A grad student weighs in on the SSB’s attempt to delete Ernst Mayr’s name from his award

January 8, 2022 • 12:15 pm

Two days ago I wrote (and fulminated) about the Society of Systematic Biologists’ (SSB’s) hamhanded vote to remove the name of Ernst Mayr from its award for the best student paper at the annual meeting—for no reason other than Mayr was a white man. (They can’t get him on bigotry, for he was a vigorous antiracist and proponent of human equality.) His pallor, though, was sufficient to make some people feel “excluded”.

I hope the vote to defenestrate one of the greatest evolutionary biologists of our time will fail. In the meantime, a student at Berkeley named Jackie Childers had posted on Facebook her defense of retaining Mayr’s name and this post was brought to my attention. Jackie is a sixth year grad student, a member of the SSB, and a systematic/evolutionary/behavioral herpetologist and ornithologist. Her own website is here. She is also Mexican, which is relevant to the discussion (see below).

Without further ado, I’ll put her statement between the lines below:

The controversy over removing Ernst Mayr’s name from the Society of Systematic Biology’s Ernst Mayr Award is growing more acrimonious on Twitter. Since the platform limits one’s ability to express views at length, I’ll just take a moment to put in my two cents as a millennial, first-generation college student, non-white woman.

As someone who’s primarily worked with, been mentored by, and surrounded by white men in my field, I’ve always been keenly aware of the lack of diversity in academia. I’ve also witnessed the genuine efforts that individuals and societies have made to address this representation problem, and I do sincerely believe that things have and will continue to improve.

To me, the naming of awards that honor those that have contributed significantly to their research field highlights a fact that I feel is often underacknowledged: science itself is made up of people.

I think about my very, very brief career so far: Yes, I love the lizards/ birds I study, the places I’ve done fieldwork, the science I’ve generated- but at the end of the day, what makes me most excited about being a biologist is continuing to be a part of the academic community, surrounded by friends and colleagues I’ve made throughout the years. Communities of scientists have a history, and one of the best ways to preserve and honor that history is to commemorate those individuals with legacies that warrant preserving. It’s also an unfortunate fact that “the history of science” is rarely formally taught or acknowledged, so for the most part early-career students have to learn about figures such as Ernst Mayr, Margaret Morse Nice, or Theodosius Dobzhansky on their own (all of whom have awards named after them).

The naming of awards after individuals does, in a small way, help to alleviate this issue. For example, the UCB Museum of Vertebrate Zoology provides its graduate students with annual funding. Each award bears names such as Annie Alexander and Joseph Grinnell (the museum’s founder and first director), David and Marvalee Wake, Ned Johnson, Carl Koford, Louise Kellogg, all individuals whose lives and legacies are deeply interwoven into the history of the museum itself; and each year students are reminded of these legacies when the awards are given out (here’s a link to the full list of awards). Each time I’ve been prompted to take a deeper, more intimate look into the careers and lives of honored individuals, I’ve learned more about my field, about significant scientific discoveries and theories, and in many cases, felt deeply inspired by their personal stories.

The naming of awards after people is also a way to keep alive the memory of those in the community no longer with us. Every year whenever I receive a notification from SSAR for solicitations, or of the names of the recipients of the Margarita Metallinou award, my heart warms, and I feel a sliver of gratitude that her memory continues through the support of other postdocs around the world.

As an undergrad and graduate student, I’ve looked up to figures such as Ernst Mayr, Rachel Carson, and E. O. Wilson, and made personal heroes out of people like Bill Branch who I had the amazing fortune of working with in Namibia before he passed. I admired their passion and creativity, in some cases their generosity and mentorship. I never felt hindered that I did not identify with the gender or race of the heroes I looked up to because those qualities about them are not what inspired me in the first place.

To me, erasing these names from honors and awards feels like a depersonalization of science. If this does indeed become common practice by societies, I think it would be doing a grave public disservice. I do not like to speak for entire communities, and the upcoming SSB vote will provide a clearer picture of where most individuals stand on this subject. However, given that the move to remove Ernst Mayr’s name from the award is ostensibly being done in service for individuals for which I share many demographic qualities, I thought it worth providing my voice.

