Ernst Mayr versus racism

[Mayr bust in Berlin museum]
Bust of Ernst Mayr at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin. Source and license at Wikipedia.

The ongoing controversy over the proposal to de-name the Ernst Mayr Award at the Society for Systematic Biology is one of many examples of the ongoing re-examination of the history of evolutionary biology with respect to racism in the 2020s.

I have developed many worries about the way that the evaluation of major historical figures in evolutionary biology has been occurring. (I know that the SSB proposal formally tries to avoid having this discussion about Mayr, but evaluating the legacy of a historical figure is simply an unavoidable feature of people reaching a decision about naming/de-naming that historical figure.)

Some of my main worries are:

  1. Twitter-neutics: The Twitter hermenutic. I have noticed in recent years that the common hermeneutic for discussing these issues is basically trial-by-Twitter, where sentences from decades and centuries past are ripped from their original context (sometimes originally taken from creationist quote-mines) and read as if they were modern Twitter posts. This boldly assumes that the quote should be read as if the writer had access to all of the modern scientific knowledge and ethical development that occurred in the years since the passage was written.
  2. Paper-denialism. Another feature of trial-by-Twitter is the principle "If it's not freely online and text-searchable by google, it doesn't exist." This problem is made worse in the age of the pandemic, where academics are (a) harried and juggling families and work, let alone side-projects, and (b) often locked out of their offices and university libraries. It is especially problematic when the views of historical figures are being considered, as much of their key work on "public interest" topics like race is in old paper books, old magazines and pamphlets, etc., that are typically not online, and sometimes only available via old-fashioned interlibrary loan.
  3. Historians-schmistorians. For similar reasons, historians of science are rarely consulted. This is despite the fact that the history of scientific racism (and eugenics, a closely related but non-identical topic) is one of the most prolific cottage industries in history of science. Even getting on top of the secondary historical literature in this area is a massive task. (That said, the best single resource I have found on this topic is: Elazar Barkan (1992). The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States between the World Wars. Cambridge University Press. Here is the official link if you have library access, and googling may turn up other PDFs.)

Overall, the main worrying thing I see in online discussions of evolutionary biologists and racism is a major lack of awareness of The Historical Big Picture, which is that evolutionary biologists, especially and specifically (a) Darwin/T.H. Huxley and (b) the architects of the Modern Synthesis, have been some of the crucial individuals who helped destroy key pillars of scientific racism, and (slowly and painfully) brought academia and society along with them.

Darwin and Huxley, for instance, basically destroyed polygenism once and for all, and established the overwhelming similarity and close kinship of all modern humans, opposing the view that various extant races were transitional forms. They also vocally opposed slavery, supported the Jamaica Committee, endorsed equal rights and voting rights, etc. (I covered this in detail for T.H. Huxley, here and here).

As for the Modern Synthesis versus racism, writing it all up is more than I have bandwidth for, but read Barkan’s (1992) The Retreat of Scientific Racism. The short version is that the key individuals in the U.K. were people like Julian Huxley (T.H. Huxley’s grandson; another grandson was Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World), who long before he wrote his 1942 Evolution: The Modern Synthesis, lead-authored the 1935 We Europeans: a survey of ‘racial’ problems. This was one of the first and most important major debunkings of “race science.” Huxley was encouraged and supported by J.B.S. Haldane, Lancelot Hobgen, and Charles Singer (the latter is essentially an unacknowledged coauthor of We Europeans; his name was left off to avoid the charge of the book being Jewish propaganda).

In the USA, the key nexus was Columbia University in New York City, where the anthropologist Franz Boas and his students (e.g. Ruth Benedict, Melville J. Herskovits, Alfred L. Kroeber, Margaret Mead, and Ashley Montagu) waged a long public campaign against racism, joined most notably by Theodosius Dobzhansky (originally a member of T.H. Morgan’s “fly-room” at Columbia) and his colleague, Columbia geneticist Leslie Clarence Dunn. Dobzhansky wrote books and articles against racism for decades (see e.g. Dunn & Dobzhansky, 1947, Heredity, Race, and Society). Reviewing Dobzhansky’s work in this area will have to wait for when The Great Iconoclasm of the 2020s comes for him (give it a few weeks!). I do include a few quotes from Dobzhansky below, as clearly Dobzhansky helped inspire Mayr’s anti-racism.

Returning to Ernst Mayr: Mayr and Dobzhansky were probably the two biggest boosters of the idea that population genetic thinking destroyed the typological concept of race, and thus undermined the basic foundation of racism. For them, races were pretty arbitrary divisions of a continuously mixing gene pool, the differences between individuals within each “race” were far greater than any between them, and individual variation meant there was no such thing as a “typical” member of a race.

