Famous biologist Ernst Mayr about to be heaved into the dumpster by the Society of Systematic Biologists

January 6, 2022 • 9:15 am

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.

Proposed amendment
Original text:
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;
New text:
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).

91 thoughts on “Famous biologist Ernst Mayr about to be heaved into the dumpster by the Society of Systematic Biologists

  1. If they are going to change the name of the award, I propose a new name: “The Plain Vanilla Outstanding Student Award That No One Will Remember the Next Day”

    OOPS: cross out Vanilla and change it to Rocky Road to be more inclusive.

        1. And, as in Plessy v. Ferguson, separate is not in fact equal. In my house growing up, you’d look in the half-gallon ice cream container and strawberry was always last to get touched. 🙂

    1. A school district some years ago had an online poll for naming a school whose then current name was politically incorrect, cause, some old white guy. They closed the poll when “Hypothetically perfect person’ was going to win the poll.

  2. 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.

    I feel excluded as a potential recipient of the award but that’s because I am not a biology student of any kind and have never written a scientific paper never mind an exceptional one. That is as it should be.

    If you are in the running for this award, it should be pretty obvious to you that such things as race, sex and gender etc are no reason to feel excluded because you are exceptionally good at biology.

  3. If these folks are so principled, then they should give Mayr’s money to Harvard and take up a collection among members of the SSB to create a new differently-named award.

          1. It seems like the SSB committee responsible for this denaming proposition could have done something productive like getting monies to support a new prize for outstanding student work. The prize could be named for a scientist who was made important contributions to the field and was not a white male.

    1. Best idea yet. Preferably to the MCZ or the Ernst Mayr Library. This is a tongue in cheek response—I think making the name of this award generic is wrong especially since Mayr funded it and he was so generous of his time and attention to students.

  4. If their legitimate concern is “a field whose composition still does not reflect global human diversity”, then they should use some of their money to promote work from globally diverse groups, preferably in Ernst Meyer’s name. It seems to me that’s what he would have wanted.
    That would be better than symbolically deleting his name from an award whilst doing nothing practical or helpful for under-represented groups.

    1. “a field whose composition still does not reflect global human diversity”

      Pfft. I can’t believe they are anthropocentric enough to focus on human diversity. Non-humans matter! Non-humans are diverse, too! When will they reflect the diversity of all life?

      Or, to be less biocentric, when will they reflect the diversity of everything, living or otherwise?

  5. ”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.”

    Interestingly, although there is more wokeness in Sweden than in most countries in Europe, the Nobel Foundation recently issued a statement saying that they will continue to award the prizes based on (of course, what they believe to be) merit and nothing else. So at least the top prize remains unwoke.

    1. I do not know the composition of the Nobel selection committees, but would suggest they are where diversity should begin. Perhaps they are now.

  6. Geographic placenames are commonly in honor of individuals, and so are buildings, colleges, schools, etc. May everything should be renamed with a random neutral selection of alphanumerics.

    1. Some (commenting) on this site have advocated for not naming anything after people. No one is worthy of a statue or a street or a building.

      Let us all sing the song of the mean, the mediocrity!

  7. What concerns me about all the cancellations is that I can imagine that when my scientific heroes die in the next 5-20 years, their reputations will be tarred by woke ideologues.

  8. I knew Ernst Mayr a bit when I was a graduate student at Harvard. Later, when I was a young professor at Virginia Tech, he kindly reviewed a paper for a co-author and me before we submitted it for publication. He was a keen intellect, an amazing scientist and a fine man. His 1942 book, Systematics and the Origin of Species, was a landmark, as was his 1954 paper on the “founder effect.” He had a profound influence on our understanding of speciation, and his voluminous works on systematics, speciation, and the history of biology will be long remembered. He truly helped build the modern study of systematic biology.

    After he retired, Mayr would attend seminars. He often participated in the questioning and discussion, and he was always polite, even if he disagreed. One funny episode that I observed is when someone gave a talk on a topic that Mayr knew a lot about. (I don’t remember the talk or topic.) During the discussion part of the talk, he got so excited that he stood up, went to the front of the room, and started lecturing as if he was giving the talk himself! I’m glad I wasn’t the speaker, but I chalk his performance up to his intense interest in the subject and not to any ill intent.

    There was not a racist bone in his body. His impending cancellation is a disgrace. He was a founder of the Society and he sponsored the award at issue. Does rewriting history really help promote the study of Systemic Biology? I would argue the very opposite.

  9. Seems like an easy way to get some DEI points on your CV. You’ve got a quota to fill, and if you fail to do so, people may start to notice that you also have a suspiciously pale skin.

    That’s the game, right? There’s no need for actual counter-revolutionaries, or even a coherent concept of what that might mean, for the mill to keep turning.

  10. I received this information in an SSB email yesterday, so I thought I might see a post about it here today. I have not followed de-naming events in much detail, but this one got my attention.

    As a graduate student, my research project was focused on speciation, so Mayr was a big influence. My advisor was very knowledgeable about his work and introduced me to his books. I also threw my hat in the ring for the Mayr Award several times. I really wanted to win that award!—but alas, there was some truly amazing competition out there.

