A memorial of Ernst Mayr

Tom Givon tgivon at uoregon.edu
Wed May 4 21:57:57 UTC 2005

Dear funk-people,
I thought it would be of interest to functionally-inclined linguists to
take a look at the following "appreciation" of the life and work of a
recently-departed eminent evolutionary biologist, Ernst Mayr. It is a
very thoughtful piece, in spite of the few lapses into PC and the
occasional Marxist slip. Mayr's grand Darwinian themes resonate well in
linguistics: adaptive selection (functionalism), diversity and its
crucial role in change (the Labovian theme of variation-and-diachrony),
emergence (non-mechanistic change), the interplay between field-work and
theory, and between qualitative (field) and quantitative (lab)
methodology; and, above all perhaps, the dynamic-historical (diachronic)
theoretical understanding of extant forms (synchronic typology).  TG


Ernst Mayr, arguably the preeminent biologist of the twentieth century,
died on February 3, succumbing after a short illness at the age of 100.
Mayr was the last survivor of a generation of renowned natural
scientists that included the likes of Julian Huxley, George Gaylord
Simpson, Theodocious Dobzhansky, J.B.S. Haldane, G.L. Stebbins and
Hermann Muller, all of whom worked to establish Darwinian evolution as
the cornerstone theory of biology.

Mayr's contributions to the science of biology, during the course of his
remarkable life, are manifold. He will be remembered primarily for his
role in the elaboration of what has become known as the Synthetic Theory
of Evolution—the syntheses of the Darwinian ideas of evolution through
natural selection and the common descent of all living organisms from
extinct forms, with the science of genetics—from the groundbreaking work
of Gregor Mendel in the nineteenth century to the revealing of the DNA
double helix by Rosalind Franklin, James Watson and Francis Crick in the
early 1950s.

In addition, Mayr is chiefly credited with formulating the "biological
species concept," the notion that species are not simply defined by a
static compilation of common physical characteristics, but are dynamic
populations of interbreeding organisms interacting with other species in
an environment while remaining reproductively isolated, that is, they
are prevented either geographically or behaviorally from breeding with
other closely related groups.

The biological species concept both incorporated and enriched Darwin's
revolutionary ideas regarding the introduction of species and their
geographical distribution. Darwin had sought causal explanations(ability
of a species to disperse, e.g.) for the appearance of closely related
species in unexpected locations, striking a blow against the creationist
notion that species are found where they were originally "created." The
subsequent work of Mayr with birds, and that of G.G. Simpson with
mammals, has greatly enhanced our understanding of the geographical
distribution of species.

Mayr was a tireless proponent of "population thinking," a profound idea
that plumbs the depths of the contradictions inherent in concepts such
as "species" and "population." He emphasized that while the
characteristics of populations are shaped and altered by natural
selection, each individual member of that population is unique. Early
on, Mayr rejected "essentialism," an idealist conception that posited
the existence of "typical" individuals within any given population, a
viewpoint that, with the rediscovery of Mendel's laws of inheritance at
the turn of the last century, made a considerable comeback at the
expense of Darwinism. Mayr pointed out that the racialist notions that
were widely held during that period were thoroughly essentialist, in
that they accepted as given the existence of "average" or typical racial

Mayr, on the other hand, favored the viewpoint that focused on the fact
that no two individuals making up a species (or a "race" for that
matter) are alike. For Mayr, as for Darwin, it was the uniqueness of
every member of a population that served as the fuel for natural
selection, providing the impetus for the evolution of entirely new types
of organisms. Once the genetic mechanism for the production of
continuous diversity was understood, the profundity of Darwin's original
ideas were reestablished and enriched in the form of the new synthesis.

Ernst Mayr was born in Germany, in the town of Kempten, Bavaria in 1904.
The offspring of a long line of doctors, Mayr chose instead to
concentrate his considerable intellectual abilities in the field of
zoology, with a special interest in ornithology. At that time, Germany
was still a major center of evolutionary biology, a tradition that owed
to the work during the latter half of the nineteenth century of such
notables as Ernst Haeckel and August Weismann.

Haeckel, who had made major contributions in zoology, as well as in
originating some of the familiar terms in biology (ecology, e.g.), is
chiefly remembered for advancing his famous "Biogenetic Law," which held
that the developing embryo of an organism (ontogeny) was a
recapitulation of the evolutionary history of that organism (phylogeny).
Weismann was a pioneer in the science of genetics, who, among his major
accomplishments, established the role of sex in promoting variation
within a species, and determined that gametes (sex cells) have the
haploid number (half the normal or diploid number) of

Mayr's attraction to birds brought him in contact with Erwin Stresemann,
who was the curator of birds at the University of Berlin Museum of
Natural History. Stresemann became his PhD advisor, and Mayr attained
this advanced degree at the age of 21. Due to his astonishing longevity,
as well as his European origin, Mayr was in certain essential respects a
living link between nineteenth and twentieth century biology, in that
while he was certainly comfortable with the quantitative aspects of the
biological sciences devoted to genetics and molecular biology, he held
qualitative methodologies, the use of observation and comparison to gain
new insights, in high regard. It is not surprising, then, that following
his studies in Berlin, Mayr, like countless naturalists before him,
embarked on an expedition of discovery to the Solomon Islands and New
Guinea, to collect specimens for Lord Rothschild's museum at Tring,
Hertfordshire, in England, and for the American Museum of Natural
History in New York.

