Ernst Mayr at One Hundred


(This column was first published in the July 4, 2004 issue of The Buffalo Sunday News.)


Ernst Mayr will be 100 years old tomorrow.


This remarkable man - Stephen Jay Gould described him as "the greatest living evolutionary biologist" - began a career in science before most of us were born. That he has lived so long and has done so much is amazing, especially considering his early experiences in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.


Here is how Jared Diamond describes Mayr's early career:


"I found it hard to imagine how anyone could have survived the difficulties of the first bird survey of the Cyclops Mountains,. That 1928 survey was carried out by the then-23-year-old Ernst Mayr, who had just pulled off the remarkable achievement of completing his Ph.D. thesis in zoology while simultaneously completing his pre-clinical studies at medical school. Like Darwin, Ernst had been passionately devoted to outdoor natural history as a boy, and he had thereby come to the attention of Erwin Stresemann, a famous ornithologist at Berlin's Zoological Museum. In 1928 Stresemann, together with ornithologists at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and at Lord Rothschild's Museum near London, came up with a bold scheme to 'clean up' the outstanding remaining ornithological mysteries of New Guinea, by tracking down all of the perplexing birds of paradise known only from specimens collected by natives and not yet traced to their home grounds by European collectors. Ernst, who had never been outside Europe, was the person selected for this daunting research program.


"Ernst's 'clean-up' consisted of thorough bird surveys of New Guinea's five most important north coastal mountains, a task whose difficulties are impossible to conceive today in these days when bird explorers and their field assistants are at least not at acute risk of being ambushed by the natives. Ernst managed to befriend the local tribes, was officially but incorrectly reported to have been killed by them, survived severe attacks of malaria and dengue and dysentery and other tropical diseases plus a forced descent down a waterfall and a near-drowning in an overturned canoe, succeeded in reaching the summits of all five mountains, and amassed large collections of birds with many new species and subspecies.


"From New Guinea, Ernst went on to the Solomon Islands in the Southwest Pacific, where as a member of the Whitney South Sea Expedition he participated in bird surveys of several islands, including the notorious Malaita (even more dangerous in those days than was New Guinea)."


Mayr described those experiences as fulfilling "the greatest ambition of his youth." He told many stories about his adventures including one of my favorites. He tried to impress some New Guinea natives by using a trick employed by Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. He learned from his almanac that a lunar eclipse was about to occur and announced to the tribe, through an interpreter, that the moon was about to darken. Unlike the response in Twain's story, however, the natives were not impressed. The elderly chief told Dr. Mayr, "Don't worry, my son, it will soon get light again."


Upon his return from the South Pacific, he spent only one year at the University of Berlin before joining the Department of Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.


While at the American Museum he published his best-known book, "Systematics and the Origin of Species", which he would later continue to revise and expand. This book created the widely accepted "modern evolutionary synthesis" that combines the theories of Darwin and Mendel and applies evolution not only to animals and plants but to genes at the molecular level. His central concept of species formation was that species populations developed "isolating mechanisms" when they were somehow separated. These mechanisms discouraged interbreeding and allowed the separate groups to become genetically distinct new species.


In 1961 Mayr moved to Harvard where he became Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biology at the university's Museum of Comparative Zoology. Although he continued to contribute to ornithology at Harvard, most of his work there was in more general subjects: evolutionary biology and the history and philosophy of biology.


He won what has been called the triple crown of biological awards: the Balzan Prize in 1983, the International Prize for Biology in 1994 and the Crafoord Prize in 1999. There is no Nobel Prize for biology.


The last I heard, Mayr was continuing to work. He recently claimed that he would only leave his office "feet first."


Among the many insights of this outstanding scientist, I offer just one: "Every politician, clergyman, educator, or physician, in short, anyone dealing with human individuals, is bound to make grave mistakes if he ignores these two great truths of population zoology: (1) no two individuals are alike, and (2) both environment and genetic endowment make a contribution to nearly every trait."


Happy birthday, Dr. Mayr.-- Gerry Rising