Ernst Mayr on 1955 CSHL Symposia: “Population Genetics”
  Ernst Mayr     Biography    
Recorded: 31 Mar 2002

This all had a little bit something to do with racism. You had people like L. C. Dunn who was a professor at Columbia, literally running the biology department more or less. And he was very much fighting the racists and all the attempts to make the Jews into something different, and so forth. He kept up an interest in all this showing again and again—he wrote a little booklet together with Dobzhansky fighting all aspects of racism. I think—he was a very close friend of Demerec by the way. I think they were the ones that were keeping the interest alive.

Particularly since there were people like the man whose name I can’t recall at this moment who had sort of different kinds of ideas.

Now, In 1959, that one dealt with broader issues and that’s the one where I gave that infamous lecture called, “Where are we?”

I challenged a lot of the generally accepted ideas of the geneticists, including the idea which was just about totally accepted by everybody about the gene as the target of selection. Even Dobzhansky, who was really not in that camp, had defined evolution as a change of gene frequencies. I said, “No. Genes are always combined into genotypes and phenotypes and they are the target of selection.”

I attacked various other things in that lecture. I particularly attacked… the great icons of the population geneticists, R.A. Fischer and [J.B.S.] Haldane and included Sewall Wright in the same category as reductionist, gene selectionist, and so on and so forth. And after the lecture, Sewall Wright who was in the audience congratulated me.

But when he read it carefully after it was printed, he totally disagreed with it and wrote about three or four or five papers devoted to showing how wrong I was. So this is why the ’59 symposium and my lecture there was of considerable importance to me.

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.