Since Mayr is on the radar, I thought it would be worthwhile to quote him through the decades on the issue of race. Although we can see some features indicating that he was clearly a person of his time (for example, the then-conventional use of “Man” for “humankind” throughout), including a few vestiges of older views on race, on the whole I found it surprising just how much of Mayr is now just conventional wisdom, so thoroughly embedded in all of our heads that we moderns don’t even think about how these views were promoted and accepted.

I think it is hazardous for us moderns to judge historical figures if we don’t even realize how much of our modern worldview was built by those same figures. Hopefully, posting these quotes, for reading and google-ability, will help with this.

(Any bolds are added by me. Any italics etc. are original.)

Theodosius Dobzhansky (1951 [1937]). Genetics and the Origin of Species. Third edition, revised. Columbia University Press, New York. 1-364.

Chapter 4: Selection, p. 77:

The Concept of Adaptive Value

It is well known that Darwin's conception of natural selection was derived from the idea of Malthus, that even the slowest breeding organisms tend to produce more offspring that [sic] can survive without eventually outrunning the food supply. Death and destruction of a part of the progeny undoubtedly take place in all organisms. It was the differential mortality of the carriers of different genotypes composing a population that was supposed to make selection effective. Unfortunately, this process was also described by metaphors which were more picturesque than accurate, such as "struggle for life" and "the survival of the fittest." Natural selection became associated in too many minds with emotional slogans like "eat or be eaten," and this led to misuse of Darwinism by propagandists and bigots.

p. 140

People with O and with A blood groups are not distinct races, because they do not form different populations, although different populations often differ in the incidence of these blood groups. Similarly, people with long and with short heads, or slender and fat people, are not races. Calling them races leads to the absurd situations when brothers and sisters would differ in race from each other and from their parents.

Bergman, R. A. M.; Dahlberg, Gunnar; Dunn, Leslie C.; Haldane, J. B. S.; Montagu, M.F. Ashley; Mourant, A. E.; Nachtscheim, Hans; Schreider, Eugene; Shapiro, Harry L.; Trevor, J. C.; Vallois, Henri V.; Zuckerman, S.; Dobzhansky, Theodosius; Huxley, Julian (1952). The Race concept: results of an inquiry. Part of the UNESCO series The Race Question in Modern Science. Statement text drafted at Unesco House, Paris, on 8 June 1951; comments then solicited from numerous authorities. Paris: UNESCO.

p. 18:

Mayr also hopes that "the authoritative Statement prepared by Unesco will help to eliminate the pseudoscientific race conceptions which have been used as excuses for many injustices and even shocking crimes". "I applaud and wholeheartedly endorse [it]," he writes, 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."

Ernst Mayr (1959). Review of: Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution by Gertrude Himmelfarb. Scientific American 201(5), 209-216. November 1959.

[Himmelfarb's] discussion of Darwin's relation to teleological thinking fails to penetrate to the core of the issue. Neither she nor the majority of philosophers seem to realize that the "Why?" that Darwin asks so often is not the teleological "What for?" but the scientific "How come?" The investigator who asks, "Why are there tides in the ocean?," is inquiring into their causation . The anti-teleological impact of this kind of "Why?," correctly emphasized by John Dewey, is missed by Dr. Himmelfarb entirely when she calls Darwin's questioning a "preeminently teleological inquiry." No wonder she is puzzled "that Darwin, the least philosophical of men, should have fastened upon that most philosophical and metaphysical of all questions [and yet that] his questions, while fundamental, were never abstract." The reason is that Darwin was intensely interested in ultimate causes, but never in "final" causes.

One might claim that these errors are irrelevant in a book primarily concerned with the Darwinian revolution, the impact of Darwin on the contemporary scene. But even here I feel that Dr. Himmelfarb has not done Darwin justice. She describes quite correctly how bewildered Darwin was about the social and ethical applications of Darwinism. He certainly would not have excused war, class struggle, robber baronism and racism as logical consequences of Darwinism. Yet she nowhere points out that it is totally unjustifiable to interpret such things in terms of Darwinism. It does not matter which of Darwin's basic principles one takes: the population principle or the principle of the biological contribution to the next generation (the true touchstone of natural selection); applying either of these principles to "social Darwinism" shows that they are in complete opposition to it. The adoption of pseudo-Darwinism by all-or-nothing philosophers, by typologists and by others unable to think statistically has led to all sorts of monstrous ideologies that no true Darwinian could ever have conceived. It is the term "struggle," which Darwin so unfortunately took over from Thomas Malthus and Lyell, that seems to have given misinformed laymen the idea that physical struggle was the basic principle of Darwinism.

