Was Ernst Mayr a eugenicist?

July 13, 2022 • 1:30 pm

A while back the Society of Systematic Biologists (SSB) had second thoughts about the name of its Ernst Mayr Award, a prize given to the best student paper presented at the SSB’s annual meeting. (Mayr, one of my scientific heroes, also endowed that award and left a sum in his will to keep funding it.) If you look at the rationale for the proposed de-naming of the award, given at the link above, you’ll find there were two reasons proposed by the SSB Council for this:

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.

In other words, Mayr was an old white man and its name could make people feel unsafe. I have strong doubts about whether this is true, although perhaps a tiny handful of individuals could object on those grounds, but they would surely be outweighed by the proud recipients of the “Ernst Mayr Award”, who could put it on their c.v.s. Many of these would be people of color.. The other reason was this:

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.

Yes, Mayr was one of the greats, a man who in fact helped found and fund the SSB. And the proposal doesn’t even mention which writings people found “problematic”. I wasn’t aware of any, and I read a lot of Mayr, but of course I didn’t know about his correspondence or other personal issues. I know that he wrote a lot of antiracist stuff, some of which you’ll see here and some of which you can see at this link.

At any rate, thanks to the intercession of Ceiling Cat, the SSB membership narrowly voted down the deplatforming of Mayr.  It was a squeaker, though, as most of the SSB voted to remove the name. Fortunately, it takes a 2/3 vote to do so. From the SSB’s announcement:

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”.

That was a victory for rationality, especially because the reasons for the renaming were either unclear or unspecified, and I suspect that most of the “rename” votes were by people who didn’t know much about Mayr.

Since I wrote my posts on this, one reader informed me that a letter existed from Mayr to his friend Francis Crick, a letter in which Mayr apparently espoused some pro-eugenic views. This letter, written in 1971, can be found in the NIH collection here, and a better version, a pdf, is here.

And indeed, Mayr does show himself in favor of what he calls “positive eugenics”, but eugenics based not on race but on rewarded breeding for “positive traits”, or, alternatively, as one correspondent interpreted it, on eliminating genetic defects that could be somehow rectified. But it is absolutely clear in Mayr’s views, and in this paper he wrote, is that his views had absolutely nothing to do with race (Mayr was an anti-racist), and that he thought in terms of incentives for individuals possessing more “desired” traits to have more children. He absolutely abjured the racist views of Shockley and others. Here’s are excerpts from his 1971 letter to Crick, but I urge you to read it for yourself

I have been favoring positive eugenics as far back as I can remember. As I get older, I find the objective as important as ever, but I appreciate also increasingly how difficult it is to achieve this goal, particularly in a democratic western society. Even if we could solve all the biological problems, and they are formidable, there still remains the problem of coping☂with the demand for “freedom of reproduction,” a freedom which fortunately will have to be abolished anyhow if we are not drown in human bodies. The time will come, and perhaps sooner than we think, when parents will have to take out a license to produce a child. No one seems to question that it requires a license for such a harmless activity as driving a car, and yet such an important activity as influencing the gene pool of the next generation can be carried out unlicensed. A biologist will understand the logic of this argument, but how many non-biologists would? Obviously, then, we need massive education. Such education is going to be – paralyzed at the very start if it gets mixed up with racist and anti-racist arguments. This is why the Academy has to disassociate itself from Shockley’s arguments. JI have heard him argue by the hour, and it is very obvious that he treats human beings like so many sodium atoms or pi mesons. Population differences for him are real, the differences between individuals, however, are errors of sampling that can be ignored by focusing on mean values. I will not claim that Shockley does not somewhere know that his approach is wrong, because he must realize that even differences between individuals have a significant genetic basis. What is crucial, however, is that he seems to ignore these individual differences in his conclusions and generalizations.

Now as to positive action! The most important thing at this time/to stop talking about “The White” and “The Black.” As long as we use this language, we will produce only heat but no light. We must think in terms of adopting a strategy that will permit meaningful research without offending people’s sensitivities and without coming too aggressively in conflict with popular prejudices. Please do not forget that thinking in anthropology in this country was shaped by Boas (and his various disciples) and in psychology by the behaviorist school. Both schools magnify the importance of the environment and hardly mention or even deny the role of inheritance. The American school of psychoanalysis, likewise, denied any importance of inheritance, even in such clearly genetic conditions as schizophrenia. This must be kept in mind when one is thinking about strategies to be adopted for the initiation of meaningful eugenic research. A bull-in-the-china-shop attitude, like that of Shockley, will result only in the erection of impassable roadblocks. What is equally deplorable is the action of certain geneticists who imply, by overemphasizing the environmental uncertainties, that the genetic factors can be ignored as far as human abilities are concerned. But this is not the place to discuss this any further.

