Ernst Mayr on 1950 CSHL Symposium: “Origin and Evolution of Man”
  Ernst Mayr     Biography    
Recorded: 31 Mar 2002

I don’t know if Dobzhansky may actually have been quite instrumental in this symposium because he was a good friend of Shelly Washburn, who was one of the coming stars of physical anthropology and so he probably Dobzhansky and Shelly Washburn together cooked up this symposium. And there was a big argument at that time with anthropologists who had the idea that all human races came from different fossil groups. (Unfortunately, I’ve reached the age where I can never remember names.) And this caused a great deal of trouble cause nobody wanted races to be so old and well established and all that. There was a school—I remember the name of Hooten was the leading American physical anthropologist at the time and he was one of the main speakers of this symposium. On the other hand people like Shelly Washburn…he had spent part of his research time up at P&S [Physicians and Surgeons] Columbia University Medical School and had a some new ideas. He was a friend of Dobzhansky who knew genetics and all that, and he brought a new thing into it. I was asked to give a lecture and I protested, so to speak, or rebelled against the splitting up of fossil man into—every time they broke up a human skull only just a couple teeth immediately it was made into a new genus or species. And I gave a radical lecture in which I said, “Lets cut all this mass of names.” There were more than 130 species names and more than 30 generic names for fossil hominids. I said, “Let’s cut it down to 2 or 3 genera, and maybe 5 or 6 species.”Everybody was totally outraged. And part of it was, of course, nonsense. But it did actually—I was the one who, more than anybody else, said, “ ‘Pithecanthropus’ is nonsense! That’s just ‘Homo.’ That’s not a different genus!” and so on and so forth.But the anecdote that was really the most characteristic of this whole meeting was that Shelly Washburn did a rather beautiful lecture about the illusion of primitive hominids, with particular emphasis of the populations that did this and that and so forth. That lecture…was based on population concept, and the chairman of that meeting was that man Hooten, who was a real topologist. Before opening the discussion he got up from his chair as chairman and he said loud so everybody could hear it, “I hate that word ‘population’!” That characterized the situation and physical anthropology at that time. Many of my proposals were accepted, like skipping ‘Pithecanthropus’ and ‘Sinanthropus’ and all these: just call them ‘Homo’. But some of my proposals claimed there were never more than one species of hominid at one time, turned out to have been wrong. But at least it was a known hypothesis, which was definitely cleaning up the situation.

Ernst Mayr has been universally acknowledged as the leading evolutionary biologist of the twentieth century. He earned his Ph.D. in ornithology at the age of 21 from the University of Berlin in 1926. During his tenure at the Berlin Museum, from 1926 to 1930, Mayr led ornithological expeditions to Dutch New Guinea and German Mandated New Guinea. In 1931, he was hired by the American Museum of Natural History, Department of Ornithology. During his 20-year AMNH tenure, Dr. Mayr described 26 new bird species and 410 subspecies, more than any other living avian systematist.

In 1953, Mayr became Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology, and served as Director of the Museum (1961-1970). He has published hundreds of papers and eight books, including Systematics and the Origin of Species (1942), which became a landmark of evolutionary biology.

Mayr has been honored with more than 25 major scientific awards and honors and many honorary degrees, including the National Medal of Science (1970), the Balzan Prize in Biology (1983) and the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (1999) with John Maynard Smith and George C. Williams "for their fundamental contributions to the conceptual development of evolutionary biology."

In 1995, Harvard’s Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology was rededicated as the Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Mayr has been a longtime friend and mentor to Jim Watson.