In 1931, Mayr emigrated to New York, and took a job at the museum as a
curator of birds, in particular of the 280,000 bird specimens of the
Rothschild collection that were donated to the museum shortly after
Mayr's arrival. In an interview that marked his 100th birthday, Mayr
declared: "I was very anti-Nazi, so there was no way I could return [to
Germany]" (2004). In 1953, Mayr left the museum to take a position as
the Alexander Agassiz professor of zoology at Harvard. Mayr remained at
Harvard for the rest of his life, and was active until his final

Mayr was the author or co-author of more than 20 books—among them
Systematics and the Origin of Species (1942), Animal Species and
Evolution (1963), One Long Argument: Population, Species and Evolution,
What Evolution Is (2001), his seminal work, The Growth of Biological
Thought (1982) and Toward a New Philosophy of Biology(1988). His final
work, titled What Makes Biology Unique, was published shortly after his
100th birthday. He also founded the journal Evolution in 1947, and was a
contributor to more than 600 scientific papers. Mayr's spouse of 55
years, Margarete (Gretel) Simon, died in 1990.

If one were to characterize the trajectory of Mayr's development as a
scientist, it would be that he was primarily a naturalist turned
theoretician. He was not a popularizer in the manner of his Harvard
,colleague, the late Stephen Jay Gould, but his theoretical acumen (in
this writer's opinion) ran deeper. In fact, Mayr was critical of the
late paleontologist's punctuated equilibrium hypothesis as an
explanation of the evolutionary process for its overemphasis on the role
of saltation (leaps). Mayr didn't completely reject Gould's theory, but
explained that it did not contradict Darwinian gradualism, because such
sudden bursts of evolutionary development are populational phenomena,
that is, they occur at the species level. Thus, a sudden evolutionary
spurt is always subsumed within the overall processes of evolution,
which are for the most part gradual. Mayr took pains to point out that
these accelerated evolutionary events appear saltational only when
compared with the vastness of the geological time scale.

Various theories of saltation as descriptors of the "sudden" appearance
of new types of organisms have come and gone over the centuries, having
their roots in the catastrophism (multiple creations) of the renowned
comparative anatomist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), who tried to explain
the existence of extinct animals (dinosaurs, e.g.), and fit them into
some kind of schema compatible with Biblical creation.

Even later saltationist theories for the evolution of species or whole
groups of organisms could be interpreted as implying a kind of special
creation, opening the door to a religious interpretation of the
complexities of the natural world. Mayr was certainly cognizant of this
danger as his well-known discourse on the nature of chance
and>>selection, what he termed the "adaptationist dilemma," attests. In
his book, Toward a New Philosophy of Biology (1988), Mayr is critical of
Gould and Richard Lewontin for their attack on the notion that the
development of adaptations as a result of natural selection is anything
but the result of stochastic (chance) processes, therefore rendering the
term adaptation obsolete, and casting a pall over natural selection, the
foundation concept of Darwinism. Gould went so far as to call the notion
of a process of adaptation a "Panglossian paradigm" (after Voltaire's
character in Candide), a futile search for perfection in the
evolutionary process.

Mayr's reply is a clinic on the dialectical approach to a complex and
seemingly contradictory process. He wrote: "When asked whether or not
the adaptationist program is a legitimate scientific approach, one must
realize that the method of evolutionary biology is in some ways quite
different from that of the physical sciences. Although evolutionary
phenomena are subject to universal laws, as are most phenomena in the
physical sciences, the explanation of a particular evolutionary
phenomenon can be given only as a `historical narrative.' Consequently,
when one attempts to explain the features of something that is the
product of evolution, one must attempt to reconstruct the evolutionary
history of this feature."

He continued by explaining that when one rejects all manner of
teleological explanations for the adaptation of species to their
changing environments one is left with two unified, but seemingly
contradictory propositions—chance and selection forces. "The
identification of these two factors as the principal causes of
evolutionary change by no means completed the task for the evolutionist.
As is the case with most scientific problems, this initial solution
represented only the first orientation. For completion it requires a
second stage, a fine-grained analysis of these two factors: What are the
respective roles of chance
>>>and or natural selection, and how can this be analyzed?" (1988)

Mayr's life-long interest in the fundamental questions that continue to
animate the biological sciences, combined with his exceptional longevity
as a working and thinking scientist, engendered in him a profound
appreciation of its history. In particular, he stressed the importance
of a study of the history of scientific concepts (natural selection,
e.g.). He wrote: "Preoccupation with this sort of conceptual history of
science is sometimes belittled as a hobby of retired scientists. Such an
attitude ignores the manifold contributions which this branch of
scholarship makes" (1982). He stated further: "One can take almost any
advance, either in evolutionary biology or in systematics, and show that
it did not depend as much on discoveries as on the introduction of new
concepts.... Those are not far wrong who insist that the progress of
science consists principally in the progress of scientific concepts"

Mayr frequently commented on what he perceived to be the sharp dichotomy
between experimental and theoretical science, and the growing
inclination toward reductionism in biology. He would bristle against the
accusation, often made by physicists and philosophers, that biology was
not "hard" science. An interesting byproduct of this common
misconception, one that Mayr noted in a recent interview, was that there
continues to be no Nobel Prize awarded in biology.