The question, then, is what Mayr meant by “positive eugenics”.  Did he want to encourage breeding of individuals to, say, raise the IQ of human populations, or was he trying to encourage people to breed who were free of genetic defects like schizophrenia? (We do some of the latter already, by either choosing embryos free from specific genetic diseases or telling parents early in pregnancy and allowing them to abort the fetus.)

I’ve had answers from colleagues on both sides. For example, one colleague interpreted Mayr as holding the former view: breeding of the best classes. I quote:

Yes this is par for the course for mid-century intellectuals. Very tiresome. Crick’s eugenics was undigested Galton.: very English and Edwardian, and based on class. Crick, for instance, supported Shockley’s right to spout his garbage along with many others. From the 1970s onwards, Crick learned to keep his opinions to himself. And don’t forget that Linus Pauling himself wanted people to be tattooed with their genetic defects so people would avoid having sex with them!
The key point is that [Mayr’s thinking] reveals how bad these people were about thinking through things they had learned as kids. Both just repeated garbage from the 1920s, which was very disappointing.
Another colleague plumped for the second alternative:

One problem is that the words “positive eugenics” have changed in meaning over time. People now associate those words with encouraging “genetically advantaged” people to have children. What Mayr meant by “positive eugenics” would now be called “gene therapy”: using molecular techniques to cure genetic diseases. He also considered other future technologies (in his time)  like in vitro fertilization to be a type of “positive eugenics”. Those are the two examples that he gave in discussing the future and potential uses and dangers of “positive eugenics.”

Even in this letter, Mayr is very careful to note the dangers associated with racism, and is very clearly an anti-racist.
It is not fair to damn Mayr for using a word in a reasonable, but different, way than people now use it. Now no one would use the word “eugenics” to talk about the things that Mayr was discussing, like gene therapy and in vitro fertilization. In vitro fertilization is now widely used and accepted. Gene therapy is more controversial and still in development, but there are lots of people who would happily use it to cure their genetic disease if they could.
The question, then, is whether Mayr really is using the words “positive eugenics” to mean “gene therapy” rather than “selective breeding of the best and the brightest.” If you read this paper from 1967, you see the antiracism, but also a sense that Mayr thinks that the human species could be improved by specified differential reproduction. But he’s also very pessimistic, saying that we know very little about the genetics of human traits and that nothing could be done for many generations.

Well, now that we have whole-genome sequencing and the construction of Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS), we could indeed begin to do incentivized selection by rewarding people with traits that society wants to change: we just give bonuses to people with, say, high career achievement if they have more children. That would work given the estimates of heritability for such traits given by people like Kathryn Harden.

Would it work? Almost certainly, for most human traits have substantial heritability with a measured populations (Harden’s statistics come from whites), and if there is heritability, then there will nearly always be a response to selection.

Should we do this? HELL NO!  Getting the government or biologists involved in trying to make humanity move in a certain direction by choosing which traits are “best”, and then rewarding people that have those traits for producing more kids seems deeply unethical.  Who decides? Wouldn’t people object? And of course it would have to be implemented on a worldwide scale if you wanted to change our species. Besides, we are doing fine as we are and, I think, are not being dragged down by “bad genes”. Cultural changes are far better and faster at improving humanity, and far less invidious, than effecting genetic change. Plus this kind of incentivized breeding is extra odious because it would increase inequality among people.

But relevant to this topic, did Mayr espouse the “selective breeding” form of eugenics? I think you can say that he did in places, though you cannot say that he supported a bigoted form of eugenics that labeled ethnic groups as inferior, or wanted to impede people’s reproduction. And at any rate he never did anything about it.  To say that “eugenics” = “Nazi” is simply a boorish, tendentious, and unnuanced way to address a historical controversy, one that continues today with discussions about gene therapy and selective abortion.

So yes, you can find at least this letter as “slightly problematic”. Is that enough to remove Mayr’s name from an award? Not in my view, not unless you want to remove Crick’s and Pauling’s names from awards, and basically deplatform every biologist who was working before, say, 1950. Is anyone’s closet free from skeletons?

