The late evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr survives deplatforming by the Society for Systematic Biologists

June 27, 2022 • 10:45 am

In January of this year, I wrote a post opposing the proposal by the Society of Systematic Biologists (SSB; the premier society dealing with the “family tree” of life), to get rid of its “Ernst Mayr Award” handed out at its annual meeting for the best student paper given at the meeting. The proposal was to change the award’s name to “Outstanding Student Presentation Award in Systematic Biology.” (How dull!)

One would think that Mayr must have done something odious or ideologically unacceptable to be subject to this kind of “deplatforming,” but one would be wrong. Ernst Mayr was not only one of the outstanding evolutionary biologists of our time, a scientist who helped bring speciation into the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis”, but he was a liberal and an egalitarian. He never advocated eugenics or promoted racism or white supremacy. As I described in my earlier post, he was a mentor of sorts to me, and although sometimes dogmatic in his views, he was not someone deserving such a “ban.”

In fact, as renowned systematist and evolutionist David Hillis (a past president of the SSB), and biologist Nick Matzke pointed out in a piece at Panda’s Thumb (see also Hillis’s comment on my post), Mayr was an egalitarian:

Even given all of Mayr’s vast biological accomplishments, I think what most impresses me about him were his efforts to build a better world for all. For example, in 1951, in support of “UNESCO 1951: The race concept: Results of an inquiry,” Mayr made a public statement opposing the views of R. A. Fisher, and supporting the UNESCO statement:

Mayr stated that he hoped 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],” Mayr wrote, 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.”

So why the proposal, which was simply presented to the SSB membership as a fait accompli to be voted on—and was never subject to discussion by the SSB membership— to ditch the named award?  There are two reasons suggested

a.) Mayr was a white man (and he became an old white man, dying at 100). Naming an award after him would not be “inclusive” (see the SSB announcement below). This, in turn, could discourage women or members of minorities from applying for such awards, or even starting a career in systematics. In other words, the named award would be “harmful”. As the SSB itself notes on its webpage:

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.

That is pure nonsense and there’s no evidence to back it up. Who has felt excluded by the name “Ernst Mayr Award? Can we have some names? In contrast, I know that some people who have won such awards, even if they’re “people of color”, are proud of getting a prize named after a famous person in their field. That’s anecdotal, the other side has no evidence save assertion.

b.) Apparently someone, somewhere, objected to something Mayr wrote, as given in the original proposal for denaming reproduced in my original post:

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.

No people or “problematic” writings are described. I can’t think of anything politically problematic that Mayr wrote, so what is the problem? Do people not like his Biological Species Concept, or his defense of allopatric (geographic) speciation?

This reason, too, is nonsense.

Yet despite this, the motion to dename the Mayr award in favor of an anodyne name went forward, and without public discussion. That in itself is a bad move on the part of the SSB, for the issue became divisive, with people on opposite sides of the issue calling each other names, even if they were colleagues. At least they could have aired the issue in a discussion at the meeting before the vote.

In fact, I strongly suspect that many people who wanted Mayr’s name removed didn’t know anything about the man and his work, but wanted to vote for denaming simply because it was presented to SSB members by the Council as a motion to amend the Society’s constitution, and therefore Mayr must have done something bad.

But the other day they did have a vote. And, glory be, THE DENAMING MOTION WAS DEFEATED! But it wasn’t defeated by much. In fact, most of the SSB members voted to dename the award, but it requires two-thirds of the members to vote for that, and only 63.4% did.  So it was pretty damn close: a few percent change would have denamed the award.

Here’s the SSB’s official announcement of the vote. The take-home message is in bold, but the SSB can’t resist, after this defeat, emphasizing their continuing initiatives in DEI, as if the failure to dename the Mayr award was some kind of blow against these initiatives.

Three years ago, the Society of Systematic Biologists Council began the discussion of whether to change the name of the “Ernst Mayr Award in Systematic Biology” to the “Outstanding Student Presentation Award in Systematic Biology”.  One goal in proposing this change was to make the award more inclusive and descriptive (see for instance, Pourret et al. (2021) and Bazner et al. (2020)). This proposal is part of SSB’s many efforts to broaden the reach of our Society, especially to students. Drawing students into the Society is something Ernst Mayr himself advocated, through his work for the Society and donations that helped support it. After much deliberation, the Council approved sending the constitutional amendment to the membership for their vote. Under our constitution, all amendments require approval by two-thirds of the voting members. While 63.4% of the voting members favored the change, this is short of the 66.7% required for the amendment to be adopted. Thus, the award will continue to be called the “Ernst Mayr Award in Systematic Biology”.  SSB will continue its efforts to remove barriers and create a better environment for all, as there remains much work to do. The SSB Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee has been working hard, often in collaboration with committees of our sibling organizations in SSE and ASN. Initiatives include commissioning a climate survey of our community, preparing a Leading Culture Change Through Professional Societies of Biology (BIO-LEAPS) proposal to NSF, organizing workshops on field safety, and much more. Additionally, we launched a new open access journal, where publishing is free of charge for all SSB members, in order to lower barriers to participation in systematics; we broadened the panel of associate editors for our flagship journal,Systematic Biology; and we give out over $150,000 in research grants annually to help grow the field.We look forward to working together to grow the Society of Systematic Biologists in an inclusive, positive direction.