Indeed! I can’t tell you how heartened I am that there are still students who aren’t brainwashed by wokeness.  Here’s a picture of Jackie that she labeled, “Me and a Varanus albigularis (Namibia 2014).”  [It’s a rock monitor lizard.]

46 thoughts on “A grad student weighs in on the SSB’s attempt to delete Ernst Mayr’s name from his award

  1. An excellent and thoughtful statement – let’s hope many other SSB members share Ms Childers’ views and common sense.

    1. Jackie Childers has more backbone, courage and determination than the SSB leadership members who capitulate to the zeitgeist of wokesim.

  2. She seems to have done a better job of putting her finger on the renaming problem than most such letters. She undoubtedly has a great career ahead of her. Now put that lizard down carefully!

  3. Definitely someone to watch,… best wishes for her advancement. She’s right about social media being useless for reasoned argument.

    Not her fault, of course, but it’s a shame the Bowie Lab (referenced on her website) starts off with enthusiastic support of BLM. The rest of its generic anti-racism statement is kind of anodyne but boy that BLM advocacy stuff really bites. Is everybody (except U Chicago) doing that now? Or is Berkeley just more afraid of them than most?

    Or is the whole thing just a rehash of the National Lampoon allyship satire in which a Joan Baez mimic sang “Pull the Trigroes” to the brothers across the Bay in Oakland.

    1. In https://bowie.berkeley.edu the BLM statement comes *above* the description of “what we do”, and has more text. It contains “requires thinking about problems from new perspectives” but is, of course, indistinguishable from everyone else’s BLM statement.

      I can’t get over how bizarre this is. If Dr Bowie truly believes this, it’s surprising he poured his life into getting a job at Berkely. I see he escaped from South Africa around 2006, good for him but why move somewhere whiter if your number-one priority is an “equitable world in which black and brown people” etc? So most likely it’s not in fact his priority.

      So then, is it a calculated move? The careful speech on TV about how nice the food is in your north korean prison, so as not to get beaten up? I don’t quite buy this either. (Although I haven’t read enough by him to look for clues he might disbelieve. The clever classics or pop culture references you insert which the north koreans won’t spot, which you must insert, for your sanity & self-respect.)

      The third possibility is that people are just more mimetic than rational. That you now get hired as a top-flight scientist not by seeing stuff nobody else noticed, but instead by being really good at reading the room, repeating what people in power want to hear. Picking up this year’s buzzwords before your competitors do, so that you sound fresh and interesting, while they are struggling with last year’s details.

      (This is indeed not Childers’s fault, and her letter is great.)

        1. Thanks for the link, Nicholas – that was new to me.

          Havel uses the example of a greengrocer who displays in his shop the sign Workers of the world, unite! Since failure to display the sign could be seen as disloyalty, he displays it and the sign becomes not a symbol of his enthusiasm for the regime, but a symbol of both his submission to it and humiliation by it.


        2. Thanks, this is a nice parallel. Although it implies that he knows what he’s doing. Does he?

          Surely not one Czech greengrocer in 1977 would have failed to understand what the sign meant. But in say 1950 perhaps there were some sincere enthusiasts? And more who at least hoped that the new world might be an improvement on the last, or didn’t want to examine too closely lest they become cynical?

  4. Thank you Jackie Childers. Excellent letter that I hope gets fully considered. Best of luck on your anticipated dissertation defense.

  5. Some years ago I and my wife who was not a biologist attended a symposium at Harvard and heard Mayr and Wilson speak. It was very special for me to be able to share this with my wife.

  6. As a graduate student, this proposal deeply offends me. I first read Ernst Mayr when I was a teenager. It was his final book, “What Makes Biology Unique?”. Mayr showed me how rich a life as an academic biologist can be, what science has taught us about who we are and our place in nature, but also how much we still have to learn. He stilled in me the desire to become a scientist, someone who could contribute to society through ideas. And his writings fostered my taste for reading, especially theoretical and philosophical texts. I’ve since read most of his writings, and he has become one my intellectual heroes. It was through him that I first became aware of the “species problem”, and pursuing this and other evolutionary questions has been leading me into a career as a systematist. In recognition of all this, I had the pleasure of naming a new Amazonian species of scarabs as Sylvicanthon mayri.