    After that, I was fortunate to land a post-doc at Harvard, while Mayr was in his late 80s and early 90s. He still came in to the office pretty much every day, and he was working on a couple of books. (One of those was This Is Biology: The Science of the Living World, and I have a signed copy!) My supervisor knew how much I admired the man, so she invited him to dinner at her house, along with me and one other person. I was practically dumbstruck, but that was OK because Mayr easily filled the void as he held court before his small, attentive audience.

    Sure Mayr was stubbornly opinionated, sometimes wrong, and (to my perception) intimidating as a person, but I thought very highly of him, and his work still greatly influences how I think about biodiversity.

  11. I keep thinking that at some point all this will backfire . . . but, probably, it’s already happening, and we just don’t see it.

    We’ll see it in the midterms and the next presidential election . . . and every local election.

    The very people we expect to be reasonable, rational, and focused on evidence-based policies are failing us.

    Whenever I say anything like this, someone always says “the other side is worse” … yes, but they’ve not changed. They’re doing the same stuff as always, so, by comparison, they’re not looking like they’re getting bat-sh*t crazier every day.

    They’re just looking like “normal” Republicans and Conservatives . . . and, on some subjects, not all that unreasonable because all they have to do is point to what the Democrats and Liberals are doing and ask “Does that seem right?”.

    The question will come down to what voters (The Public) will perceive as the greater threat; the crazies on the Left or the crazies on the Right? And before one makes an argument either way, they should realize few people have the pulse of The Public unless they are a member of The Public.

    My guess is that few of us are.

    1. Great post. I agree with everything except
      > yes, but they’ve not changed. They’re doing the same stuff as always

      In my understanding, the Right became what we see today in with 1994’s Republican Revolution and Rush Limbaugh. The Right got there first, and the Left took twenty years to learn from them.

      1. If only they would have learned.

        The Left did not follow a long-term strategic plan … and now they’re trying to play catch-up.

        Unfortunately, they apparently decided the best way to unite their base is to amplify one or two issues and do so over the short span of few years (Trump’s election panicked many people and they, predictably, over-reacted).

        Worse yet, it appears their strategy is to follow the Right’s plan of manufacturing non-existent problems, and distorting actual problems to exemplify imaginary virtues and signal their worthiness to “lead us”.

        I say the Left chose poorly, and they (we) will pay a price because of it. Really, all they’ve done is sow discord and fracture what should be their base into competing factions.

        And I say this knowing there is no large “Left” or “Right” . . . just loud people at the extreme Left and the extreme Right demanding we choose their side as “they” purport to speak for all of us.

        Even here, people self-label to a position (Left, Center-Left, Center-Right, Right) . . . what does that mean? Nothing.

        Pick a topic, and people will give you their opinion, but only the most fanatic are completely in step with the platform of their self-designated label. Meaning, depending on the issue, people can hold opinions that span from far left to far right, yet both Left and Right assume a majority of the public agrees with them about a wide range of issues.

        In reality, most people vote on one or two issues. The Left, in my opinion, chose poorly when they picked race as the most important problem we face. And their second darling, Climate Change, is fairing no better with “the public”, again, because of inconsistent and hypocritical messaging.

        Note: please don’t assume I’m a Climate Denier. Climate Change is real, man-made. The discussion we should be having is not about whether it’s real, but what we should do about it. I can afford the 30-40% increase in energy costs (in the last six months alone), but for many people, that’s a real and more existential threat than what will happen 30, 40, or 80 years from now. If we can’t talk about both scenarios, we’re not going anywhere, and look for the deniers to regain legislative power (until the catastrophe gets on a real roll)..

        Ah, heck . . . let me step off this soapbox. Preaching to the quire I be (I hope), and if not . . . well, either way it’s a waste of time.

        1. > I say the Left chose poorly

          I think they chose strategically, using one extremism to battle another. If they had gone for centrism, (A) they would not be the Left, and (B), they would have been stuck in a series of compromises with the New Right – and that’s exactly the dysfunction we have seen for the last 25 years. The Left spent a few decades playing Centrist, and lost its identity allowing the New Left to emerge. Once a two-party system hits a point where one party is extremist, everyone loses. This really should be the perfect storm to bolster third parties, but the remains of the two parties are invested in retaining a two-party system.

          It would have been nice if the Left had taken a value-neutral pro-science position to counter the Right’s anti-science position. Unfortunately, the Left kept infusing values and emotions in a pro-science position – at least until they embraced scientific relativism. (I’m trying to understand more about the Atheism Plus movement now.)

          I don’t see a realistic way out of this in the next generation. Every time one institution rejects the extremes of one side and attempts to be centrist, it will be dominated by the extremes of the other. More and more people from both parties are taking up slogans like ‘Never split the difference’, ‘No enemies at the table’, and ‘You’re either with us or against us’.

          It seems like this has been almost inevitable since 1994. The events of 2001 could have changed the course, but politicians just used the terrorist attacks to help nudge the polarization forward.

        2. I’m confused, but I don’t want to put words in your mouth, so please clarify . . .

          You seem to applaud the left’s extremism in response to the right extremism as the only available course of action. What’s the end game? .. from what you say, I have to assume you don’t see an end game.

          You say “I don’t see a realistic way out of this in the next generation”

          I would say: not with the attitude that extremism has to be countered with opposite and equal extremism. Down that path, we’re talking Civil War.

          And even if we don’t actually come to blows, government from one extreme to another is no way to live.