Indeed, it’s hard to think of any biologist of earlier generations who didn’t have views that many of us, including me, reject in our day. But given Mayr’s immense positive contributions, both to biology and to antiracism, I don’t see one letter, or even several and a paper, as sufficient to efface his name from an award. I’ve always thought that a name should be kept if it’s there to honor the positive achievements of a person, and also if that person’s existence was a plus for humanity. Surely Mayr qualifies on both counts.

Here’s Ernst in New Guinea as a young white biologist, before he became an old white biologist:

30 thoughts on “Was Ernst Mayr a eugenicist?

  1. This idea of removing names from things is rather odd. It assumes that attitudes today are perfect. I wonder if, just to posit examples, future generations will want to cancel people of today who ate meat or drove big cars that produce more CO2. I’ll pose this though for eugenics. What happens when we cure aging and the death rate plummets as a result. What do we do to reduce the birth rate? Do we licence the creation of children? How do we determine that, by lottery perhaps?

    1. In every developed country, birth rate falls below 2.1 children per woman (the replacement rate) when longevity increases. Hence the encouragement of immigration in some countries. This situation also provides an opportunity for “positive eugenics.” Governments could encourage some people to have children, perhaps with some test as a requirement (Mayr’s license?). Japan is already offering $ incentives to have children.

  2. Societies have largely accepted a form of “negative eugenics” in amniocentesis, although segments of society (e.g., USA Supreme Court) disapprove of possible consequences. A recent article in the NYTimes (I think) bemoaned the lack of genetic testing for sickle cell in black parents so they can make an informed decision about having a child if they both have the gene. I’m pretty confident, as well, that a lot of assortative mating goes on, albeit undirected by government and not restricted to positive traits.

  3. It seems to me that eugenics is a good goal pretty much by definition. Do we want to be smarter, stronger, and healthier, or dumber, weaker, and sicker? Genetic diseases exist and they can be eliminated or reduced. Intelligence, attractiveness, eyesight, overall health, predisposition to early death and decrepitude, and other traits are substantially genetic.

    One one side of my family, men routinely live into their 80s and 90s. On the other side, they routinely die in their 60s (often of heart failure). I doubt it’s it’s pure coincidence. My step-father’s family has a rare genetic disease that has claimed several of their children in long, slow deaths. My half-sister has it, and has been confined to a bed for 10 years, gradually growing weaker. She “died” about two weeks ago, but was revived and is still hospitalized.

    It would be better if we were smarter and healthier, obviously! Much suffering could be eliminated. The only question is whether this can be achieved in an ethical and unoppressive way. If it’s impossible, then eugenics is bad for practical reasons. But if it can be achieved ethically, why not?

    In short, there is nothing inherently bad about eugenics that should cause a person who espouses it to be shunned. Tell me about their proposed methods. That’s what matters.

    1. In a certain sense, whenever people seek out a mate based on desirable characteristics–and who doesn’t, when seeking a mate?–they’re practicing a sort of unconscious, small-scale eugenics. But, of course, that’s rather different than government getting involved and providing incentives and/or penalties, with almost inevitable corruption and sheer incompetence.

  4. Is that enough to remove Mayr’s name from an award? Not in my view, not unless you want to remove Crick’s and Pauling’s names from awards, and basically deplatform every biologist who was working before, say, 1950.

    Well, it may come to that.

    If Mayr endorsed the Bad form of eugenics instead of the Good form, it’s depressing on its own — but yes, it’s even more depressing to realize that no quarter would be given. The idea that people are flawed, we take the good with the bad, and a lifetime of great achievements and care is not cancelled out by a Sin seems to be losing popularity. I’m not talking about the supposed Christian virtue of Forgiveness, but the ordinary pragmatism and charity of the Reasonable Person. I’m not sure if it’s virtue signaling, perfectionism, or the fear of feeling Unsafe, but it’s an increasing habit I hope gets broken.

  5. In Mayr’s case the “eugenicist” charge seems to be just a workaround for some biologists on twitter who realized they can’t make “racist” stick.

    In general, people already mate assortatively for important heritable traits like intelligence and physical attractiveness. A smaller group of people are vastly more selective when choosing sperm or egg donors, with choices based on many physical, mental, and physiological traits (and this after the sperm bank or egg agency has screened donors for heritable diseases and other traits). So I have trouble with seeing what’s wrong with either version of “positive eugenics”. It’s normal human behaviour.

