Ernst Mayr


Sad news:

Dr. Ernst Mayr, the leading evolutionary biologist of the 20th century, died on Thursday in Bedford, Mass. He was 100.

Dr. Mayr's death, in a retirement community where he had lived since 1997, was announced by his family and Harvard, where he was a faculty member for many years.

He was known as an architect of the evolutionary or modern synthesis, an intellectual watershed when modern evolutionary biology was born. The synthesis, which has been described by Dr. Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard as "one of the half-dozen major scientific achievements in our century," revived Darwin's theories of evolution and reconciled them with new findings in laboratory genetics and in field work on animal populations and diversity.

One of Dr. Mayr's most significant contributions was his persuasive argument for the role of geography in the origin of new species, an idea that has won virtually universal acceptance among evolutionary theorists. He also established a philosophy of biology and founded the field of the history of biology.

"He was the Darwin of the 20th century, the defender of the faith," said Dr. Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis, a historian of science at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

In a career spanning eight decades, Dr. Mayr, the Alexander Agassiz Professor Emeritus of Zoology at Harvard, exerted a broad and powerful influence over the field of evolutionary biology. Prolific, opinionated and dynamic, Dr. Mayr had been a major figure and intellectual leader since the 1940's. Setting much of the conceptual agenda for the field, he put the focus just where Charles Darwin first placed it, on the question of how new species originate.

Though Dr. Mayr will be best remembered for his role as a synthesizer and promoter of evolutionary ideas, he was also an accomplished ornithologist. In fact, it was with the sighting of a pair of very unusual birds that Dr. Mayr's long career in biology began in 1923 at 19.


“He was the Darwin of the 20th century, the defender of the faith,” said Dr. Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis, a historian of science at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Have I mentioned the term “discipline” lately and how it is important that scientists learn to speak cohesively and coherently about science and evolutionary biology in particular?

Yes, I have. Many times.

Here was an opportunity blown. Thanks, Doc. Thanks a lot.

A good opportunity to remind creationists than What Evolution Is, by Mayr, might help them to understand evolutionary science.

Spurred by Steve’s frequent recommendations, I got myself a copy of “What Evolution Is”. A great read, even if you think you’re beyond that.

I just checked it out from NCSU’s library again. I recommend it to people largely when I’m feeling benevolent. In my more optimistic moods, I think that most creationists are smart enough that if they only knew enough about evolution, they’d have that Aha! moment and realize that it’s obviously correct. At the very least, they might learn enough from Mayr’s book to stop making the very dumbest creationist arguments, such as, if evolution’s true, why are there still monkeys? It’s a great book. Especially for people like me who are in science, but not biology.

Great White Wonder Wrote:

Have I mentioned the term “discipline” lately and how it is important that scientists learn to speak cohesively and coherently about science and evolutionary biology in particular?

I have sent Dr. Smocovitis the following email:

Dear Dr. Smocovitis, You are quoted in an article in the 2/4 New Your Times (see:[…]rtner=rssnyt) about the passing of Ernst Mayr, as follows: “He was the Darwin of the 20th century, the defender of the faith,” said Dr. Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis, a historian of science at the University of Florida in Gainesville. I very much applaud your desire to honor this great and important scientist. However, I feel your choice of words was unfortunate, assuming that you were quoted accurately. If you were NOT quoted accurately, I urge you to let the Times know. As you may be aware, anti-evolutionists are engaged in a vigorous effort to get their non-scientific views presented in the nations public school science classrooms. While this effort has so far failed miserably at producing good science, it is enjoying significant success as a political and social movement. If you are not aware of what is going on, you can easily learn more about it on the Web. I suggest you start with The National Center for Science Education at: One of the many false perceptions that anti-evolutionists attempt to promote is that evolution is a religion, not science, and therefore has no greater status as science than supernatural views of creation. For more information about this, see: I fear that your description of Dr. Mayr as a “defender of the faith” will be used by anti-evolutionists to support their claims about the religious nature of evolutionary theory. Anti-evolutionists are masters at exploiting and distorting the writings of evolutionists in their arguments. For more on this, see “The Quote Mine Project” (at:[…]project.html) on the TalkOrigins Web site. If, in spite of my comments, you feel your comment about Dr. Mayr was appropriate, I suggest you post an explanation on The Panda’s Thumb blog (see:[…]/000790.html). This blog is managed by evolutionists engaged in the day-to-day struggle to promote good science teaching in our schools. I am sure readers of The Panda’s Thumb will be interested in your comments.

Yours truly, Tim Tesar

Good thinking, Tim.

I forgot to inlcude in my previous post that Dr. Smocovitis’ email is: [Enable javascript to see this email address.]

Tim brings up a point which is to my mind unresolved. On the one hand, we can use discipline to keep our message clear and difficult to misuse politically. On the other hand, should we let a small fringe of ignorant people burden us like that?

Steve, I think the truth is somewhere in the middle.

