Michael Ruse on Ernst Mayr

Over on the Philosophy of Biology blog Michael Ruse has just written an extensive eulogy of Ernst Mayr. It includes an excellent summary of the importance of Mayr as well as many entertaining anecdotes.

I recently expressed the view that I would be proud to be kicked by Ernst Mayr. It seems that Ruse felt the same way:

But Mayr had many more years of active life. Even last year he was scrounging one of my books from our shared publisher, Harvard University Press, so that he could put the boot into me one more time before he was done.

Michael Ruse, Ernst Mayr Eulogy

I have quoted some of the important points and good bits below, but you should really read the whole thing.

As a student in Germany, Mayr had been rather disdainful of evolution. I do not mean that he was not an evolutionist - he never had any doubts on that score. It was just that he did not really think it a proper subject for a professional biologist. This may seem strange, and even stranger is the fact that the man who was to become one of the dominating figures of neo-Darwinism was at this time a committed Lamarckian - he believed that the main causal force was the inherited of acquired characteristics. In fact, the odd thing would have been if Mayr had thought evolution worthy of study by an ambitious young biologist, or had he been other than a Lamarckian. For all that Darwin, back in the mid-nineteenth century, had discovered the mechanism of natural selection - the survival of the fittest - evolution had been captured by those (Herbert Spencer, Ernst Haeckel, Thomas Henry and grandson Julian Huxley) who were determined to make evolution into a kind of secular alternative to the dominant Christianity. It was at best an inferior science and at worst a vehicle on which any enthusiast could hang wild metaphysical theories and hypotheses. Selection was thought a minor factor in significant change, and Lamarckism was one of the favored alternatives.

Theodosius Dobzhansky changed all of that. He was captivated by the adaptive landscape metaphor of Sewall Wright, and used it as the basis of Genetics and the Origin of Species, his paradigm-making survey of the forces of organic change, first given as lectures at Columbia University in 1936 and then published as a book the year following. As everyone knows, Dobzhansky was an enthusiast, gathering up co-workers and students. Mayr was brought into the circle, and at Dobzhansky’s urgings gave his own lectures, and published the result as Systematics and the Origin of Species in 1942.


To quote Ed Wilson: “Jim Watson? The most unpleasant man I ever knew.” (Actually, one of Mayr’s daughters dated Watson for a while. Although more on this topic in a moment.) The fact is that without Ernst Mayr we would not have the professional discipline of evolutionary biology that we have today. I do not mean that nothing would exist - others were organizing, including Dobzhansky with his many students and (over in England) E B “Henry” Ford was also showing himlsef a master of organization and funding finding. But without Mayr, things would simply not be as well developed as they are now.

Michael Ruse, Ernst Mayr Eulogy

Above all, Mayr was a holist, meaning that he thought breaking things down to small components is not only not necessarily the right way to go in biological science, it is often positively exactly the wrong way to go. For this reason, when Michael Ghiselin and David Hull in the 1970s began arguing that species are not classes - groups of member organisms - but individuals - integrated wholes - Mayr embraced their thesis with enthusiasm. And it was for this reason that Mayr wrote a lot of his history.

It is true that old battles were not forgotten. Those dreadful geneticists had ignored variation, the basis of Mayr’s gradualism, and so a lot of the history was devoted to showing that that rotter Plato had illicitly introduced essentialism - the idea that groups have no variation - into biological thought. Only slowly and gradually, thanks primarily to Darwin and to a certain immigrant to the United States of America, had population thinking finally triumphed. But this history telling was only part of the story, for the important underlying message was that whole-organism thinking has a grand tradition and, as one recognizes this, one recognizes that such thinking has its own autonomous problems and ways of solution. Molecular biology is important, but only a molecular biologist would think it all important. And that in itself tells you something about their limitations.

Was Mayr successful in his efforts? Well, yes I think he was, although how much was due to Mayr himself and how much to others, and what the nature of that success are perhaps questions that yield answers Mayr would not entirely have liked. On the one hand, Mayr’s labours in the history and philosophy of science - always as much organizational as conceptual - paid off greatly in the development of both the history and philosophy of biology as thriving enterprises as we have them today.

Michael Ruse, Ernst Mayr Eulogy

It is certainly true that, although Mayr may have been rough on people like Wilson and Bush, he respected them and other biologists in a way that he never felt about others, including historians and philosophers. I always felt a bit like a court eunuch when I was around him. Useful and interesting, but ultimately not a real man. Or perhaps court jester. Mayr was much easer on us than on the biologists, but that was because we existed only to help biology. This did not preclude real friendship. Over the years he and I built up a close relationship. I did earn some respect. At a discussion group in the 1980s at Harvard, I told him to his face that I thought the species-as-individuals thesis is nonsense. He came at me across the room, shaking his finger, and yelling. I stood my gourd, and got invited to lunch the next day!

Michael Ruse, Ernst Mayr Eulogy

My final memory is four years old. I had just retired from thirty-five years of teaching in Canada, and moved to Florida State University here in Tallahassee. With my professorship comes money for (and expectations of) putting on conferences. So for the first, in 2001, I organized a conference on the philosophy of biology. Mayr was still in the habit of spending the winter at a small college in central Florida, and Betty Smocovitis at the University of Florida - an old friend of both Mayr and me - arranged to bring Ernst along. All sorts of prior warnings were sent that Ernst was old and frail and would need lots of time out. Although the conference was from Friday to Sunday, he would need to leave on Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately he would not be able to go on the field trip to Wakulla Springs, a nature reserves full of birds and alligators (and the site of the original Tarzan movies as well as of The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Airport 77.)

Along came Betty and Ernst. Inevitably as soon as the paper was over, Ernst was on his feet. This continued for the rest of Friday and all day Saturday. Who, on Saturday at Wakulla, was at the front of the boat? You guessed it! Ernst Mayr having a wonderful time, telling us that this was his first visit to Wakulla since 1931. And who saw the Saturday barbecue out to the bitter end, until finally I said: “Ernst go to bed.” None other than our frail old friend and evolutionist.

Michael Ruse, Ernst Mayr Eulogy