You can’t get more egalitarian and antiracist than that! And this was Mayr’s view on race. Is this PROBLEMATIC??? Is the SSB willing to die on the mountain of this statement? Why would it not be an honor to get an award named after a man of sound moral views and superb scientific accomplishment?
STEM disciplines are falling all over each other in this genre of performative wokeness. I hope the SSB comes to its senses and does the right thing.
Here’s a rare photo of Mayr in middle age; he’s usually shown as a young man during his New Guinea expedition or as an old man (remember, he lived 100 years).