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 https://achievement.org/achiever/ernst-mayr-ph-d/ : "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:

David Hillis

I am deeply saddened to see in today's e-mail a proposal to eliminate Ernst Mayr's name from the Society of Systematic Biology's Ernst Mayr Award. As this post from last year describes, Mayr was champion of inclusion and diversity; he worked to fight discrimination in science; he supported young scientists, and endowed the student award that bares his name. Members of the society will get to vote on this constitutional change, and I hope that they have the wisdom to continue honoring his life and contributions with this named award.

The proposal to change the name claims that some members disagree with some of his writings, even though Mayr "was a prolific and profound scholar of evolutionary biology and a dedicated champion of students." Really? We are now eliminating mention of people because someone disagrees with some of their academic ideas? That is especially troublesome in this case, as Mayr was an ardent defender of equality and inclusion, and spoke out effectively against racial discrimination (as discussed below). Please, if you are a member of SSB, vote against this mean-spirited and unfair discrimination against Mayr on the spring 2022 ballot.

…and then…

David Hillis

Even given all of Mayr's vast biological accomplishments, I think what most impresses me about him were his efforts to build a better world for all. For example, in 1951, in support of “UNESCO 1951: The race concept: Results of an inquiry,” Mayr made a public statement opposing the views of R. A. Fisher, and supporting the UNESCO statement:

Mayr stated that he hoped that “the authoritative Statement prepared by UNESCO will help to eliminate the pseudo-scientific race conceptions which have been used as excuses for many injustices and even shocking crimes”… “I applaud and wholeheartedly endorse [it],” Mayr wrote, adding: “It cannot be emphasized too strongly that all so-called races are variable populations, and that there is often more difference between extreme individuals of one race than between certain individuals of different races. All human races are mixtures of populations and the term “pure race” is an absurdity. The second important point which needs stressing is that genetics plays a very minor part in the cultural characteristics of different peoples. . . . The third point is that equality of opportunity and equality in law do not depend on physical, intellectual and genetic identity. There are striking differences in physical, intellectual and other genetically founded qualities among individuals of even the most homogeneous human population, even among brothers and sisters. No acknowledged ethical principle exists which would permit denial of equal opportunity for reason of such differences to any member of the human species.”

Three years later, US Supreme Court cited this same Mayr-supported UNESCO statement in the landmark desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Mayr spoke up and did the right thing at a critical time, when many of his colleagues were doing the opposite.

The rest of this post is by Nick Matzke.

Here is the SSB announcement about de-naming the Ernst Mayr Award:

SSB Council Review of the Mayr Award and Award Names

In the summer of 2020, the SSB Council began a discussion about potentially renaming the Ernst Mayr Award in Systematic Biology at the request of society members. Since then, the SSB leadership have been working in conjunction with the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee to learn more about the origin of named awards and their representation of the diverse membership within the society. Renaming the award is one step toward greater inclusivity within the society, as named awards often lead to feelings of exclusion among those who are members of underrepresented groups whose scientific contributions continue to remain unrecognized. At a council meeting following Virtual Evolution 2021, the Council voted to propose to all members an award name change, in conjunction with other actions intended to better recognize SSB’s history and legacy.

The SSB Council proposes to rename the Ernst Mayr Award in Systematic Biology to the Outstanding Student Presentation Award in Systematic Biology. Our scientific community is more diverse than the cohort of early scientists with recognized contributions to systematics and science generally. Many current members do not see themselves reflected in awards that bear the names of these early scientists and can feel excluded as potential recipients as a result. In a field whose composition still does not reflect global human diversity, having an award named after a particular individual reinforces that members with other identities are outsiders. By proposing this name change, we hope to address this specific barrier to making our society more inclusive and welcoming. We, the SSB council, are made up of a diverse group of people who don’t all view Mayr in the same light. This proposal is not intended to cast judgement on the legacy of Ernst Mayr, who was a prolific and profound scholar of evolutionary biology and a dedicated champion of students, nor are we intending to defend the contents of his writings which some find problematic. We are grateful for Mayr’s generous gifts to our society, which created the endowment that allows us to support student research today.

The Council sees preservation of the society’s history and increasing diversity, equity and inclusion as synergistic endeavors toward the improvement of our community. The proposed change continues our history of becoming more inclusive over time: for example, in the 1990s we changed from the Society for Systematic Zoology to the Society of Systematic Biologists (and changed the journal name as well) to welcome members of our community who do not study animals. Thus, SSB President Laura Kubatko has acted on the recommendation of the DEI Committee to form a new committee, the SSB Legacy Committee, that will be tasked with creating accessible content about our society's history (e.g., as a section on our website). The formation of this committee is intended as a way to acknowledge the contributions of past members to the existence of the society and to the field broadly. In this way, the legacy of the society may be understood by our membership more comprehensively than is possible through named awards, and we have the opportunity to celebrate the many people of various backgrounds who have made systematic biology what it is today.

Because the award is named in our Constitution, the name can only be changed by a formal amendment to the Constitution. Following the procedure outlined in our Constitution, the SSB Council thus voted in August 2021 to propose an Amendment to the Constitution to be submitted to the SSB Membership for a vote. The Constitution specifies that the proposed Amendment will pass if at least 2/3 of the members vote in favor. This issue will be presented to the membership on the Spring 2022 ballot. The proposed amendment is shown below.