    Some kinds of “negative eugenics” are also normal behaviour. Many people with profound developmental disabilities that are likely to be heritable undergo surgical sterilization as teens or young adults on the authority of their guardians (typically the parents). The reasons why some guardians choose to do this and others don’t are diverse and arguably correct from some POVs (or at least debatable).

  6. Eugenics has a bad connotation, because it has been abused in racist and ‘feebleminded’ contexts. Heartbreaking stories can be told there.
    But I’m an advocate of ‘negative’ eugenics’, if the foetus has clear birth defects, such as trisomy or worse syndromes, I would advise (not impose) abortion. I consider that close to a no-brainer.

    The problem is that it is not always predictable, the most frequent birth defect, more than all others combined (at least in the RSA)*, is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). AFAIK there are no tests to predict outcome or severity.

    An anecdote in that context. FAS children often have no or a very reduced filtrum (the grooves in the upper lip, aka, mistakenly, the snot grooves). A colleague pointed out that it could be a racial trait in the ‘Cape ‘Couloureds’. Exactly, it could just as well be FAS sufferers giving birth to FAS children.

    * It is estimated that in some areas (such as eg. Upington in the Northern Cape) up to one in 10 births have FAS.

  7. Well, I personally and unreservedly endorse a form of Eugenics specified as: Encouraging beautiful and intelligent women to breed with men whose middle name is Eugene. I am NOT biased about this, even though my middle name IS Eugene. Anyway, I’ve already fathered 2 children with a beautiful and intelligent woman, so…fait accompli. 😉

  8. In all seriousness, with respect to deplatforming people for “potentially problematic” things, it would be nice if people could learn at least one decent lesson from Jesus (the literary character): He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.

  9. Interesting letter; ambiguous letter. Mayr clearly opposes Jensen’s blatantly racist ideas. He also opposes the typological thinking that characterizes races as discrete entities and not what they are in fact—populations with broadly overlapping characteristics. (This “population thinking” permeates Mayr’s writing, so is not surprising to see here.) Mayr might very well have believed in some form of eugenics even though he opposed racism. I’ve read a great deal of his work and I don’t recall him advocating eugenics even in his more historical and philosophical writings, but I last read him a long time ago.

    Mayr seemed (to me) to believe in progress and that science should be used to bring progress about. Progress to him might have included ridding humankind of genetically based diseases and limitations—a form of eugenics. But requiring licenses to enforce that progress was not Mayr in his finest hour. It would be interesting to know how he would think about these things if he were alive today.

    1. Mayr discussed positive eugenics (and opposed “negative” eugenics) in the last chapter of Animal Species and Evolution. It is an interesting read.

    2. The early 1970s were a time of acute anxiety because of the “population explosion”. As is clear from the letter, Mayr assumed that procreation would have to be restricted anyway (there would have to be licenses), for sheer numbers reasons.
      He speculated whether one should combine such a system already in place with biological fitness criteria, assuming science would be able to find/define them.

      1. “…demand for “freedom of procreation” … will have to be abolished anyhow if we are not to drown in human bodies”…
        We are drowning in human bodies now for sure. Human population has more than doubled since 1970.

  10. Long ago I used to have heated debates with a pro-eugenics high school teacher, but neither of us knew much about the science. Apropos of that, can anyone point me toward a quantitative analysis of eugenics? In other words, what proportion of the human population would have to be kept from reproducing to cause a measurable increase (…fill in the percentage), during a reasonable timeframe (…fill in the number of years), in an indicator that’s a widely agreed upon social goal (…better health, higher income, etc.)? I’d guess that that proportion is very high, so that regardless of what you think of its morality, eugenics could never happen in a democratic society. If anyone can find me an answer, I’ll look up that retired eugenicist teacher and debate her again 🙂

    1. Those who argue that certain social policies have dysgenic effects have sometimes tried to quantify it. Eugenic social policies would simply be the inverse.

  11. We don’t have to guess about what Mayr would have thought later! He had the good fortune to live past age 100, and at age 93, in 1997, he tells us where he ended up on eugenics:

    Angier, Natalie (1997). “Ernst Mayr at 93.” Natural History, 106 (4), 8-11. May 1997. PDF page 269 of: https://digitallibrary.amnh.org/handle/2246/6503

    Interviewer: Where do you think the human species is going? Do you believe we can continue to evolve in a genetic sense?

