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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,
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Tim White and
Edward O. Wilson

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Ernst Mayr
 
Ernst Mayr
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Ernst Mayr Interview (page: 5 / 7)

The Darwin of the 20th Century

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  Ernst Mayr

Keeping in mind that no one can be creative without making some mistake or other, what would you consider to be those areas where you have been wrong theoretically, and what have you learned from those experiences?

Ernst Mayr Interview Photo
Ernst Mayr: Everybody, looking back, finds that certain things one believed turned out to be wrong. For instance, there was a time when E. B. Ford recognized different kinds of polymorphism, one of them neutral polymorphism, and he said that was one of the chronic errors. In my 1942 book you will find quite a few pages which are devoted to neutral polymorphism, polymorphisms that couldn't be due to any selective forces. Well, I've completely reneged on that one and within a very short time, I think within three or four years.

The next thing is sympatric speciation. When I published my 1942 book, the majority of taxonomists still believed, as had Darwin, that sympatric speciation was the major, if not the almost universal form of speciation. I said, "No, it's geographic speciation," following the lead of some continental European authors. If you read my work carefully, which most of my opponents don't do, I don't say a sympatric species is impossible. I say, "No case of sympatric speciation has been proven, has been well documented." I thought it would be very rare because it would mean simultaneous preference for a given set of characters of the mate, and for the location where the mate is found. Two different things. I said simultaneous preference for two such very different things is impossible. Well, it has now been shown that it occurs very commonly in fishes, particularly cichlid fishes. So here's another thing where my intuition was wrong.

There are other things where I've been accused of having been wrong but I wasn't really wrong. For instance, in 1950, and in preliminary publications before that, I showed that the 115 or so species names for fossil hominids -- and the 32 generic names for fossil hominids -- were ridiculous, and that one should make a null position and adopt the smallest possible number of species in general that are needed to explain the variation among fossil hominids. I furthermore said we have to make the assumption that at any one time only one hominid existed and eliminate about 95 synonyms. Well, pretty soon it was shown that the so-called robust Australopithecus existed side by side with the gracile Australopithecus, therefore the idea that there was at any one time only one fossil hominid is wrong. There are two.

That's about the only really major mistake I made in that line. On the other hand, from the very beginning, I always pointed out that all mammals have geographic races. The primates, for instance, whenever a genus of primates has several species, they are allopatric, with only two exceptions. You have sympatric species of lemurs and cercopithecus. But the South American monkeys, for instance, the different species are all allopatric. And I said, "I'm sure that when you had Australopithecus africanus and Australopithecus afarensis, there must have been a lot of allospecies in other parts of Africa where they haven't found any fossils yet. But in some very recent publications it was stated that I had always fought for a linear sequence of fossil species, which I never had.

So people haven't read you carefully enough?

Ernst Mayr: Their own thinking is strictly linear, so they think that way. I don't know a single specialist in fossil man who really understands geographic variation.

What do you see as the greatest challenges that face a natural history approach today?

Ernst Mayr: There are so many things. Behavior is sort of the pace maker of anything that happens in evolution. All these connections between how behavior varies without genetic changes into behavior that is different because of genetic changes, there is still an awful lot to be done in that whole area. Molecular biology has sort of entered all of biology. We don't have a museum anymore that doesn't have its DNA sequencing machinery. With the molecular methods being used in all branches of biology, I'm beginning to ask, "Is there any molecular biology left? Is there something that isn't really part of some other field?"

Molecular biologists have developed an enormous interest in evolution and that was surely a complete surprise to them. But if you go now to an issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and look at the articles on molecular biology you will find that a quarter if not a third of them deal with evolutionary problems. When molecular biologists take a certain molecule, they are interested in its evolution. "How did it come to be like this in such and such an animal while it is like that in some other animal, and yet this is basically the same gene or the same molecule?" So now the lines drawn between different points of biology have become very vague in many respects. Let me go back now to the question of natural history.


About two years ago, three years ago, for maybe the 20th time I went over the whole business of the species concept. What is a species? I looked at the major figures in the evolutionary synthesis, and I looked at Robzhansky and myself, and Huxley and Stebbins, all of us had reasonable species concepts, and the only person that had a species concept that I thought was quite absurd was the paleontologist G.G. Simpson. And then I said to myself, "Well, he can't have been a naturalist in his youth if he had such a peculiar, unworkable species concept." So I went to Simpson's biography and what did I find? I found that in college he was an English major. He had never been a naturalist as a youngster. He never collected anything, and he discovered geology in his senior year in college, and from there he went to stratigraphy and finally to paleontology. Not surprisingly, not having been a naturalist, he has no idea what a species is and he never had. I argued with him about the species concept year after year, but lacking that background, he was unable to see it, and that is the thing. Being a naturalist -- having had that background of being a naturalist -- gives you a view of nature that cannot be acquired just learning from books.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation


It's something that you live with. That was where Darwin had his great advantage, and where people like me have a great advantage.