          I take some comfort from knowing that political animosity is not unique to this era, nor is it at its most extreme. Whether that’s a false comfort, I don’t know.

          Like you, I don’t see a clear path out of this mess (unless, as you say, a third party idea takes hold, which is also a long shot…but one worth taking).

          But that doesn’t mean I advocate answering extremism with extremism. That seems nuts to me.

          I advocate calling out the extremes, ridiculing them, exposing their flaws and hypocrisies . . . and hope not everyone in this country is an idiot, because if they are . . . well, we then will eventually come to blows.

          And, if that’s our path forward, I just need to delay it another 20-30 years (if I’m lucky) and then I won’t care.

          1. > You seem to applaud the left’s extremism

            It’s basic game theory: a smart (and probably inevitable) tactical maneuver, but one that I absolutely oppose. I don’t advocate what either side is doing – and they largely seem to be working from the same playbook. I do not think that Democrats in a two-party system could stay centrist for long while Republicans are this extremist.

            From my end of the political spectrum (libertarian), it’s easier to sit back at a distance and observe similar behaviors on both sides. The distance helps me avoid emotional lock-in to a tribe; I know too many people on both sides who see a crisis, but are locked in to their group identity and look to their group for a solution. To me, it looks like the New Right and the New Left are willing to burn it all down, but to them, they are choosing the lesser evil to save what they can.

      2. Well… Sociobiology was published in 1975… The Sokal affair was in 1996… So the left must have been doing things too for a long time.
        And that is the problem: this has a more longer history than most of us are willing to accept, and will be harder to erase than we wish.

  12. Thank you for including the comments of both Fisher and Mayr on the UNESCO statement on race. I would argue that even in 1951, Fisher’s opinions would be considered problematic; thus, they could be viewed as reasons for renaming awards in his name, Mayr’s opinions, on the other hand, were very progressive for the time – indeed it was scientists like him and Franz Boas who did much to move genetics and evolutionary biology beyond the eugenic thinking that was far too pervasive prior to WWII. For that reason alone, the removal of his name to promote diversity, something he was doing seventy years ago, is absurd.

  13. As a lifetime member, former Editor, former President, and current Trustee of SSB, I could not be more upset by or opposed to this proposal. I hope and expect that the membership of SSB will defeat it. If we do not, then that will be a sad comment on the state of the scientific society, as well as our broader human society.

    Ernst Mayr was an ardent anti-racist, one of the most accomplished biologists (not just systematists) in history, and as noted in the proposal, a dedicated champion of students. What name could possibly be more appropriate, or more inspirational, for a student award?

    Moreover, Mayr was critical to to the founding and success of the society. When I served SSB as the editor of its journal in the 1980s and early 1990s (it changed in name from Systematic Zoology to Systematic Biology while I was editor), the society was struggling with its finances. SSB could not afford to reimburse me for postage on the manuscripts that I sent to reviewers and authors (which is why Systematic Zoology became the first biology journal, and perhaps the first scientific journal, to accept manuscripts over the nascent internet). So when I finished my term as editor and was elected President of SSB, I turned my attention to raising money for a society endowment. The biggest benefactor of that endowment in the society’s history was Ernst Mayr, and as a result of his generosity, today the society funds a wide variety of creative programs meant to foster inclusion and diversity in systematics. Even earlier than that (in the 1970s), Mayr provided the first large endowment to the society, for the purposes of encouraging and supporting students in systematics. That gift led to a student award named the Ernst Mayr Award by the society to honor Mayr’s accomplishments, support, and generosity to SSB (originally SSZ).

    I frequently disagreed with Ernst Mayr in my scientific career, but our disagreements were always cordial, productive, and respectful. I greatly admired him for his depth and breadth of knowledge, and he was always supportive and helpful in my career, even when I disagreed with him. To my knowledge, he was always supportive and encouraging to students interested in systematic biology. He was a strong anti-racist, and his gift has allowed SSB to fund numerous projects that have helped develop diversity and inclusion in our field. It is unbelievable to me that people would want to eliminate his name from this award because they disagreed with some of his scientific concepts and writings, especially given all that Mayr did for our society, our field, and in fighting for equality across broader human society.

    I have faith in the membership of SSB to do the right thing and reject this misguided proposal.

    1. I wish you the best of luck in stopping this travesty. What is going on in your organization seems to be happening in many other professional ones. As an insider of your organization, I hope that you can provide some insights as to why this happening. How have the people with these views managed to gain leadership positions? Are their views in alignment with most of the membership? Did they get elected because their election campaign (if there was any) did not touch on the issues at contention here? Did the membership not understand or were misled as to the agenda of the current leaders? Was there simply apathy on the part of the membership?

      In other words, I am interested in understanding how extremists, whether on the left or right, manage to gain power apparently with views and policies that most of their constituents reject. Before we can stop extremism, we first need to know the secrets of its success. The current state of the SSB seems to be a representative case study.