Mayr, Ernst (1963). Animal Species and Evolution. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Mass. 1-797.


[summarizing Chapter 12: The Polytypic Species of the Taxonomist]

The term "species" is as useful in purely taxonomic as in evolutionary studies of animals. On the infraspecific level a slight dualism is unavoidable, without calling, however, for an elaborate new terminology. The application of the word "subspecies" is best restricted to taxonomy, while terms like "deme," "race," "geographic isolate," and "cline" belong to the field of evolutionary biology. Finally, terms like "variety" and "biological race" have been such catchalls for heterogenous phenomena that they would better be discarded altogether.

[Chapter 20: Man as a Biological Species]


The Polytypic Species Homo sapiens

All the different kinds of living man on the face of the earth belong to a single species. They form a single set of intercommunicating gene pools. As a matter of fact, the various races of man are less different from each other than are the subspecies of many polytypic species of animals. Yet a few misguided individuals have applied a type of typological species definition to man and have divided him into five or six separate species by using such artificial criteria as white, yellow, red, or black skin color. Such a division not only leaves a considerable portion of mankind unclassified as intermediates or relic primitives, but also is completely contrary to the biological species concept (Chapters 2 and 12). There are no genetic isolating mechanisms separating any of the races of mankind, and even the social barriers function inefficiently where different races come into contact.

It is often asked whether man is in the process of speciating and whether the races of man should be considered incipient species. In attempting to answer this question one must recall that the hominids occupy one of the most spectacularly distinctive adaptive zones on earth. In the animal kingdom the invasion of a new adaptive zone usually results in a burst of adaptive radiation into various subniches. This has not happened in the history of the family Hominidae. Mayr (1950a) has pointed out that this failure of man to species is due to two causes: "It seems to me that [one] reason is man's great ecological diversity. Man has, so to speak, specialized in despecialization. Man occupies more different ecological niches than any known animal. If the single species man occupies


successfully all the niches that are open for Homo-like creatures, it is obvious that he cannot speciate." The second reason is that isolating mechanism in hominids apparently develop only slowly. There have been many isolates in the polytypic species Homo sapiens and in the species ancestral to it, but isolation never lasted sufficiently long for isolating mechanisms to become perfected. Man's great mobility and independence of the environment have made perfect geographic isolation impossible. As a consequence all parts of the globe, including all climatic zones, are now occupied by a single species. What other species of animal includes populations adapted to the Arctic as well as to the tropics, and ranging from almost pure vegetarians to almost pure carnivores? The probability of man's breaking up into several species has become smaller and smaller with the steady improvement of communication and means of transport. The internal cohesion of the genetic system of man is being strengthened constantly.

The Races of Man

There is no agreement yet on the formal classification of the subdivisions of Homo sapiens. Of two highly competent treatises on the races of man, both published in 1950, one (Boyd 1950) recognizes 6 races, the other (Coon et al. 1950) recognizes 30. Both classifications are equally legitimate. Yet even the division into 30 races is by no means exhaustive. Race number 9 ("Negrito"), of Coon et al. lumps together numerous relict populations from the Congo in Africa and from southeast Asia, the Phillipines, and New Guinea, populations that (if they are related at all) are less closely related than are the four European races recognized by these authors. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of nearly all the other races. All are collective groupings of more or less differentiated local populations. Even Lundman's recognition (1952) of 37 races and some 30 additional subraces contains several heterogenous groupings. And yet this is only one of the difficulties. All these are contemporary races of Recent Man. If we go back in history we find chronological subdivisions of Homo sapiens such as, let us say, Cro-Magnon Man or more differentiated Neanderthal and finally the Steinheim-Swanscombe Man, the earliest Homo that cannot clearly be separated from the polytypic species Homo sapiens. Biologically, it is immaterial how many subspecies and races of man one wants to recognize. The essential point is to recognize the genetic and biological continuity of all these gene pools, localized in space and time, and to recognize the biological meaning of their adaptations and specializations.



