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If you like Ernst Mayr's story, you might also like:
Lee Berger,
Norman Borlaug,
Sylvia Earle,
Jane Goodall,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Donald C. Johanson,
Meave Leakey,
Richard Leakey,
Richard E. Schultes,
James D. Watson,
Tim White and
Edward O. Wilson

Related Links:
Ernst Mayr Library
Jared Diamond on Ernst Mayr
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Ernst Mayr
Ernst Mayr
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Ernst Mayr Interview (page: 4 / 7)

The Darwin of the 20th Century

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  Ernst Mayr

The road to success is rarely a straightforward one in science and other fields. What sort of setbacks did you experience along the way? If you had major setbacks, what did you learn from them?

Ernst Mayr: In my case, setbacks is probably not quite the right word.

I am at the present time -- and even more so, let's say, 20 years ago -- rather aggressively assertive, and that is due to the fact that, in many ways, all through my early life I was sort of a neglected entity. Now to begin with, I was the middle one of three brothers and in my family, unknowingly, the family always had some preferential things for the oldest one and some preferential treatment for the youngest one, but there was no special preferential treatment in any respect for the middle one, and I resented it. And then I moved around in school a good deal. I first was in Bavaria, in Munich, and then moved to Dresden where they speak a totally different dialect, and I was placed in the seating order as the last one and gradually integrated into the class, and I always had to fight for my existence so to speak. Then in the university I realized that biologists -- zoologists in my case -- really were not considered as highly as the physicists and mathematicians, and again I had to assert myself. And then of course, when I came to America in 1931, I was a German, and Germany at that time was not in very high regard, and in 1933 Hitler came to power and it got even worse, and again I was sort of silently -- unknowingly perhaps -- discriminated against. And then of course, I was a museum person, and at the minute I was branching out into fields like evolutionary biology, history of biology, philosophy of biology. At the beginning, I was a museum man and they didn't have a very high reputation. I wasn't a professor. I wasn't teaching anywhere. And again and again when it came to awarding honors in those days -- now I get more honors than I need -- but I didn't get the honors because I was only a museum person, you see. The result was that I tended to very aggressively defend my views and all that, because if I didn't I would have been ignored.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

It sounds like you turned various forms of marginal status into an asset by allowing that to spur you on and prove that you really deserved to be paid attention to.

Ernst Mayr Interview Photo
Ernst Mayr: Yes, exactly. I had to do that in order to be paid any attention to at all. I have said things that later on other people picked up and made better known, and I have to point it out. I say, "I said this years before, but nobody paid attention to it." Now, for instance, group selection or selection of social groups has become very popular. Well, I pointed out the presence of group selection years ago and nobody ever paid any attention to it. Then the question, "What is the target of selection?" Well, the geneticists of evolutionary synthesis, from Fisher's work in 1930 on, always said it was the gene that was the target of selection, and I fought that in publication after publication. In 1963, in my book, I specifically said the phenotype is the target. Not even the genotype, the phenotype was the target of selection. Well, this was 1963, but that has become generally accepted among the geneticists only since about 1975 or 1980. Very often I had to fight for the recognition of my ideas, particularly since, in those earlier days, I wasn't in any prominent position where people would listen to me.

Natural history used to be denigrated as a kind of stamp collecting by many physical scientists. But in the last 50 years it's really emerged as a sophisticated domain of formal hypothesis testing. You played an absolutely key role in that transformation. What are your thoughts on that?

Ernst Mayr: I have always felt that natural history and anything related to natural history was very much neglected in the thinking of most people. For instance, when they write the history of the evolutionary synthesis, they only mention the mathematical people. The real synthesis, which took place between 1937 and '47, was the synthesis between the "gene pool adaptation," "genetic reconstruction" type of evolutionary biology and the natural history type of biology which is concerned with speciation. There are these two fields. The geneticists don't like to admit it. Recently, some of them finally admitted that the study of biodiversity is as important as the study of adaptation and the turnover in the gene pool. Of course, in connection with conservation, the field of naturalists has also received new impetus and new encouragement, but for a long time natural history was simply considered stamp collecting.

Was there any particular scientific discovery in your career that for you, at least, resembles the kind of epiphany or sudden insight that Newton is supposed to have had with universal gravitation and the famous apple, or that Darwin had in the Galápagos Islands?

Ernst Mayr: Very definitely.

I remember that I was in Naples at the time, and incidentally I went to Pompeii with Jim Watson on the day before, and I had arguments on evolution with a Belgian evolutionist by the name of Heutz, H-e-u-t-z, and we argued and argued, and we couldn't get together at all. And I went back to the hotel and I suddenly had an insight. "Well," I said, "If we have a very small population, a founder population, with a very much impoverished gene content, then a genetic reconstruction -- genetic reordering -- is so much faster and easier than in a large widespread population, and that rapid turnover in a marginal peripheral little population is the secret of why suddenly evolutionary changes occur that will not be reflected in the fossil record, because the chance that one of these little founder populations that rapidly changes will be discovered by geologists is nil." And so I got this idea of the evolutionary importance of the small population for a great speed-up in revolutionary rate. I then came back to lecture on it in Oxford the same year and finally published a paper in 1954 in which I developed the thing. And this paper was later used by Eldredge and Gould. They named this process that I had discovered and described. They named it.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Your paper was the famous Genetic Revolutions in Small Populations, and they called the process "Punctuated Equilibrium," didn't they?

Ernst Mayr: Yes. "Punctuated Equilibrium." I even said in my 1954 paper, and I repeated it again in my 1963 book, that this is what explains, in part, why there are so many gaps in the fossil record. Those kinds of populations would never be discovered by geological work. They said just that, but I had said that in my original paper already.

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