When talking to the media, I think the burden of keeping in mind that what you say may be widely reported and is almost surely going to be taken out of context is minimal.

A greater difficulty arises in the context of writing scientific papers. For example, a common way to “sell” scientific data for publishing (peer reviewed or otherwise) is to begin by presenting a summary of what has previously been discovered and what has not been discovered, and then describing how your work represents an attempt to fill in some of the “unknowns.”

In that context, it is always tempting to exagerate the scope of the unknown because that makes the work you’ve done seem more important.

Hence, the quotes that the creationists like to mine about how “very little” is known about the mechanisms of evolution.

I don’t think there is any question that scientists should be AWARE of how their words might be twisted to disparage their field of research. As to what steps should be taken, I might as a reviewer of an article make a recommendation to change certain passages so that they accurately reflect the state of knowledge without providing cannon fodder for creationism peddlers. But if the author insisted on keeping the text, I certainly wouldn’t hold up publication on that account (unless the text was misleading to a reasonable person).

And it must be said that it is a damn crying shame that it’s come to this and it is NOT – I repeat, NOT the fault of scientists for writing their papers about evolutionary biology as if they were writing for other scientists, and it is NOT the fault of evolutionary biologists for failing to anticipate the ability of the Internet and dubious organizations like the Discovery Institute to slickly peddle anti-science scripts for rubes to recite.

For the moment (as has been the tradition for years and years), it’s evolutionary biology that’s in the spotlight. But I would be shocked if scientists in other disciplines don’t find themselves arguing with school boards about this garbage before too long.

OK, how long until antievolutionists start with the “Ernst Mayr is a creationist NOW” comments? We could have a pool. I’ll take 8PM PST this evening.

Unlike Gould, they probably have no idea who Mayr is.

Dr. Smocovitis has kindly responded to my email (see above). She has given me permision to post it here:

Dr. Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis Wrote:

Hi Tim (if I may): I can’t get the blogsite to open at the moment. Those were precisely my words. Alas, nearly anything one says pertaining to evolution can be used to promote all sorts of agendas. I wrote a book on the history of evolution and find myself quoted by all sorts of bizarre groups pushing arguments for policies I would never support. We can’t control our texts and language once they are in the public domain; they can be used or abused or misused by all sorts of parties in all sorts of ways we can’t anticipate.

I am a faculty member in both history and zoology. I don’t just teach evolution, but I promote it and served as contributor to the “Evolution, Science and Society” white paper written some five or so years ago. Some of the official statements about evolution and religion were screened by me. I am no stranger to the subject.

I do not think my choice of words was unfortunate. They reflect Ernst’s style, which tended to be absolute and dogmatic; he also had something of the autocratic “divine right of king’ to him. I suspect my quotation may be picked up by a small group of extremists out there waiting for any such quotation to appear, and the death of the leading figure in twentieth century evolutionary biology may well catalyze some of them to action, but I am not going to alter my historical—and personal—understanding of the man because I am afraid of how my language can be potentially misused or abused by extremists. I’d stand by the description of that particular man in that particular context. Besides, I rather like the duality of meaning in that phrase.

But thanks for the “heads-up”–your note has served to alert me to the possibility of doing some battle out there.

Best wishes, Betty

PS—you can post this on the blogsite if you can get to it for me.

Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis Associate Professor Depts. Zoology and History University of Florida Gainesville, FL 32611

E-mail: [Enable javascript to see this email address.], [Enable javascript to see this email address.]

Well, one can hardly take issue with Dr. Smocovitus’ explanation under the circumstances.

If you read this thread, Doc, don’t take my 3:11 comment personally. I never spoke with Dr. Mayr but I’ve argued with scores of creationists and, yeah, I’m probably overly sensitive. I apologize for the snippiness and I’m very glad to know you’re ready and willing to defend … evolutionary biology. ;)

That’s OK Great White Wonder and thanks to all of you for following this closely. I knew Ernst personally but also wrote about him for my scholarly work. I study the evolutionary synthesis, and my primary contribution so far has been to argue that it involved the emergence of the scientific discipline known as evolutionary biology. It was a sad day; the news broke out in the department of zoology and you could just feel it touching everyone. He was actually a very kind, honest and forthright person–pretty accommodating on the personal side, but you could never really disagree with him on scientific matters (that dogmatic side).

Carol Yoon, the author of the article in the NYTimes has a PhD in the field of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Cornell University. She is a reliable source of information and “on the side of the angels”…but don’t quote me on that.


I wonder if the creationists are going to be as enthusiastic to dance a jig on his grave as they did to Carl Sagan.

I wonder if the creationists are going to be as enthusiastic to dance a jig on his grave as they did to Carl Sagan.

Yes, and I wonder how long it’ll be before we get the first “he’s a creationist now!” comment like we saw after Professor Gould died.

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This page contains a single entry by PZ Myers published on February 4, 2005 2:57 PM.

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