    I never cared about this idea of being “represented” by people ‒ let alone their colour, sex, nationality, or any other aspect no one can really choose. But I always sought inspiration in ideas and lives. And I do feel inspired by Mayr in all these aspects. Three examples:

    Systematics, especially museum-based microtaxonomy, is often regarded as being no more than “stamp collection”. But Mayr showed that this not only is not necessarily true for all systematists, but also that without a sound systematics, evolutionary biology cannot exist. His first major contribution, after all, was that of integrating systematics with other biological fields to forge the Modern Synthesis. “Stamp collection” could never give rise to modern evolutionary biology, but Mayrian systematics not only could, but it did. Mayr’s contributions as a systematist not only make me proud of also calling myself a systematist, but it also gives me the legitimacy to be regarded as a true evolutionary biologist.

    Secondly, for historical reasons, the place where evolutionary biology really happens is in the English-speaking world. Ernst Mayr, a young immigrant from interwar Germany, shows that this should not frighten someone like me equally from a non-English-speaking country that is constantly in economic crisis. His example shows that, even in the 1930s, someone with a passion, focus, who was willing to work hard, and, of course, who found luck was able to be a major player in a central discipline of 20th-century science. Why can I not follow in his footsteps in this now much more open world?

    Finally, racism is deeply rooted in essentialism ‒ i.e., thinking in classes. And there has been no one who fought essentialism harder than Mayr. The key to winning the battle against racism is to understand essentialism and why it is false. It is through population thinking, the idea so fondly cherished by Mayr, that we can put an end to racism.

    Though I list only three points, many other contributions could be listed. For example, how his distinction between proximate and ultimate causation can be used against the “appeal to nature” fallacy (e.g., “sex evolved for reproduction. Therefore, sex without a reproductive end is wrong”. This clearly conflates proximate and ultimate causation).

    A illuminating reading about Mayr’s life is Haffer’s “Ornithology, Evolution, and Philosophy: The Life and Science of Ernst Mayr”. I can’t see how someone would still argue for renaming the Ernst Mayr Award after reading this book unless the argument is to remove eponyms from all awards. But I would still say that we would be in a considerably poorer, greyer world if we cannot live among the memory of our heroes.

    1. Thank you Mario for your added perspectives on this, and for the book recommendation! It’s really helpful to hear from others who have different life experiences, but who hold similar values. I wonder if one of the reasons for this award de-naming phenomena is simply because there is a general unfamiliarity with Mayr’s legacy in the first place?

  7. Bravo! This whole think especially burned my marshmallows, as its being done specifically because of the race of the individual, and the assertion (without evidence as far as I am aware), that women and minorities are said to feel unseen.
    I know it may be asking a lot, but I would like to actually hear from people who feel harmed or socially distanced bc of a prestigious award named after a white man.

    1. As I noted previously, the DEI Director at SSB has two of these awards named for old white male entomologists. She seems to be proud of them (they appear on her wikipedia page), as she should be. So given that she is not opposed to such awards, I agree it would be helpful to hear from someone else at SSB who is actually opposed to them. There might be good reasons for that opposition.

  8. Well said, Jackie Childers. When I was a student, I wouldn’t have been brave enough to speak out against the sheep-like orthodoxy of fashionable bullies. But then I wouldn’t have been brave enough to confront something quite so reminiscent of a Komodo Dragon.

  9. I admire Jackie for her courage and I agree with her points. I too have always been acutely aware of the paucity of female role models in our field. But it never affected my appreciation and enthusiasm for science and its beauty. Neither it dampened my motivation to excel and to become a part of this wonderful community. And it would never occurred to me to seek a teacher or a mentor using their gender or race as a criterion. Throughout my career, I had great, inspiring, and supportive male teachers and mentors… We should stand up and defend our heroes.

