[Paleopsych] Sigma Xi: Lynn Margulis: Ernst Mayr, Biologist Extraordinaire

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Lynn Margulis: Ernst Mayr, Biologist Extraordinaire
May-June 2005


An appreciation of Harvard's visionary of modern evolutionary synthesis

    [24]Lynn Margulis

    Ernst Mayr, Harvard University professor emeritus and biologist
    extraordinaire, died peacefully in Bedford, Massachusetts, on February
    3. He was 100 years old and had been associated with the biology
    department at Harvard since he joined its faculty in 1953. An era in
    evolutionary thought, called variously the New Synthesis,
    neo-Darwinism or the Modern Synthesis, came to an end with his

    The death of the last of the great evolutionary biologists of the 20th
    century concluded an intellectual movement in the study of
    evolution--a point of view whose most striking aspect was the extent
    to which all of the evolutionary history of life on Earth was
    perceived as a subdiscipline of biology. Whereas Thomas Kuhn, author
    of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, might have called it a
    paradigm, Ludwik Fleck (author of Genesis and Development of a
    Scientific Fact, 1935) would have recognized the correlated demise of
    neo-Darwinism and the death of Professor Mayr as a paradigm lost.

    An accomplished naturalist, Ernst Mayr began his work in 1923 at the
    age of 19. The last of his 25 books, a collection of essays called
    What Makes Biology Unique? Considerations on the Autonomy of a
    Scientific Discipline, was published by Cambridge University Press in
    the summer of 2004, one month after his 100th birthday! This fact
    attests to Mayr's intellectual talents and unwavering interest in
    science, its history and philosophy.

    And last May, shortly before Mayr's centenary birthday in July, an
    open celebration of his work and life was held in the auditorium of
    the Mineralogical and Geological Museum at Harvard. The place was
    crowded with admirers, spectators, students from universities and
    colleges from all over the Boston area and beyond. Several famous
    evolutionary biologists, colleagues, many of whom were among his
    former students and are now professional leaders, came to pay tribute.
    What struck me at this well-attended, enthusiastic gathering was that,
    among the marvelous lecturers in an all-day session about the
    evolutionary panorama of life on Earth, the most moving and
    informative of the talks, in my opinion, was the final statement by
    Ernst Mayr himself!

    Mayr was born in Kempten, Germany (Bavaria), to an educated family,
    many of whom were physicians. His father, Otto Mayr, was a judge and a
    bird-watching enthusiast. During his school holidays Ernst worked at
    the Berlin Zoological Museum at the invitation of Erwin Stresemann,
    the best ornithologist in the country at that time. Following his two
    years of study at the University of Greifswald, oriented toward
    medicine as urged by his family, he completed his doctoral program in
    16 months at the University of Berlin. Why did he opt to study at
    Greifswald? Why did he go north to a relatively unknown academic
    institution? Because his real interests were in the study of natural
    history, especially watching birds.

    Nature Not Books

    Like Darwin, Mayr was always fascinated by live animals in nature. He
    was particularly compelled by the question: How do species originate?
    Some three years before he died, he told me about his delight when the
    University of Berlin called him back to celebrate the 75th anniversary
    of receipt of his doctorate degree. I asked him if I might accompany
    him to attend the scientific program. "Oh, you don't want to do that,"
    he remarked. "There will be no science, just endless and boring talks
    by administrators."

    We had been discussing modes of speciation, and I had shown him our
    10-minute film on Mixotricha paradoxa, an Australian termite protist,
    in his daughter Susanne Harrison's kitchen in Bedford. I had explained
    "symbiogenesis" as a mode of speciation. "I get it, I get it," he
    said, first pensively, then excitedly as he watched the five or more
    integrated microbial symbionts that comprise a single Mixotricha
    protist swim away as a single individual.

    I tried to distinguish "symbiosis" from "symbiogenesis" for him. "Oh,
    you don't have to tell me what 'symbiosis' is!" he exclaimed, a little
    impatiently. "I studied symbiosis with Paul Buchner in Greifswald, who
    was a young instructor there" for a very short time before he moved
    on, eventually to Italy. Buchner, author of the seminal work
    Endosymbiose der Tiere mit pflanzlichen Mikroorganismen (1953), was
    the founder of modern symbiosis research.

    Mayr took seriously Louis Agassiz's admonition. He studied "Nature not
    Books" between 1928 and 1930 when he collected more than 3,000 birds
    in the South Pacific, mainly the Solomon Islands and New Guinea. He
    learned to live off the land. After removal of the skin and feathers
    in the preparation of "study skins" and taxidermic samples for species
    identification, morphological analysis and shipment to museum
    collections, nothing would be wasted: The innards went to pot for
    dinner. That Ernst Mayr ate more birds of paradise than any other
    modern ornithologist is a well-known anecdote.