    Ernst Mayr: There’s absolutely no chance of the human species evolving. First of all, we can never speciate. We cover every niche, every spot on the earth, so there’s no opportunity for isolation. Moreover, I do not feel there’s any natural selection in any positive sense going on right now. Of course, there are those who have talked about eugenics, but we all know that eugenics is impossible for many reasons. I can’t see the development of man into superman or anything like that. Theoretically we could have cultural evolution and develop higher and better concepts. But if you have no basis for a change in genes, then unfortunately you can only develop through cultural evolution.

    For bonus, from the end of the interview. I think we’d all be lucky to have this attitude at age 93:

    Interviewer: Have you had any major disappointments, any regrets?

    Ernst Mayr: Well, I probably do, but I’m one of these euphoric guys. I always look to the future and never look back.

    1. Thanks for sharing that. Seems very sensible.

      Mind you since then there is CRISPR, so I see no reason why we could not use that. Say we could develop gills & live in water, or genetically manipulate people so that they could live in low gravity without the ill effects on health, or my choice, chlorophyl in skin so humans could photosynthesise! There are still niches 😉

  12. If a person endows money, to be used for an award or to build a wing to a university or hospital or whatever and specifies that the award or wing is named after them, then the whole thing must be given back not just the name. If the name was not asked for who cares what it is called as the donor didn’t. For example, if the Ernst Mayer award was named by Mayer then it cannot be renamed and the endowment must be returned to Meyers heirs, any renaming would be wrong as it is against the wish of the person donating. The cash is forever tied to the name associated with it.

  13. Not central to this, but my Dad was a member of the American Philosophical Society, and at a dinner in D.C., he and my mom sat across from Shockley. My mom, a solid liberal, gave Shockley the business about his eugenics viewpoints. My dad, embarrassed, kicked her under the table. No racist he, but very conscious of decorum. Part of the family lore …

  14. As usual, PCC(e) has hit on the key element here that provides us with a guide to the future: ” deplatform every biologist who was working before, say, 1950.” That project is evidently well under way—and the 63.4% in the SSB who voted to deMayrize the award will climb to over 66.7% by the time the next vote of this kind is conducted. The next step after that is easy to predict. Before long, employment and promotion in academia will require, not only Diversity Statements, but statements disavowing all views that were expressed by anyone before 2015.

    BTW, many thanks to Nicko Matzko for the Mayr quotes in #14 above. Since these ideas were expressed as long ago as 1997, and by an elderly
    biologist then, they are of course classified by definition as “problematic”.

    1. We have to divorce our views of individual scientists & their characters, from what their scientific contributions in their fields were. Darwin seems to me to have been a charming kind man, but that should not matter regarding his science. Equally someone less pleasant may well still be very important scientifically.

  15. Only how people act is in my opinion really important, in general, what they think in private isn’t . I believe thought-policing isn’t calories well spend and leads to intolerance, however pointing out errors and trying to avoid them is how humans progress. Personal attacks can give a lot of satisfaction (that’s also important) but are not a good guide to truth in my opinion.

  16. I’m really getting quite tired of this (not your reporting, but the phenomenon itself). The world would be a better place if people put as much energy into helping disadvantaged students to achieve their potential as erasing dead biologists from history. Of course, the latter is much easier which is why we see it so frequently.

  17. The book to peruse is In the Name of Eugenics by Daniel Kevles 1995 ed. Chaper 17 A New Eugenics. In the post war period there was less enthusiasm for eugenics but with the ability to start screening for various conditions, selective abortion for example could become a choice.

    Herman Muller was influential –
    Our load of mutations https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1716299/
    Saying mutant genes could behave as partially dominant genes, & spread through breeding as a ‘genetic load’, “the number of potentially lethal genes in the human gene pool”. He therefore argued for diminishing reproduction among those with a high load. He did not want what he called negative eugenics like sterilisation, but what he called ‘germinal choice’. That would involve freezing sperm, & then being able to judge over time the value of the donor (after death). It is more complex than that, but he had some support from people like Haldane, Kevles says. He dissociated himself from the famous Nobel laureate sperm bank founded by millionaire Robert Graham however, considering Graham too much old style eugenics. Muller’s views were, says Kevles, agreed with by Crick & Mayr.

    Genetic screening, gene therapy, it is all the new eugenics. It then depends what you think of that. Dog eat dog world, or one where there is support for all those who might be a ‘burden’, or one somewhere in between where people like Stephen Hawking get a chance to contribute. I have no fixed view.

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