      1. In the case of SSB, there has been a strong effort to get younger members involved in society leadership. This is, in my opinion, almost entirely a good thing. But in this case, the younger members don’t have the perspective of history. Mayr died in 2005, before many of the Council members were in graduate school, or at least finished with their degrees. When I questioned one of the Council members last summer about why they would not want to honor Mayr, given his active and early anti-racist positions, and his extensive support of the society in fostering student careers as well as building our endowment, the Council member answered that they didn’t know anything about Mayr, other than he promoted the Biological Species Concept. They said that was my generation’s fault for not emphasizing more about all the good that Mayr, the person, did in his life. I decided that they were right, and that I had not spoken up enough about the good deeds that Mayr had done in his life and career. So I wrote a blog post about the life and accomplishments of Mayr, and spread it as widely as I could. That did not seem to make any difference, though, except that the proposal now notes “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.” Rather than saying Mayr did something wrong, the proposal now says that “named awards often lead to feelings of exclusion among those who are members of underrepresented groups” as explanation for the elimination of Mayr’s name. As many have pointed out, that is terribly condescending, and it is also clearly false, given the history of the award winners (which include many people from groups that are underrepresented in science).

        1. Thanks for your response. You made a point that I think has widespread application, namely, that the failure to understand history, whether it be of an organization, a country, or the world, can have dire consequences. It is a difficult to problem to solve when it seems that for all too many people their understanding of the present is shaped without any knowledge of how the past made the present. This is why I am concerned that a STEM education (as worthy as it is) seems to come at the expense of courses in the humanities and particularly history (my bias shows). That is, we may be heading towards a future of highly specialized technicians. Intelligent people may be highly competent in their fields, but know little about anything else except from what they garner from cable news or social media. Perhaps I am being too pessimistic, which I am often accused of, but there are dangers ahead that are not being confronted.

          1. I agree that scientists (and others) would greatly benefit from more study of history, and a better understanding of the literature of our respective fields. At the same time, I recognize the many pressures on time, and the vast amount of information that graduate students are expected to understand and master. So although I’d advocate for more training in history, it can’t stop with a class or two. When I think back on my own training (when deep reading of the past literature was still required), I realize that when I received my Ph.D., I still was still ignorant of a huge amount of relevant literature. It takes many decades to appreciate and understand the literature of most fields. So I think what we need to instill is a sense of the importance of history, so that scientists continue to learn and study it, and not just an emphasis on a history of science course, and expect that to suffice. So I support your call for better training in the history of science, but argue that it can’t end in undergraduate or graduate training. And, I think we need to recognize the value of people who have lived long enough to study and appreciate and think about the big conceptual issues. The current discrimination against older scientists is not just unfair, it is dangerous for our disciplines.

            {I apologize for posting this originally in the wrong place; I intended it as a reply to Historian}

          2. I think you are so spot on. Furthermore, it is difficult for contemporary scientists to write about historical scientists because of the problem of presentism distorting how scientists thought about a problem in the context of their own times. Hurray for historians!

        2. David, I am actually seriously offended by your junior colleague. I’ve written as much as anyone has on Ernst Mayr. It has been published. All you need to do is google his name and take a very modest approach to the history of evolutionary biology and you will see how much has been done by historians and scientists on Mayr that is easily accessible to everyone in SSB. What you have here is epic fail on their part. I’m as horrified as you about this–and let me also state to these people that Mayr spoke English with an accent for his entire life. He was an immigrant to the US and lived through the period when people with his accent were deemed enemy aliens. The idea that he did not face challenges is totally ahistorical.

          1. Thank you Betty for your comment. Although we have had an internet and nearly all,but not all, published papers can easily be found, I have been very surprised at our graduate students who do not do an adequate job of a literature review. When I was supervising graduate students in the 80s and 90s I would first insist on a very exhaustive literature review. Apparently today the students (and their advisors) think that to be useless activity. A few weeks ago there was considerable media coverage regarding the discovery of a 3rd distinct part of the Masseter Muscle in humans, but one of my colleagues had published that 15 years ago and wasn’t cited or credited. How about reviewers? They certainly aren’t doing their job as well.

            1. I do think a course in the history of the field is useful, and I used to ask all my grad students to read a list of influential books (Mayr, Dobzhansky, Fisher, etc.) Had I not been taught that literature, my career would have gone a different way, for it was knowing about Haldane’s rule, from a paper that J.B.S. published in the 1920s, that I realized that his solution was wrong and, 80 years later, investigated in and started a whole new line of work for me and for other evolutionists. If I didn’t know that paper, things might be very different now. A lot of old problems have still not been solved.

          2. I cannot fathom the hubris of the young Council member – to accept a position on the Council yet feel no need to learn the history of the organization.

          3. Betty: I was offended at first as well. Then I decided to not be offended, and to do something about it. Yes, I agree, the person in question could easily have found the relevant information herself. Yes, I agree, that better understanding of the literature should be expected. On the other hand, maybe taking up the challenge to educate was not such a burden. I just wish it had had more of an impact.

            BTW, thank you for your work and writing , which I much appreciate. I’m sorry that it is not even more widely read and appreciated than it is (which is, of course, substantial). Maybe this debate will stimulate more young scientists to read it, and gain a better appreciation of the history of our field, including the vast contributions of Ernst Mayr.

      2. I will throw in my two cents here: with the racism accusation, no liberal wants to be called a racist, and what with social media spreading such charges widely, your tendency is to shut up and placate others lest you be so tarred.

