Ernst Mayr, Biologist Extraordinaire
An appreciation of Harvard's visionary of modern evolutionary synthesis
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 passing.
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.