If Charles Darwin were here today and you could ask him one or two questions, what would you want to ask him?

Ernst Mayr Interview Photo
Ernst Mayr: It would be a lot of personal questions. I would ask him why, after he had developed such an interesting and modern species concept, under the guidance of various zoological consultants, as represented in his notebooks, he suddenly, under the influence of botanists, switched back to a strictly topological species concept, which got him in all sorts of troubles and prevented him from solving what had been the object of The Origin of Species, namely the problem of speciation, which is not solved in that book. "Why did you believe the botanists in all these things, when all the information they gave you was wrong? Didn't you see that what they said was in conflict with what you knew from the zoological observations? Why did you follow the botanists instead of the zoologists?" That's a question, of course, he wouldn't like to hear.

Do you think his friendship with Joseph Hooker led him astray in that regard?

Ernst Mayr: It wasn't so much Hooker. It was a number of others, a man by the name of Watson and two or three other botanists who completely gave him wrong information on species and varieties. Darwin confused the two kinds of varieties: populations that are different and individuals that are different. It wasn't Hooker actually, but he certainly was surrounded by botanists. One reason perhaps was that his principal zoological consultant, Strickland, got killed in an accident. He lost his major zoological consultant and that undoubtedly played a role in this.

When you were doing your field work in New Guinea, did it ever occur to you that you would become the world famous biologist you are today?

Ernst Mayr: I had no idea. In fact, I'm still a little bit puzzled when people say I am a world famous person. I just do my work and publish it and have a wonderful time, and I have never tried to catch public attention by going to the media and doing the things some of my colleagues do. I will not mention any names. So no, it never occurred to me and I don't think my family realizes it. I was interviewed about three or four years ago by Ms. Yoon of The Washington Post, and I mentioned that I had two daughters. She interrupted me and said, "Did they realize how famous you are?" And I said to her, "I hope not." And I really mean that. You see, I basically deal with relatively unspectacular kinds of things. The people that deal with the spectacular issues, of course, are much more famous. I am famous among my peers but I'm not famous among the general public.

Lots of people have great minds and great potential but they don't succeed. Why do you think you've succeeded where others have not? What abilities of yours made it work so well?

Ernst Mayr: I have been thinking about this question myself. One of the answers is that...


Very often I see a statement made by somebody which clearly to me is wrong, and then I work out what is the real right answer, and this happens to me very often. Of course, some of these answers that I find are already in the literature, but sometimes I am the first one who makes that discovery and I think this attention to wrong statements and endeavor to correct them is part of the answer. I always think about things, and if something puzzles me... Well, that of course was one of Darwin's secrets. Whenever something puzzled him, he tried find a theory. He made a conjecture, as (Karl) Popper would call it, and see if it worked out and that's true even today. I go walking with a friend every day and constantly he's amazed at me. I see something and I begin to ask questions. Why are these big rocks here? There shouldn't be any big rocks here, you know. Things like that. I like to ask questions and I think that is part of the secret of my success, that I'll ask questions and occasionally I'll find a very good answer.

[ Key to Success ] Vision


What would you most like to be remembered for a century from now?

Ernst Mayr: Well, this has changed in the course of my life. In my early career, my development of the so-called new systematics was the thing I was very proud of, and at the species level everybody followed my idea. The latest thing I'm most proud of that has not yet been fully appreciated by the philosophers is my development of the philosophy of biology.


I am the first one who clearly has said that there are aspects of biology that have nothing to do with vitalism that are so different from anything in the physical sciences that biology simply requires a separate philosophy. For instance, biopopulation, the whole concept of biopopulation, is something that is alien to anybody in the physical sciences and yet it is one of the basic philosophical concepts of biology. The idea that in the physical sciences anything that happens has only one causation and that's the natural laws. In biology everything and anything that happens has two sets of causations, the natural laws and the genetic programs. That's just two of these really fundamental differences between biology and the physical sciences and I'm the first person that has really made this clear and has pointed this out.


Is this the famous distinction between ultimate causes and proximate causes?

Ernst Mayr: That is another aspect of the same distinction, exactly. Another thing is that theories in the physical sciences are always based on natural laws. Natural laws like they have in the physical sciences, we don't have in biology. No specific ones. We have regularities that are sometimes referred to as laws, but they're not the same as the natural laws of the physical sciences. Theories in biology are invariably based on concepts, whether it is the concept of natural selection or "resources" or whatever you name selection. It's a concept that is the basis of any biological field.

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