        1. This conversation with Prof Hillis and Historian here in Comment 15 in general is one of the best i have seen in WEIT. I agree with Jerry on the tendency of many people to simply “shut up and placate”. A less morally contentious example was the playing of a victim card by K-12 arts and music societies as STEM education gained traction (read funding) two decades ago. Perhaps it was the simplicity of adding an “A” to the STEM acronym to make STEAM to include the arts, but it seemed that few people would stand up and risk a tarring for picking on the poor arts folks in pointing out that the STEM emphasis came out of several years of studies of international economic competition, rather than simple empire building by an S&T community. Unfortunately K-12 STEM was never really reinvented for 21st century needs, but rather just emphasized more courses from the 20th century curriculum. While there was some attempt in the Next Generation Science Standards to integrate real engineering (E) into K-12 science (S), there was little effort to recognize the close relationship between biology and chemistry or the need for applied (think Bayes’ probabilities that were discussed here the other day) and computational math. Superficial changes and labels seem to win the day with the hard work of questioning and real change through examples seldom seeing outcomes.

          1. I love the “STEAM” addition to “STEM”, where “A” is “Arts”. What’s left, sports?

            That said, history is important! Students should read the history of their field! I recommend people start with:

            Barkan, Elazar (1992). The retreat of scientific racism : changing concepts of race in Britain and the United States between the world wars. Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-381. https://books.google.co.nz/books/about/The_Retreat_of_Scientific_Racism.html?id=-c8aSO-gnwMC&redir_esc=y

            All that said, what has been going on since June 2020 is the pretty obvious driver. It is a major cultural event, rather like 1968. In 2020, people Just Weren’t Having It when we talked about historical complexity and context, the need for due diligence before issuing Trial-by-Twitter judgments of famous figures, etc. Everyone was being hit with Trumpism + Covid + violent racism on TV all at once. It is not surprising that this produced an emotional reaction, and efforts to Do Something were everywhere. The really pressing problems were very hard to do have any impact on, so (as the left often does) the targets became whatever was close at hand.

    2. David, thanks for your perspective on this. Do you know if this effort is being driven by the folks on the DEI committee at SSB? Or does the proposal come from a grassroots effort by members in general?

      The most generous excuse I can come up with is that this is just thoughtless ignorance acting via good intentions on the part of Jessica Ware (DEI Director at SSB) and her DEI committee. Do the DEI committee members know that Mayr himself donated the endowment that funds the student award?

      I’m proud to claim Dr. Ware as a brilliant, accomplished Canadian scientist eh? I teach some of her work in my classes (the phylogenomics of insects). Her wikipedia page is a summary of extraordinary achievements for such a young researcher (PhD in 2008, h index of 22 already!). She is a vastly smarter and better scientist that I was at her age and I’m sure she’ll vastly exceed my modest research achievements. So I’m an admirer not a critic.

      But Dr. Ware herself is not totally opposed to named awards, and two such named awards that she won are featured prominently on her wikipedia page. Both awards are named for entomologists of Ernst Mayr’s vintage and ethnicity.

      I’m sure Dr. Ware is totally sincere about wanting to make SSB better, and I don’t think she is a hypocrite. Just the opposite: I think she should be proud of those awards. But the SSB argument against named awards — that they exclude people who don’t see themselves reflected in the award name — rings a little hollow coming from folks who are proud of winning such awards themselves.

      I sure would like to know what Scott Edwards, Kevin de Queiroz, and other extraordinarily talented Black and brown people who won the Ernst Mayr Award think of this proposal. I can’t imagine they favour this, but maybe they do and in that case I would reconsider my opposition if they could articulate better arguments for the name change.

      In the past I’ve commented on this site using only my first name because I’m wary of being identified with “problematic” views that would be misinterpreted by others. But this issue is the last straw for me. So I’ll post my name and stand by my comment: the SSB is egregiously wrong on this.

      1. Michael: I don’t know all the people who brought the proposal forward or supported it, and I don’t want to call anyone out for it in any case. I feel certain that it was done with good intentions, and I’m close friends with some of the people who likely supported the proposal. As a Trustee of the society, I have no vote on Council. Older members of the society like myself purposefully serve the society in non-voting, advisory roles (to manage to society’s endowment, for example, which is the primary job of a Trustee). I served as Editor and President early in my career, and I’m happy that we continue to have relatively young, energetic, and thoughtful leadership.

        No matter the outcome of the vote, my personal relationship with leaders of SSB will not change, even though I disagree strongly with the proposal, and will oppose it to the best of my ability. I’ve made it clear to my colleagues on the Council that I’m deeply opposed to this proposal, and see it as very harmful to SSB and to our extensive efforts at being inclusive and welcoming to all. It would certainly change my relationship with the society if it passes, as I see this as a very discriminatory and excluding proposal. I can’t see any good coming from it, no matter the outcome of the vote. It is divisive and offensive to many of our members, many of whom will be mad at those who proposed it, no matter how good their intentions. I don’t promote or support that anger. The proposal is indeed misguided, inappropriate, hurtful, and harmful, in my opinion. But I think that is just a matter of a longer perspective on the history of our society, a different understanding of Mayr’s contributions to our field, and a different perspective on the extent and pervasiveness of age discrimination.

        1. The 4-way test we affirm weekly at Rotary Club meetings would be appropriate here:
          Is it the truth? The assumption that Mayr must have had racist believes, NO
          Is it fair to all concerned? The lack of respect for those who came before us, NO
          Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Absolutely NOT
          Will it be beneficial to all concerned? Absolutely NOT

        2. Hi David. Agree about getting out of the way of our younger colleagues. I admire these folks in many ways but their thinking is ahistorical as Betty pointed out. That’s ironic for systematists and phylogeneticists.