Well, although the bad news is that most of the members voted for denaming, over a third had some sense and voted to keep the honor to Mayr, who always supported the SSB.

Could this herald a change in the extreme wokeness permeating scientific societies? It would be pretty think so, but given the vote I’m not looking for a sea change.  And to the SSB, the next time you try to pull a stunt like this, how about allowing some open discussion among members of the society? They might learn something about people like Ernst Mayr.

Ernst Mayr

45 thoughts on “The late evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr survives deplatforming by the Society for Systematic Biologists

  1. The Darwin Award should be renamed The Stupid Human Award. Some stupid humans might feel left out if the purpose of the award is not precisely spelled out in its title in a way they can understand, although that might be asking too much of them.

  2. Does this result not mean that nearly 2/3 of an ostensibly scientific membership voted against someone on the grounds of (1) leucophobia; (2) “guilty until proven innocent,” or (3) the stalinist theory that assertions imply/determine guilt? If so, even the “acquittal” could be seen as a very bad sign.

  3. While it makes sense to focus on the scientist for which the award is named, it seems they are forgetting about the award’s previous winners. Each winner benefits from the association with a famous biologist, all the others who have won the award, and the organization which presents the award. Renaming the award somewhat abandons those previous winners, thereby “harming” them.

  4. The Car Talk guys used to talk about how a group of people can be dumber than any one person, or something like that. Idiocy seems to multiply the more people are involved. I can’t find the original quote.

    1. It probably ended with their conclusion that two are enough to make a group – and a flurry of laughing from Tom and a few snorts from Ray.

  5. Perhaps Mayr’s advocacy of evolutionary taxonomy was seen as “problematic” by advocates of monophyly at all costs. Mayr was of the opinion that if a group of living organisms is sufficiently different from others, it can be classified at an equal rank, even if it means breaking away from a perfectly nested sets. For example, birds, although a subset of the reptiles, could be a class of their own (Aves), equal to the Reptilia.

    1. But that’s a scientific dispute which comes down to a matter of taste, not something to ban the guy for! And against that weigh all his positive contributions. By “problematic”, I assumed they meant “politically problematic.”

    2. But Aves is pretty clearly a monophyletic grouping, whereas “Reptilia” is a hodgepodge of multiple groups of very obscure phylogenetic relations. Why would you want to lower the Aves from a secure position as maniraptorian theropod dinosaurs to having a status compared to something of extremely unclear status.
      Why not argue for Aves to be the sixth kingdom, or the 108th phylum (whatever the current counts are).

    3. A grammatical solution to this problem was once proposed by Don Les (botanist) and Kurt Schwenk (herpetologist). The title of their prank article was “Para-fuckin-phyletic: a compromise category for classification.” IDK how to post documents here in a comment so I’ll email it to our host and he can post it or not. The story is that Les disavowed the prank in later years, but lots of us came to love it anyway.

  6. I learned much from Mayr’s “Population Species and Evolution”, and from an article on evolution in “Scientific American” back when that magazine was worth reading. I am glad that he “survived” for now.

  7. The SSB’s rueful announcement explains exactly where the move to de-platform Ernst Mayr came from: “ The SSB Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee has been working hard…“. The vote outcome strikingly resembles a recent faculty vote at the University of Washington. The Faculty Senate proposed legislation to include Diversity Statements in the promotion and tenure assessment process. The measure was supported by about 63% of the voting faculty, but 67% was required to pass, so the
    measure failed. Thus, a significant and in this case decisive 37% recognized the Diversity Statement
    maneuver for what it is: the DEI bureaucracy’s upgrade and metastasis of the 1950s loyalty oath. [See: .]

      1. And one might ask, why does the Society of Systematic Biologists even have a DEI committee? Do we now expect to find DEI committees in the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, the International Cultivar Registration Authority, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the American Guild of Organists, the Board of Tea Appeals, the Mutilated Currency Division, and the Office of Planetary Protection?

  8. Unbelievable! If SSB really wants to broaden the audience from which people might enter SSB studies and qualify for this award, the society could attack a root of the total educational problem by developing some early reader (grades K-2) books that introduce concepts and language that eventually will frame the K-12 life sciences courses that students receive; and provide the dosh required for school districts to get these materials into underserved communities in their districts. I would start with putting together a small team (total 6or7)of early-reading teachers, SSB subject matter experts, and K-2 life sciences teachers to draft a couple of examples, then do a national call for additional people from the three skill areas to create more material, coordinated and edited by the leadership group. Present the examples at national K-12 and reading society meetings, and include the various national and state science teaching groups in the process. Waiting for fully formed young scientists to be eligible misses a huge potential audience.

