The National Academy honors Ernst Mayr

November 24, 2014 • 8:06 am

by Greg Mayer

Ernst Mayr (1904-2005) was one of the greatest biologists of the 20th century, an architect of the “Modern Synthesis” of evolutionary biology which harmonized Mendelism and Darwinism and showed that the Mayr NAS Biog Mem coverphenomena of paleontology, systematics, and genetics formed a mutually consistent and coherent whole. Mayr in particular identified and explicated the importance of the discontinuities in the diversity of life we identify by the name species, characterized the nature of species through the biological species concept, and forcefully argued for the importance of geographic isolation as a key ingredient in the origin of species. Although some of his greatest contributions were yet to come, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1954.

The Academy honors its members who have died in its Biographical Memoirs, and last week they released the Memoir for “Uncle Ernst” (as he was affectionately known to graduate students at the Museum of Comparative Zoology). The Memoir, by Walter J. Bock, perhaps Mayr’s most distinguished graduate student, was previously published in 2006 in the equivalent series of the Royal Society, the Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. It consists of a short, fact-filled biography, highlighting both Mayr’s life and scientific contributions, a chronological list of his various professional appointments and numerous awards and honors, and a selected bibliography of his most important books and papers. The Academy has made the Memoir available as a free pdf (as has the Royal Society), and it serves as a nice introduction to Mayr and his work. (There is an amusing typo on p. 10, uncorrected from the Royal Society version: referring to Mayr’s dissatisfaction with certain aspects of his positions in New York, Bock writes “…he became more and more reckless in his situation in New York City”; “restless” is obviously intended– Mayr soon left for the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard.)

The first full biography of Mayr (the manuscript of which was available to Bock) appeared in 2008: Ornithology, Evolution, and Philosophy: The Life and Science of Ernst Mayr 1904–2005, by Juergen Haffer. Haffer, who passed away in 2010, was a field geologist by profession, but also an accomplished avocational biologist, well known for his monograph on speciation in Amazonian birds. He was a friend of Mayr’s, and his biography includes much information provided by Mayr himself over many years of interviews and discussions. The biography is, in fact, more akin to a primary document, and will be a rich resource for future biographers.

Jerry has written two important papers on Mayr, one being Mayr’s obituary for Science. Written under a tight time deadline, I recall worrying with Jerry about getting certain details right: who did send Mayr on his momentous, life-changing expedition to the South Pacific in 1928? Looking back at our correspondence, I see that I suggested that Walter Bock would know, but there was no time to make inquiries. It turns out that what Jerry eventually wrote is about right, that the full answer is rather complex, and Walter Bock did know. And by reading the memoirs — and even more so Haffer’s book — everyone can know.

h/t Neil Shubin


Bock, W.J. 2006. Ernst Walter Mayr 5 July 1904 — 3 February 2005. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 52:167-187. pdf

Bock, W.J. 2014. Ernst W. Mayr 1904-2005. Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences 29 pp. pdf

Coyne, J.A. 1994. Ernst Mayr and the origin of species. Evolution 51:19-30. pdf

Coyne, J.A. 2005. Ernst Mayr (1904-2005). Science 307:1212-1213.

Haffer, J, 1974. Avian speciation in tropical South America, with a systematic survey of the Toucans (Ramphastidae) and Jacamars (Galbulidae). Publications of the Nuttall Ornithological Club 14. Buteo

Haffer, J. 2008. Ornithology, Evolution, and Philosophy: The Life and Science of Ernst Mayr 1904–2005. Springer, Berlin. Amazon