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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,
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James D. Watson,
Tim White and
Edward O. Wilson

Related Links:
Ernst Mayr Library

Jared Diamond on Ernst Mayr

American Scientist Online

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Ernst Mayr Interview (page: 7 / 7)

The Darwin of the 20th Century

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  Ernst Mayr

In your own opinion, what are the most important contributions you've made to science?

Ernst Mayr: That is a difficult question to answer because I've worked in so many fields. I've worked in five different fields. Now which are the most important? In some ways, the development of the biological species concept, which I did not invent, but I certainly was the person that brought it to general knowledge. And the whole field of new systematics -- I really am the one who developed it -- was one of my major contributions. There's another one, which is still not yet realized by almost anybody.


I have done more, I believe, for the development of a philosophy of biology than any other person. Others have written books on the philosophy of biology but always in the framework of the standard philosophy of science, which is based on physics, logic and mathematics, while I have been trying to show that there are a certain number of basic concepts in biology -- like the genetic program or biopopulation and a few others -- that make biology just simply totally different from the physical sciences, and therefore also requiring an entirely different philosophy.


Why do you think it took so long for people to appreciate the differences between a biological approach to scientific explanation and a physical sciences approach?

Ernst Mayr: I think it was a professional thing. All the people that went into philosophy of science came from logic, from mathematics, and from the physical sciences. In earlier periods, all the people that did philosophy of biology in the whole 19th Century and the early part of the 20th Century were affected by the bug of vitalism. In other words, they believed that physics was a pure science but that biology required that extra thing which nobody understood: the vis viva, or lebenskraft or elan vital. That had to be refuted first, and the complete refutation of vitalism didn't happen until about the 1920s or '30s. Only then could you develop a complete philosophy of biology that was based on biology, that was based on living organisms but explained everything at the cellular, molecular level, all in terms of physics and chemistry, not invoking any "vital forces" or something like that.

Are there other theoretical disagreements or controversies you'd like to weigh in on, or mistakes you see other theoreticians making today?

Ernst Mayr: Well, I have spent several years now in corresponding with numerous people on the subject of cladistics and I've come to the following conclusion. Darwin, in the 13th chapter of the Origin said, "You cannot recognize any taxon, or any species, or even higher than taxon, without making sure first that all the members are descendants of the nearest common ancestor." He said the classification must be genealogical. However, Darwin continued and said this repeatedly, "Genealogy alone never gives you a good classification." We first have to make groups of similar things, and then make sure that they're pure by subjecting them to this cladistic analysis.

On the other hand, the cladists suggest that Darwin said, "I do not pay any attention to the amount of difference or similarity. I go just by the branching points." Which means in order to have a so-called classification, you take the different branches of a tree and make these into a sort of a classification. That is a disastrous thing that leads to nothing but complete nonsense. So when a cladist talks about avian dinosaurs, that's just total nonsense. No bird is a dinosaur. No dinosaur is a bird, just because they happen to be on the same phyletic lineage. If you do the Darwinian thing and recognize degrees of difference then, of course, you have to cut that lineage in various places and make the kind of taxons that are useful and meaningful. That's what makes a classification. Cladification by just putting the clades together is total nonsense. I think in another 10 or 15 years, the cladistic wave that we are having at the present time will have completely died down and be forgotten. I won't be there when it happens.

Tell us a little bit about your most current scientific projects. You have a number of them going and they're all making good speed.

Ernst Mayr: Unfortunately I have too many projects going. Two of them, fortunately, are already in the editors' hands. One is this book on the birds of Northern Melanesia I'm doing with Jared Diamond, and that deals with speciation and particular ecology, biogeographic dispersal and all the other questions. We have material for each one of the 194 species and I think it will be considered a classic when it is published.

The second book is an evolution book. We already have some extremely good books, three of them, great big books -- 700 pages -- on evolution by Futuyma, by Ridley and by Strickberger. And if a beginner wants to have a book on evolution we can give him those kinds of books. We have otherwise a whole series of good books refuting the claims of the Creationists, but we don't have a mid-level book that is a good introduction into evolutional biology without going into the utmost detail. That's the kind of book I've written. It is, as I said, already in the editor's hands, and will come out some time this year.

Now I'm working also on a book that I'm surprised nobody else has written before.


If you asked anybody which book has, at the present time, the greatest impact, and had the greatest impact on the thinking of Western man, of course, the Bible is in first place. And then the next thing is "What's next?" Well, for a while, of course, it was Karl Marx with Das Kapital, but ever since the bankruptcy of Marxism was declared in '89, I think you would never place that right after the Bible. And then the only other book that is really in the running there is Darwin's Origin of Species.


So what I'm doing is an extremely detailed analysis of the first edition of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859. I really look at every sentence, and compare it with what he said before and afterwards, and why he said that and so on and so forth. That book consists of two parts. I have a first draft of the first part. I still have to do the second part. Otherwise the whole thing will take me another two years before it's finished. Finally, I have a manuscript of about 70 pages on the basic principles, the theory of ordering material, usually referred to as classification. But I discovered that classification is only one of many systems of ordering. For instance, a telephone directory is a system of ordering, but it is not a classification. This is very important, because right now in the field of taxonomy we have a great controversy going between people who order in the traditional manner, by recognizing classes of similar entities and lodging them in a hierarchical system, or one which divides up the phylogenetic tree into branches and sorts in these branches. These are two very different systems, although the partisans of the branching approach do not realize how different they are. I have a manuscript that is in the next to the last draft and might not be published this year but certainly will be finished this year. That's the work I've been doing lately.

Dr. Mayr, at age 96, your productivity continues to leave all of us in awe, and on behalf of the Academy of Achievement I'd like to thank you for a fascinating interview.

Ernst Mayr: Well, you're welcome.

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