Proposed amendment

Original text:

1) The Ernst Mayr Award in Systematic Biology given for the outstanding paper presented at the Annual Meeting by a student member of the Society or a member who has received the Ph.D. degree within the last 15 months;

New text:

1) The Outstanding Student Presentation Award in Systematic Biology given for the outstanding paper presented at the Annual Meeting by a student member of the Society or a member who has received the Ph.D. degree within the last 15 months;


Crucial background reading:

Barkan, Elazar (1992). The retreat of scientific racism : changing concepts of race in Britain and the United States between the world wars. Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-381. https://books.google.co.nz/books/about/The_Retreat_of_Scientific_Racism.html?id=-c8aSO-gnwMC&redir_esc=y

Ernst Mayr: Charles Darwin of the Twentieth Century. Biography — Academy of Achievement. Retrieved January 6, 2022. https://achievement.org/achiever/ernst-mayr-ph-d/

Key Links

Jerry Coyne’s post on the proposed Mayr de-naming:

Coyne, Jerry (2022). Famous biologist Ernst Mayr about to be heaved into the dumpster by the Society of Systematic Biologists January 6, 2022. https://whyevolutionistrue.com/2022/01/06/famous-biologist-ernst-mayr-about-to-be-unjustly-heaved-into-the-dumpster-by-the-society-for-systematic-biology/

My main posts on various cannings of evolutionary greats:

On J.B.S. Haldane: https://pandasthumb.org/archives/2021/11/haldane-1938-biology-of-inequality.html

On T.H. Huxley: http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2021/11/updated-creationists-social-justice-advocates-unite-take-down-huxley.html

Statements to the Western Washington University Board on T.H. Huxley http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2021/12/Matzke-Huxley-comments.html

My attempts to put some context onto Twitter in the midst of the Great R.A. Fisher Panic of June 2020 – almost wholly unsuccessfully, I might add – are here:

Part 1: https://twitter.com/NickJMatzke/status/1270280876958474240
Part 2: https://twitter.com/NickJMatzke/status/1270287477928939521

Apparently, some of the back-and-forth over Fisher in June 2020 was the origin of the SSB Mayr Award controversy, i.e. these posts:


The short version of my argument in June 2020 was that we shouldn’t make hasty judgments about R.A. Fisher, because if you have read much about the history of eugenics or scientific racism, and the history of the opposition to the same, you realise that many of the people who made substantial progress in defeating these repugnant views did not achieve perfection instantaneously. Views on race and eugenics changed gradually, step-by-step, with some mistakes and prejudices (e.g. polygenism) defeated long before others (e.g. the idea that biological race referred to real, meaningful categories). The people who fought against Nazi eugenics before World War 2 were largely eugenicists themselves (but “reform eugenicists”). There were anti-racist eugenicists, anti-eugenics racists, etc. None of this should be surprising to evolutionary biologists, of all people, who generally have an instinct for the importance and complexity of history, and how gradual change in many small steps can add up to big changes where the end result is almost unrecognizable from the beginning point. The interesting thing about progress in moral views is not when it is done by people who are morally perfect. The interesting thing is when this progress is made by imperfect people, despite received wisdom and their initial prejudices. The process is, I think, not unlike scientific discovery. And in the case of racism & eugenics, scientific discoveries and moral progress were often linked, and many of the people who did the linking were the very evolutionary greats who are now being canned right and left. For all of these reasons and more, it is more important to acknowledge the important progress people made, rather than the inherited assumptions they failed to overcome.

All of this, and more, would have to be taken into consideration in a fair evaluation of R.A. Fisher. Using the old creationist tactic of quote-mining and putting up something that looks bad on Twitter is not a reliable method for judgment of historical matters. So, in the midst of discussing these issues in a heated Twitter discussion, I said, consider Ernst Mayr: if you google his name plus the word “eugenics”, which anyone can do very easily, you find something. You can play this trick for almost any biologist and/or progressive active between about 1900 and 1970. I never imagined people would take this seriously enough in the case of Ernst Mayr to begin discussing de-naming his award.*

*Now, I have to acknowledge that I have been told by Josef Uyeda that (1) those Twitter replies may have kicked off the SSB Board’s discussion of the Mayr Award, but (2) no one made a serious case against Ernst Mayr that he heard about, and the denaming proposal and vote is really, truly, not about Mayr’s views or reputation, but about the abstract issue of whether or not awards should be named after individuals at all. (I guess everything from the Nobel Prize on down should be denamed according to this logic.) I am happy to acknowledge his representation of his views. However, I think that the SSB proposal text itself, and the overall context of canning famous evolutionists left and right without anything resembling historical due diligence, indicates that much more is involved. We are living through an age of iconoclasm, and legitimate rage against Trumpism, massive economic inequality, Covid denialism, and the rest, is being redirected to all kinds of weird places due to the difficulty of fixing the core problems. It is all made worse by everyone being even more online than usual due to the pandemic, physical libraries and old paper books and sources being less accessible than usual, and the lack of face-to-face meetings.

You can read Uyeda’s views in his own words at his Twitter thread, here: https://twitter.com/pseudacris/status/1479177881360207874

Anyway, if you are in SSB, please vote against this proposal. Spasms of iconoclasm have to burn out somewhere, and it would be a further honor to Ernst Mayr if his award was the firebreak.