Recorded: 31 Mar 2002
Oh, my goodness! I saw him almost every day for long periods of time. He was the only person I could talk with about the usual evolutionary genetics problems. The phage people weren’t interested in it. Barbara McClintock was way above all that. [Ernst] Caspari was interested only in developmental problems. So it was Bruce Wallace with whom I talked.
And there were several papers of mine, I remember in particular one, a 1954 paper where he suggested a new illustration, suggested certain rephrasing of what I was saying, so I know Wallace extremely well. He was very much of a holist for me, to use that term. He was not with these people for whom the gene was it. He was even more of a holist than Dobzhansky. Dobzhanksy still had a little of the Sewall Wright’s mathematical reductionism.
Let me see now. The whole business about the gradual getting away from the “Fisherian” ultra reductionism… Take a person like Lewontin for instance, he considered the gene the target of selection. Still in the sisties, he was sort of hanging on to it to some extent in the seventies and then from the eighties on, he was condemning that kind of thinking very vigorously, particularly on a paper he wrote with Silva in 1984. So if one would go through Lewontin’s writings, you could see how he got away from this strict reductionism of the gene.
The funny thing is that in England that gene reductionism is still quite dominant, so Dawkins of course but also to a considerable extent, John Maynard Smith. And we have one person still in this country: that’s George C. Williams who is a gene reductionist. But he is the last one I think.
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.