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.