          Josef Uyeda put up a twitter thread this afternoon explaining his view of the change. I want to believe he’s arguing in good faith, and I agree with him about not getting too bent out of shape about this. His thread doesn’t mention the letter to members and its explicit characterization of Mayr as “problematic”. Instead he focuses on not naming awards after individuals (and some other stuff about outsiders joining SSB to vote no). I see what he means. I wish the letter to members was as clear as his twitter thread and had the same emphasis.

          IDK about calling out individuals. Josef in his thread emphasizes the need for younger voices to be heard. I agree with him. But when those voices call Mayr problematic and argue for renaming his award (but not giving back the endowment that funds it), I question whether those voices should be heard until they’re voicing more thoughtful ideas. Calling out individuals making those bad arguments is an effective way to push back against the ideas.

          But I agree nobody wants this to be personal. IDK what the answer is.

          Thanks for your reply and for your thoughtful and kind observations about all this.

  14. David Rieff, whose parents were Philip Rieff and Susan Sontag, writes a very succint substack column/note. Here is today’s on a new bill sponsored by Senator Warren which seeks to establish anti-racism as a science….yes a science.

    “Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has just sponsored a bill (S 162) called the “Anti-Racism in Public Health Act of 2021.” The bill is a distillation of the ideas of people like Ibram X. Kendi, which should come as no surprise given that the public health field is where they have found a particularly receptive audience. Two elements are particularly striking. The first is its conflation of economic and psychological harms, one more expression of the triumph of the therapeutic culture my father identified a half century ago, and that has morphed into what I’ve called ‘the triumph of the therapeutic.’* But much more repulsive is the claim that anti-racism is a science.

    This is not hyperbole on my part. In the section of the bill calling for the establishment of a new structure within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Center on Antiracism and Health, there is reference to “the science” of anti-racism — a claim I do not believe even Kendi has ever made. The relevant passage of the bill states that one of the aims of the center will be to “develop new knowledge in the science and practice of antiracism, including by identifying the mechanisms by which racism operates in the provision of health care and in systems that impact health and well-being.”

    In other words, an ideology of White Supremacy that claimed to be based not on morality but on scientific fact are to be replaced, in US law, by an anti-racism that claims to be based not on morality but on scientific fact.

    Good intentions or not, the intellectual disgrace could not be more complete.

    *A detail: the binary of white/people of color could not, as it does in Sen. Warren’s bill, include Asian-Americans (to the extent that dubious term means anything at all) were economic criteria of racial harm the sole ones being applied.”


    1. “In other words, an ideology of White Supremacy that claimed to be based not on morality but on scientific fact are to be replaced, in US law, by an anti-racism that claims to be based not on morality but on scientific fact.” – Indeed, what a world we are living in!

  15. If minority contributions are going unrecognized, the solution is to create an award, scholarship, meeting session, journal entry, annual essay, editorial section, or other recognition that is named for the contributions of a heretofore unfairly ignored minority biologist. That creates more recognition for that scientist and their contribution.

    This does nothing to help students or members recognize the contributions of minority scientists, because it doesn’t say anything about what any minority scientist did. This is the opposite: it removes information, preventing students from recognizing how past scientists have contributed to the field. It’s a none will have prizes, take-my-ball-and-go-home response to a (mentioned but not seen) complaint.

    1. I think there is a strong current in all this of resentment……and one way to address it is to erase the resented.

    2. In point of fact, students from under-represented groups in science are NOT going unrecognized by the Ernst Mayr Award. In fact, the first three winners of the award in the 1970s were ALL women, at a time when women represented a tiny percentage of SSB membership. Since then, the winners have included a diversity of Latinos, African-Americans, women, international students, and indeed, students from a remarkable and wonderfully diverse set of backgrounds. There is now enough money in the endowment that the society is giving out multiple awards each year. So the award has been wonderfully successful in doing what Ernst Mayr intended: encouraging students from every background in the field of systematic biology.

  16. This had really pissed me off when I heard of it. Why do they have to cook up a lame reason that infantilizes women and minorities? I see less wrong in changing a name for the sake of freshening up things and creating greater neutrality. But to say that they are abandoning a name b/c the womens and the POC are literally too sensitive and fragile is quite frankly insulting.

  17. An award named after one of the eminences of a field not only helps preserve the field’s history, it also carries the connotation that the awardee has done something really important, especially in this case. Neither ever happened, but I’d have been more thrilled with an award named for Barbara McClintock than one for being “Outstanding”. Eliminating names from awards is yet another way to erase the history of intellectual accomplishment.

  18. Membership is rather inexpensive especially if you are an Emeritus Professor like me and select online version of journal. https://www.systbio.org/membership.html $20 provides me with 3 years worth. I had been a member for decades and have published in the journal as well, but as I have moved into administrative/teaching I dropped membership several years ago.

