Ernst Mayr on Jared Diamond: The New Guinea Expeditions
  Ernst Mayr     Biography    
Recorded: 31 Mar 2002

Well, a better way of putting it is I inspired him to do it! I didn’t have to do any persuading. But the funny part is I worked with his father on blood groups. He was a hematologist.

I had an argument with [Theodosius] Dobzhansky whether the blood group genes have a selective significance or not. Dobzhansky was so regimented; he said, “It’s all chance of genetic drift and whatnot.” And I said, “No, they have a selected value. They are of selected importance.” And so I wanted to prove it.

So I asked when I came here to Harvard in ’53—I said, “Now who works with blood groups?” It was first one person [I worked with], and I talked with him. He wasn’t interested. Then they said, “Oh well, then there’s Lou Diamond at the Children’s Hospital.” I talked to him, and he said, “Oh, I know nothing about these things, but,” he said, “Why not try it, sure! I’ll make my data available to you.” And so we published two papers.

By that time the British had been working much more intensively, [more] reflectively—I gave it up because obviously it was in good hands and the point was proven anyhow.

I remember one day that I was invited to the Diamond’s for lunch. There was this senior high school son of theirs, and when he wasn’t in the room the parents raved about how brilliant he was, and all that sort of thing. Anyhow, that’s where I met Jared [Diamond] first. This must have been about 1954 [since] I came to Harvard in ‘53.

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.