Mayr championed the notion that the governing concepts of the science of
biology were not simply reducible to mathematical formulae and the
timeless laws of physics. By this he did not mean that biological
processes existed outside the realm of the laws of chemistry and
physics, or that many aspects of the living world did not lend
themselves to quantification, but that living processes could not be
entirely explained or even understood from those standpoints.

Mayr explained that in previous centuries natural scientists, under
pressure to be able to draw conclusions from their working hypotheses
that were reducible to mathematical formulae and the laws of physics,
either succumbed to that pressure and presented purely mechanical
explanations for living processes, or sought vitalist (those who claim
that the property of being alive is sparked by an outside force) and
even religious explanations for the processes being studied.

In referring to the higher levels of complexity of living systems, Mayr
stressed their duality, that is, each organism is at once an expression
of its genotype, the historically developed genetic code for the
synthesis of proteins, and its phenotype, the unique physical appearance
of each individual of a species; the product of the complex interplay of
physiological, embryological and ecological processes. He placed
particular emphasis on two properties unique to living systems,
teleonomy (goal-directed processes) and "emergentism," the tendency for
the evolution of "emergent properties," a notion that reaches beyond the
idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Regarding the latter, he wrote in The Growth of Biological Thought:
"Systems almost always have the peculiarity that the characteristics of
the whole cannot (not even in theory) be deduced from the most complete
knowledge of the components, taken separately or in other partial
combinations. This appearance of new characteristics in wholes has been
designated as emergence" (1982).

As a prime example, he cited the work to uncover the importance of DNA
for the science of genetics. "The discovery of the double helix of DNA
and of its code was a breakthrough of the first order.... There is
nothing in the inanimate world that has a genetic program which stores
information with a history of three thousand million years! At the same
time, this purely materialistic explanation elucidates many of the
phenomena which the vitalists had claimed could not be explained
chemically or physically. To be sure, it is still a physicalist
explanation, but one infinitely more sophisticated than the gross
mechanistic explanations of earlier centuries" (1982).

An emergent property, then, is something unanticipated—the evolution of
new behaviors, or new adaptations (lungs, language, abstract thought,
e.g.), that has unforeseen implications that propel a species or a group
of organisms in an entirely new direction. It should be noted that Mayr
considered the concept of emergentism to be philosophically "entirely

Not surprisingly, Mayr was a lifelong atheist and a staunch opponent of
the ongoing attack on evolution by the motley assemblage of religious
zealots, creationists and "intelligent design" advocates. In 1991, he
commented in an interview in the Harvard Gazette: "I'm an old-time
fighter for Darwinism. I say, `Please tell me what's wrong with
Darwinism. I can't see anything wrong with Darwinism." For Mayr,
Darwin's contribution to mankind's knowledge of the natural world was
revolutionary. During an interview on his 93rd birthday, Mayr commented
that one of "Darwin's great contributions was that he replaced
theological, or supernatural, science with secular science. Laplace had
already done this some 50 years earlier when he explained the whole
world to Napoleon. After his explanation, Napoleon replied, `Where is
God in your theory?' And Laplace answered, `I don't need that

"Darwin's explanation that all things have a natural cause made the
belief in a creatively superior mind quite unnecessary. He created
asecular world, more so than anyone before him. Certainly many forces
were verging in that same direction, but Darwin's work was the crashing
arrival of this idea and from that point on the secular viewpoint of the
world became virtually universal" (2005).

In the introduction to his The Growth of Biological Thought, Mayr wrote:
"A well-known Soviet theoretician of Marxism once referred to my
writings as `pure dialectical materialism.' I am not a Marxist and I do
not know the latest definition of dialectical materialism, but I do
admit that I share some of Engel's anti-reductionist views, as stated in
his Anti-Duhring, and that I am greatly attracted to Hegel's scheme of
thesis-anti-thesis-synthesis." For the most part, Mayr can be classified
as a consistent materialist. However, his outlook stops short of
embracing historical materialism, falling victim to the widely
promulgated viewpoint that history consists of a series of narratives,
rather than the workings of historical laws.

Mayr was one of the outstanding figures of twentieth century science—
brilliant and passionate, with an encyclopedic knowledge of science,
history and philosophy. His contributions to an understanding of the big
questions in biology, not to mention those animating science in general,
have been enormous. One can only anticipate that others, in the face of
the continuing assault on the scientific world outlook, will take up the
defense and further illumination of the fundamental theoretical
conquests of biology with equal vigor and erudition.

            Steven A. Peterson
            Director, School of Public Affairs
            Penn State Capital College
            777 West Harrisburg Pike
            Middletown, PA  17057
            <sap12 at psu.edu>

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