  19. For the idea of cancelling Ernst Mayr’s name, we can thank the SSB Council “working in conjunction with the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee“. Ah yes, the work of a DEI Committee is never done. When the SSB membership votes down this proposal (hopefully), we can expect the DEI Committee to hatch even more brilliant proposals. Some, we can be certain, will involve expanding the remit of the Committee, and forming new
    committees, sub-committees, offices, and entities to enlarge its mission.
    The empire-building prospects in DEI are almost boundless. See: https://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2021/12/the_job_markets_booming_demand_for_diversity_specialists.html . [Senator Warren’s legislative proposal will add yet another layer to the DEI nomenklatura.]

    We already employ far more DEI bureaucrats, consultants, trainers, and thought police than the total of Red Army political commissars in the former Soviet Union. This elite new stratum of political officers (in our case not in the army but in virtually everything else) is already providing our managerial society with a similar service. The new class makes exactly the same claim as its Eurasian prececessor: the claim that it, and it alone, possesses the key to social justice. And the new managerial stratum in our society, like its Eurasian predecessor, has its own class interests. Those class interests once defined the unique character of Soviet society. Perhaps it was not so unique at all, as we may soon discover.

  20. I’m not a systematist, but as an evolutionary biologist and ecologist, this proposal is just so stupid. Other comments above have given lots of reasons. I hope that the membership soundly rejects this proposal.

  21. I agree the attempt to remove Mayr’s name is wrong. Monumentally. It shows a lack of understanding regarding his key contributions to SSB – intellectual, financial, foundational – and to science and philosophy and history of science more broadly. This is particularly outrageous and sad to me as a past president of SSB. I interacted with Ernst Mayr on multiple occasions as a grad student and postdoc and found him to be open minded, generous, welcoming and brilliant. He had an amazing memory (partly photographic he said). He recalled plumage details from pictures in a minor note I published in minor journal (Am. Birds) as a student 2 years before we met.

    Many here have probably been reading recent remembrances of EO Wilson’s about his early experience with cancel culture after publication of his 1975 book Sociobiology. It seems the approach of attacking pioneers for imagined (‘problematic’) sins of honest inquiry continues, and it should be resisted.

    I also hope SSB membership will vote against the proposal, but think it may take some proactive letter writing to membership to raise awareness first. So many are swept up in a mindless approach to purge first, think second. Perhaps virtue signaling is involved.

    1. David: I agree, but I know of no way to write letters or discuss this with society membership in general. The membership list is not public. I tried to start a discussion on the society’s Facebook page, but I suspect that is seen by a tiny percentage of membership. A few more SSB members may see the discussion here. Unfortunately, the only thing most members will see is the ballot proposal, which explains nothing. Seeing nothing, many members will likely assume that there is a good reason for the change, or that Mayr “did something bad,” which is completely false. If you have ideas about how we can contact and inform members effectively, I’m happy to do so. I feel that the society could commit a grave injustice if we can’t find an effective way to discuss the proposal openly with SSB members.

      1. David, I think we should contact current SSB leadership (officers/council members) and ask that, given the significance of this, they consider allowing & sending to members a letter from past SSB leadership and others, addressing the issues. There is precedent for this I think. I also suspect we’d get a lot of signatures. And of course any who feel differently can write as well, though they would be very hard pressed. I’ll email you separately.

      2. Maybe David could take parts of his comments here and put up a twitter thread in response to Dr. Uyeda’s thread? Tagging the SSB leaders in that thread would generate responses from members too. Sadly twitter is not a great place for a calm, reasoned discussion. But might be worth a try.

        1. Reluctantly, I have posted my comments on Twitter, even though my experiences with Twitter have mostly been terrible. I don’t want to tag any SSB leaders, as I don’t even know who supported the proposal and who did not, and so I would not want to imply anything about that. Moreover, I respect that people have different opinions, for whatever their reasons may be. So I will continue to express my views as clearly and honestly as I can, but I do not intend to call out anyone in particular for their views. I think my arguments stand on their own merit, without criticizing other people for their honest opinions.

      3. I think a position statement/letter with a bunch of prominent signatories, allowing more signatories, recommending a no vote, & then broadcasting it everywhere, would be highly effective.

    2. I was in graduate school in Ann Arbor at the time that Ed Wilson’s Sociobiology book was published and a meeting was called by grad students to discuss this horrific thesis that Homo sapiens genes would partially govern sociality, behavior, intelligence, etc. I am a fairly quiet person prone to listening more than arguing, but so many of my peers were expressing such irrational outrage that I had to ask. HAVE YOU READ THE LAST CHAPTER IN SOCIOBIOLOGY? That quieted the room as NONE of them had but I had. I bought that book as soon as it was out as I had been a dual Anthropology and Biology major at Harvard, and knew Dr. Wilson. Who ever is behind this cancel Ernst Mayr process hasn’t done their homework.

  22. The SSB can name their prize what they want. But the change will be confusing, less honoring and their organization less honorable and seemingly racist.

    I just wish it wasn’t a scientific organization doing this to themselves.

    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.

    That won’t happen since it derives from Alfred Nobel’s will.

    Further, as has been described here, the current Prize committee is adamant in using meritocratic principles as elsewhere in science.

    Finally, Prize winners are few and it wouldn’t be a very useful way to make up for imbalances in education and research.

  23. What on earth did Fisher mean by different groups’ “capacity for emotional development”? Even the most ardent racist in 2022 doesn’t make those kind of claims. Very ugly stuff. Mayr’s statement in response is the most eloquent statement of antiracism I’ve read. I hope his memory is not erased.

