Ardea alba


Photograph by Arthur Rosen.

Great Egret
Ardea alba – great egret, Walden Pond, Concord, Massachusetts, September, 2021. Dr. Rosen notes, "It was strutting around at the water's edge, fishing among the swimming and wading people, not paying the humans any attention."

Devolution of language? Or of thought?

Examples of trends in the use of words related to rationality (top panel) vs. intuition (bottom panel) (This figure may be used free of rights in press coverage)

A correspondent the other day sent us a link to an article with this intriguing title, ‘We conclude’ or ‘I believe?’ Study finds rationality declined decades ago. The study, out of Wageningen and Indiana Universities, suggests that since 1980 public interest has shifted from rationality toward emotion. Those who think we are in a “post-truth” era will not be surprised. It seems to me that this trend, if substantiated, shows that we may be veering away from scientific thinking and evidence to unfounded opinions and unsubstantiated claims.

David Hillis on the proposal to de-name the Ernst Mayr Award at the Society for Systematic Biology


David Hillis posted the following short essay to Facebook on June 21, 2021. Apparently the leadership of the Society for Systematic Biology (SSB) was discussing a proposal de-name the Ernst Mayr Award. This proposal has now been released, and, because the Ernst Mayr Award is written into SSB’s constitution (Ernst Mayr and his donations helped found SSB!), a 2/3 vote of the membership is required to change it. Hillis has given me permission to republish his essay here. I have my own comments below the fold. – Nick Matzke

[Mayr in 1928]
According to the photo description at : "June 1928: Ernst Mayr with Sario, one of his Malay assistants, in the former Dutch New Guinea. Mayr led ornithological expeditions to Dutch New Guinea and German Mandated New Guinea, an experience that fulfilled 'the greatest ambition of his youth.' Mayr collected ca. 7000 bird skins in two and a half years." (Caption text added by NM)

David Hillis

June 21, 2021

I find it surprising and sad how quickly the amazing life and accomplishments of Ernst Mayr have faded from the memories of a new generation of biologists. I think Mayr had a bigger and more progressive influence on the development of evolutionary biology in the 20th Century, and the betterment of the world as a whole, than probably any other biologist. Mayr emphasized the importance of understanding the natural history of organisms to understand their evolution. He was way ahead of his time in arguing that our emphasis should be on studying whole genomes, rather than individual genes. He spent a lifetime encouraging young people to study biology and the natural world. After immigrating to the US from the horrors of Nazi Germany in the early 1930s, he spoke out against racism and segregation at a time when many of his fellow biologists were doing the opposite. He published over 700 influential articles and 24 books on biological practice and theory, 200 of which he published after he "retired."

Mayr worked to establish several major evolutionary societies, including the Society for the Study of Evolution and the Society of Systematic Zoologists (now Society of Systematic Biologists). He not only spent his time and efforts to found and support these societies, he also supported them financially. For example, in the 1970s he endowed a student award within SSZ to encourage young systematists to enter the field (now named the Ernst Mayr Award). That award has long been used to encourage young systematic biologists of diverse backgrounds to become engaged in studying biodiversity. He left an additional large gift to SSB in his will, which became the nucleus of SSB's endowment that has enabled the many programs and funding opportunities that society now provides to encourage young systematists.

I greatly admire the life and accomplishments of Mayr, even though he and I frequently disagreed over scientific issues. He was already one of the 20th Century's most famous biologists when I met him, and I was just a lowly graduate student working on bringing molecular techniques into systematics. Mayr was not a big fan of this; he was not anti-molecular systematics, but he argued (quite reasonably) that single gene analyses of systematic questions were problematic, and he thought that many molecular systematists did not pay enough attention to the biology and natural history of their organisms (which was often true). After I co-edited the book Molecular Systematics in 1990, he and I often discussed the development and expansion of molecular techniques in the field. But despite our disagreements over this (as well as various issues of systematic theory), he was always cordial, encouraging, warm, and most of all—knowledgeable. It was always clear to me that he read the literature exhaustively. When he asked me questions about or critiqued my papers, it was clear that he had read and thought about them carefully. He had a command of the literature like no one else that I'd ever encountered, or have encountered since. He taught me that people can disagree about issues, and still be great friends (in fact, it can even help and build a friendship to discuss such disagreements).

Most people today likely picture Mayr as an old man, as he was over 100 when he died in 2005, and most living people would remember him (if at all) as an old man. This photo of him (on the right in the photo) shows him as a 23-year-old field biologist in New Guinea in 1928. He had an enormous, positive influence on the world, and especially on the positive development of evolutionary and systematic biology. We should remember and thank him for that. He worked to make the world, and his discipline, better than they were when he came into them. I think that is the lofty goal that we should all strive to achieve in our lives.

Hillis posted additional comments to his Facebook post on January 6, 2022:

Mimus melanotis


Photograph by Dave Rintoul.

Photography Contest, Honorable Mention.

Mimus melanotis – San Cristobal mockingbird (aka Chatham Island mockingbird). Mr. Rintoul writes that the San Cristobal mockingbird "is found only on the island of San Cristobal and nearby Pitt Island in the Galápagos Archipelago. It was one of the first animals encountered by Darwin when he arrived on San Cristobal (which British sailors called Chatham Island) in 1835. Other similar-but-different species of mockingbirds, collected by Darwin on other islands in the archipelago, provided some of the first sparks for his ideas about speciation and common descent. See here and here."

I was drawn to this picture while mining some old contest pictures for this post. When I was in the Galápagos in 2006 (see here and here), I did not manage a photograph of a single finch or other small bird, save one or two that are not endemic.