  9. I’m so glad they didn’t receive the needed two-thirds vote, but I’m disappointed in how high the vote was in favor of changing the name. Perhaps the Society leadership thought that few would remember Mayr or come to his defense, given how old he was when he died, now seventeen years ago.

    But we do remember him. I personally remember his confident presence in the halls of the Museum of Comparative Zoology building at Harvard. He remained extraordinarily active during his retirement and was a tireless advocate for the importance of biological systematics and organismal biology as an equal partner to the rapidly expanding field of molecular biology. It would be an immense honor to win a Mayr award. What a powerful welcome message such an award would send to a young biologist of any race or background.

  10. Thanks Jerry. This small victory for reason with its razor thin margin is likely due in a large part to your diligence and that of a number of your WEIT readers in the field who wrote to protest and bring some public awareness.

      1. I would think that any of the youngin’s who read your post would at least have second thoughts about voting to dename, and in something (apparently)… this close…though we do not know how close in actual votes, every turned mind helps by a two vote swing. We just cannot have good people doing nothing with assaults on reason both from the left and the right.

  11. So, I’m happy that the vote went the way that I wanted. Not so happy that most people still voted to de-name (!?). But also happy that there was a 2/3 majority firewall that prevented this sort of change.
    What if it were slightly different, and the motion was carried by a hairs-breadth 2/3 majority? That would have really burned my marshmallows!

  12. “the Society of Systematic Biologists (SSB; the premier society dealing with the “family tree” of life)”

    For many years now, I’ve read of problems with evolution’s icon of the “tree of life”.
    For example,
    from 2009:

    “Why Darwin was wrong about the tree of life”

    from this month:

    “Study suggests that most of our evolutionary trees could be wrong
    Scientists say convergent evolution is much more common than previously thought”

    1. The headline of the first article you linked was dire and roundly criticized by numerous biologists at the time of its publication as a misleading and disingenuous effort at stirring up controversy where there was none in order to sell magazines. New Scientist is not a scientific primary source and its quality and reliability is not the highest. There is still a tree of life, although in the earliest stages of life, the relationships would probably appear more like a network because of more frequent horizontal gene transfer. The tree-like representation of relationships would not be apparent before barriers to HGT evolved.

      The latter article is about a long known phenomenon and problem with using morphological data for tree building, not that there is no tree of life, but rather that we’ve inferred an incorrect pattern to the branching. Sometimes morphology can be misleading and molecular data is generally better able to provide the information needed to accurately reconstruct the branches.

      1. You say they were “stirring up controversy where there was none” yet you also say “we’ve inferred an incorrect pattern to the branching.”
        Also, that “morphology can be misleading and molecular data is generally better” for branching.

        Is there a molecular tree that everyone agrees to, for which there is no controversy?

        1. If you think any disagreement is controversy, then no. But disagreement is the norm in science. Some differences in conclusions are normal and not controversies, since new data are constantly being accumulated and analyzed. If we had complete knowledge, we’d have complete agreement, or something much closer to it. But we don’t, so we don’t. We haven’t even discovered every species, much less performed whole genomic sequencing on all known species.

    2. SSB members study the diversity of life, including species, speciation, phylogeny, biogeography, convergence, epidemiology, and many other topics. The tree of life is one application of phylogeny, but phylogeny is studied at many different levels. The importance of phylogeny is not in the least controversial, and it is critical to many fields (especially subdisciplines of biology, but also other fields that study evolution of non-living systems, such as languages). For just one current example, look at how critical phylogenetic methods have been for understanding the origins and evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is pretty hard to pick up any journal in biology today and not see applications of phylogenetic methods. Those methods are developed, tested, and applied by members of the Society of Systematic Biologists.

      1. I find the use of the word “phylogeny” has the whiff of begging-the question/circular argument.

        Merriam-Webster defines phylogeny as

        “1. The *evolutionary* development and history of a species or trait of a species or of a higher taxonomic grouping of organisms.
        2. A model or diagram delineating such an *evolutionary* history.”

        IOW, this particular study of the *theory of* evolution already presumes evolution is true.

        1. “IOW, this particular study of the *theory of* evolution already presumes evolution is true.”

          And I’d call that checkmate! Well done.

        2. Wow. I had assumed that there were no more people in the world who still denied the factual observation of evolution. If there really are, I guess they have not been paying attention during the Covid pandemic, which has been all about evolution of the viruses. And phylogenetics provides the critical set of tools that has allowed us to understand the diversification of the viruses. That is thanks to efforts of groups like the Society of Systematic Biologists.

          1. Sadly I think the Supreme Court of the US will soon try to shore up the declining fortunes of antievolutionism. We’ll see if anyone thinks evolutionists launching ideological internecine disputes over iconoclasm was worth it then.

  13. I can’t help but be a little depressed by how close the vote was, whilst being pleased with the outcome. Imagine if they could pin something/anything on him.

    I wish I could share our host’s optimism that this is a step in the right direction.

Leave a Reply