  10. Jackie is very hot – with lizards or without (usually that’s not a category of mine) and intelligence is a HUGE boost in the attractive department.


    1. Lots of Mexicans (and Hispanics) look “white”, but they’re counted as people of color. I suspect she identifies as Mexican, judging from her emails, but I’ll let her speak for herself. For DEI initiatives, it’s ancestry, so anyone from South America, or even from Spain, are counted as “Hispanics.”

    2. The degree of melanin in the skin does not assign you to a “classical racist designation” If you had access to Jackies’ genome I am sure you would find a lot of diversity representing other groups.

    3. In her opening paragraph she writes, “I’ll just take a moment to put in my two cents as a millennial, first-generation college student, non-white woman”.

        1. I was prompted to learn that the use and etymology is old and broad [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woke ] So I guess we have to define narrower usage.

          For instance, her statement fits “a broader awareness of social inequalities” and I would hope to aspire to that. [But of note is that I wouldn’t cluster a population against colors of parts of the body.]

          1. The point is that according to her appearance most would classify her as white. By calling herself non-white, she implies that it makes her look better to call herself non-white, which could be interpreted as anti-white racism. In other words, “white” and “non-white” are redefined, as in Jews are white and Palestinians are non-white.

            1. Hebrews (Jews) and Palestinians are genealogical sister groups, neither white or non-white as those are ridiculous categories. However they are both Caucasian (which doesn’t mean white) on the basis of skull and dentitional features that were well described in the 19th century. The black-skinned Sri Lankans are Caucasian; black-skinned Ethiopians are mostly Caucasian.

  11. Thank you everyone for the positive and constructive comments. I sincerely appreciate all of the support I’ve received from the community, and I’m so glad that it’s prompted many of you to weigh in and share your own thoughts and experiences. It’s been incredibly illuminating, and encouraging. The scientific community is not monolithic, and if it’s the case that we should value honesty, integrity, and truth, it’s so important to hear everyone’s opinions. So thank you all for your continued engagement on these complex and important issues that we face, I hope that we can all continue to support and listen to one another.

    1. Thank you for the thoughtful statement and for caring about the response, and good luck with your science!

  12. Jackie, you give me hope for the future. Congratulations on both your clear thinking and your courage. My best wishes for your future career.

  13. Wow! The action pic of Jackie Childers and her monitor lizard takes me back more than 50 years ago. We were living in a town about 20 km from Durban, South Africa. Grandpa 90+ years’ old and blind was seated on a chair on the veranda.when a giant liguaan made his appearance. The lizard sniffed grandpa and moved on. We watched from afar breathless and relieved. No damage done.

  14. Testing Assumptions: How Thomas Edison screened job candidates? The Medium post by Andrew Martin explains that Edison had a very specific and peculiar way of interviewing research assistants for his labs. He’d invite candidates out for a meal and then order soup for the table.

    “The reason for this soup test was that the famous inventor wanted to see if the applicants added salt and pepper before tasting what was in their bowl, or if they waited until they tasted it before proceeding with the seasoning,” Martin explains. “Edison immediately rejected the premature seasoners, as he reasoned he didn’t want employees who relied on assumptions. In his opinion, those who were content to abide by preconceived notions had no place in his business, because the absence of curiosity and willingness to ask questions were antithetical to innovation.”

    Too bad the officers of SSB didn’t test their assumptions

    1. Does anyone else get annoyed with restaurant staff who appear 5 seconds after your meal arrives to offer the black pepper grinder? My answer is always ‘I don’t know yet, I haven’t tasted it.’ Down with autocondimenters!

  15. We have all been aware of this especially the irrationality of Systematic Biology Officers, but finally an objective analysis has been published. There is a nice graphic in the article.

    From the article:

    “Scientists from Wageningen University and Research (WUR) and Indiana University have discovered that the increasing irrelevance of factual truth in public discourse is part of a groundswell trend that started decades ago.

    “While the current “post-truth era” has taken many by surprise, the study shows that over the past forty years, public interest has undergone an accelerating shift from the collective to the individual, and from rationality towards emotion.


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