    Mayr's work in the field, especially with avian diversity, led him to
    his most familiar contribution to science, documented in his two dozen
    single-authored or edited books and more than 600 scientific
    publications. He framed the animal species concept. Members of the
    same species can mate and breed to produce fertile offspring. Even
    plants and animals that greatly resemble each other are not to be
    assigned to the same species if they are not interfertile. On the
    other hand, animals that look very different from each other (such as
    Great Danes and Yorkshire terriers) if they produce fertile offspring
    do belong to the same species.

    He told me about the wood duck and the green-headed mallards
    illustrated on his conservation-society shower curtain--that they were
    perfectly fertile, and a mating between these birds resulted in normal
    numbers of healthy chicks. He said that nevertheless he agreed that
    the two very different-looking ducks must be assigned, as they are, to
    two different species. Why? Because, he insisted, even when they live
    on the same pond, such as the duck pond here in Amherst, they only
    mate with their own kind. His definition of species, he insisted, is
    "organisms are members of the same species that, in nature, mate to
    produce fertile offspring."

    He always emphasized the importance of the environment. Speciation
    could almost always be associated with geographical isolation. When
    members of the same species are separated for long times by
    environmental barriers (such as newly formed volcanic mountains,
    islands, rivers or climatic change), the barriers lead to impeded
    mating. It is these isolated populations that tend to form new
    species. The importance of geographical details in the origin and
    evolution of species was always emphasized. "I don't need to measure
    the pH and see that it is lower than six in that soil," he would say.
    "When sphagnum and cranberries grow in the bog there, we know what the
    pH must be." A proud naturalist, Mayr was a superb writer who
    communicated primarily by handwritten notes. He was the last of the
    neo-Darwinians to revere nature, work inside her and with her. His
    life always extended beyond the computer and mathematical models.

    What Evolution Is

    We celebrated the publication of our books, both brought out by Basic
    Books, in the summer of 2002. At his lovely retirement village, with
    the help of many friends as well as family (including Mayr's daughters
    Susanne and biologist Christa Menzel of Simsbury, Connecticut), we had
    a wonderful bibliophilic party. For our book (Lynn Margulis and Dorion
    Sagan, Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species), Mayr
    had written the fascinating, not uncritical, foreword. But Mayr's book
    was what we all came to celebrate. For readers unfamiliar with his
    comprehensive opus spanning more than 75 years of scientific
    productivity on a panoply of evolutionary themes, I recommend that you
    begin with this one, his 24th: What Evolution Is. Designed for the
    curious, nonspecialist reader, it is a fine read for those interested
    in the achievements of importance in 20th-century evolutionary

    Not immodestly, Mayr considered his 2002 trade book to be the single
    best summary of uncontested, documented evolutionary thought.
    "Evolution" refers to the results of experimental, observational and
    theoretical science that support the common ancestry of all life on
    Earth. Yes, of course, people are primates directly related to other
    great apes such as gorillas, chimps and bonobos. Yes, of course,
    humans were not made by an all-seeing, all-knowing white-man deity.
    Indeed, evidence points to the possibility that several species of
    nonhumans became extinct because of our aggressive, even murderous,
    greedy ancestors. These early Homo sapiens, related to us, displayed
    traits that still abound!

    The questions and answers, at the end of the book especially, help any
    reader, even one naive with respect to science, to understand the
    basic concepts of this most important area of study. Mayr's
    reasonableness is especially pertinent today in the face of ignorance,
    prejudice and religious fundamentalism. For those who try to deny the
    validity of science that uses carefully collected evidence from
    investigators worldwide, this book is a responsible antidote.

    Some three weeks before his death, I called him at home in Bedford and
    asked, "Ernst, how are you? How do you feel?" He responded cheerily,
    "I feel fine. That is, I feel exceptionally well given the diagnosis."
    "What diagnosis?" I asked. "Didn't I tell you? The doctors tell me I
    have cancer. It has already metastasized, but I don't feel sick at
    all." "Oh, Ernst, I'm so sorry," I responded. "Well, Lynn," he said
    cheerfully, "I will have to die of something."

    Of Possible Interest
    Book Review: [28]A More Modern Synthesis
    Column: [29]1798: Darwin and Malthus
    Book Review: [30]Triumphalism in Science
    Book Review: [31]Demythologizing McClintock
    Book Review: [32]Planters vs. Weeders


   24. http://www.americanscientist.org/template/AuthorDetail/authorid/1488;jsessionid=aaa5qldRqnl3Af
   28. http://www.americanscientist.org/template/AssetDetail/assetid/12756;jsessionid=aaa5qldRqnl3Af
   29. http://www.americanscientist.org/template/AssetDetail/assetid/28472;jsessionid=aaa5qldRqnl3Af
   30. http://www.americanscientist.org/template/AssetDetail/assetid/14648;jsessionid=aaa5qldRqnl3Af
   31. http://www.americanscientist.org/template/AssetDetail/assetid/14443;jsessionid=aaa5qldRqnl3Af
   32. http://www.americanscientist.org/template/AssetDetail/assetid/14310;jsessionid=aaa5qldRqnl3Af

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