    1. I’ve read a lot of Fisher’s letters etc at this point, and I’m pretty sure Fisher has in mind this line from Darwin’s Descent of Man: “The races differ also in constitution, in acclimatisation, and in liability to certain diseases. Their mental characteristics are likewise very distinct; chiefly as it would appear in their emotional, but partly in their intellectual, faculties.”

      For Darwin, and Fisher, who read Darwin extremely closely, the claim about emotional differences seemed more obviously true and significant than any intellectual differences. This is extremely hard for us modern readers to perceive because we are conditioned by decades of discussion of Charles Murray’s “The Bell Curve” and the similar stuff before that based on IQ etc. But IQ was just not a significant part of Fisher’s thinking, I have only come across one or two scattered references.

      What Fisher definitely was, was an adaptationist who thought that instincts evolved. This was revolutionary when he took the idea seriously e.g. when writing about sexual selection in his 1930 The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, but much less so when (in the very next chapter!) he takes the same logic and applies it to humans, where he seems to think that e.g. the anti-infanticide instinct evolved differently in different societies and (subtext) this was God’s way of morally improving and civilizing humankind.

  24. If EM’s will provided the funds for the “Ernst Mayer Award,” then the Society would be in violation of the terms of the will by changing the name and thus would need to give the money back.

    1. Actually, Ernst Mayr gave the money for the student award while he was still alive, and the society chose to honor him with the name in recognition of his accomplishments and generosity. Later, he left the society more money from his estate. So technically, the society is not obligated to keep the name, as far as I can tell, if 2/3rds of membership in SSB agrees to change it. Ethically, of course, SSB should continue to honor Mayr, and taking the name off the award is a terrible slap to his memory and legacy, in my opinion. But I don’t think it is a matter of law, “just” ethics.

      I am not 100% certain that this is correct, as no one has found the letter that stipulated the conditions of the gift. Perhaps there never was one. I don’t think that anyone has searched the SSZ/SSB archives in at the Smithsonian from the 1970s for such a letter, either. It would seem that this proposal would at least call for such due diligence, but then there are a lot of things about this action that I find troubling. Maybe this would be something for an historian of science, who had access to all of Ernst Mayr’s correspondence, to figure out.

      As it is, the society is relying on a few old members’ memories for something that happened half a century ago to decide what actions it can legally take.

  25. Scientific societies have become an absolute embarrassment.

    Science itself has become an absolute embarrassment.

  26. In proposing a change of names, they could have honoured Mayr as a champion who has criticised “pseudo-scientific race conceptions which have been used as excuses for many injustices and even shocking crimes” in 1951 as cited above. This is predating the case to end racial segregation, Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and the 1954–1968 Civil Rights Movements in the USA. At least, they could have left his legacy out altogether while argueing for a change of names as a matter of principle.

    But they chose not to. Instead, the SSB not only offers a glaring omission of Mayr’s apparent positive role, but made it known that the “SSB council […] made up of a diverse group of people […] don’t all view Mayr in the same light” and that they don’t want to appear “to defend the contents of his writings which some find problematic”. In other words, he is viewed controversially, and imply a literal noteworthy number of people in the SSB deem him a racist (or sexist).

    Rather than keeping this as an opinion among some members, they have issue this as an official statement. That way, they have caused irrepabable damaged to the award. It will remain a major blemish especially if the supermajority to renaming will not materialise. Anyone will know that they honour people with an award whose eponym is officially deemed problematic by that same organisation.

    1. Thank you, spot on for addressing the hanging phrase of “some find problematic” which to me is best interpreted as “several council members have seriously misguided views of life”

  27. An Open Letter to the SSB Council, on a solution the the Ernst Mayr Award controversy:

    To the SSB Council:

    I have been wracking my brain trying to think of some way to turn the upcoming vote on the Ernst Mayr Award from a divisive into a uniting event for the society. Currently, the problem we face is that a major group of members will feel disenfranchised, no matter which way the vote goes. No one wants that.

    I think I’ve come up with a solution that everyone can support, and that will unite all sides. The primary motivation for changing the name of the award is avoid any exclusion of applications from students from historically underrepresented groups. And yet, removing the name clearly offends many members who admire the outstanding contributions and service of Mayr to SSB and society in general, including his lifetime efforts to make systematics and society more welcoming for all. The latter group includes many student members, as well as members who knew and admired Mayr in life. Both groups are motivated by reasonable concerns, and everyone seems to want to make SSB more welcoming for all.

    My proposal has two parts: (1) change the name of the award given for the outstanding paper presented at the Annual Meeting by a student member to the Outstanding Student Presentation Award, as in the existing proposal; and (2) change the purpose and mechanism of awarding the Ernst Mayr Award in Systematic Biology, to a new award that is selected by committee, without any applications. The new award could be fashioned as a “Nobel Prize in Systematics,” or it could be an award for exemplary service to the society. But there would be no applications, and thus no feeling of exclusion by any potential applicants. Ernst Mayr would continue to be recognized for his important contributions and generous gift to the society’s endowment, and the Outstanding Student Presentation Award would remove any bias from student applications.

    This solution seems to meet the stated goals of all sides, and includes and welcomes all members of the society.

    I hope that the Council will consider this uniting solution, as I fear that the vote will otherwise divide the society, no matter the outcome.

    David Hillis
    SSB Trustee

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