The Amount of Difference Among Human Races

It is relatively easy to describe the differences among human races in terms of dimensions, proportions, pigmentation, hair shape, and other morphological characters. Yet the question is raised again and again: just how meaningful are such morphological data? First of all, they have only a partial genetic basis since, as is well known, pigmentation may depend on exposure to sun and size on nutrition. More serious is the objection that neither size nor pigmentation is a critical human characteristic. The critical characteristics are intelligence, inventiveness, imagination, compassion, and other traits that are difficult to measure and to compare. As stated above, the extreme viewpoint has been to deny that such differences among humans exist. A more conservative view would be to assume that as a consequence of manifold genetic differences among human populations there will be average differences for any kind of trait that has at least in part a genetic basis. All attempts to separate genetic and nongenetic characters (or contributions to the characters) have until now been quite unsuccessful. So far as I know, there is not one single mental trait for which a clear-cut racial different has been established, in spite of high probability that such differences exist. Twin studies are so far the only reliable proof of the partial genetic determination of mental traits. This much is certain, however, that the differences between individuals of a single population or race are usually larger than those between populations or races.

The Population Concept in Man

As in biology, the outstanding conceptual revolution that has occurred in physical anthropology is the replacement of typological thinking by population thinking. This shift has affected every concept in anthropology, although none as strongly as the race concept. The typological race concept of the racists is something thoroughly odious; the statistically defined race of the botanist and zoologist is a fact of nature. The basis for race formation is the same for all sexually reproducing organisms and consists in the fact that no two individuals are identical nor are any two local populations. No individual can therefore be "typical" of a race. Indeed, in polymorphic races different individuals may be strikingly different. [647] To look for and speak of "pure races" is sheer nonsense. Variability is inherent in any natural population and is favored by natural selection on account of the frequent superiority of heterozygotes and the diversity of the environment (Chapters 9 and 10). What differs from race to race is the degree of variability and this depends on the size of the populations, the variability of the habitat, and other factors discussed in previous chapters. Much of the phenotypic variability of mankind is presumably due to the occasional production of homozygotes by heterozygous parents. This is particularly true of constitutional extremes, individuals that are exceptionally large, small, obese, or thin.

There are other reasons for man's phenotypic variability. Man is a restless creature and since prehistoric times he has made large-scale migrations. The numerous colonizations of America by Asiatic tribes, the conquest of the South Seas by the Polynesians, the great Bantu migrations, and the massive movements of Slavic and Germanic tribes in the dying days of the Roman Empire are only a few spectacular examples. Conquerors almost invariably absorb part of the defeated tribe or nation or are absorbed by it. On this basis one might expect man to have exceptionally high individual variability, but this is not the case. Schultz (1944, 1947) has shown that some of the anthropoids far exceed man in this respect, as do many other animals. Some human populations that are clearly the product of hybridization do not seem to have signficantly higher variability than have unmixed races (Trevor 1953).



Claims of human identity [Mayr means the concept that all humans are identical, which he contrasts with the concept of moral/legal equality] are the outcome of typological thinking, of a belief that within the human type there is "no essential variation." Political theorizers have invariably applied such typological formulas when trying to resolve the difficulties posed by man's variability. The racism of the Nazis, for instance, was an outcome of such thinking. They rigidly defined each race by absolute characteristics: the X race "is lazy," the Y race is "of great intelligence," and Z race is "musical," and, worst of all, the A race is "superior." This allowed neither for the fact that many of the characteristics mentioned have only a partial (often a very small) genetic component, nor for the fact that many members of the various races do not have these characteristics at all. Another fallacy of typological racism is that it claims perfect correlation between the various characteristics ascribed to each race. Accordingly it claims an association between a particular color of the eyes or the hair and certain traits of the [650] mind or the character. Actually, all available evidence negates the existence of such absolute correlations.

Every politician, clergyman, educator, or physician, in short, anyone dealing with human individuals, is bound to make grave mistakes if he ignores these two great truths of population zoology: (1) no two individuals are alike, and (2) both environment and genetic endowment make a contribution to nearly every trait.

Mayr, Ernst (1963). The Biology, Genetics, and Evolution of Man. Review of Mankind Evolving: The Evolution of the Human Species by Theodosius Dobzhansky. Quarterly Review of Biology, 38(3), 221-288. September 1963.

Nothing has delayed a modern approach to the study of man more than antiquated ideologies and meaningless controversies. Nature versus nurture, instinct versus learning, race versus biological identity, equality versus biological identity all such antitheses have provoked arguments that have long been shown by biologists to be meaningless, yet much political argument and indecision in public policy is due to the painful lag between scientific recognition and public understanding. This is why a scientifically sound volume on man such as Dobzhansky's is of such extraordinary importance. It admirably fulfills two functions: it presents that which we know, and, perhaps more importantly, it demolishes a considerable number of harmful misconceptions.

Appreciating the grave danger of various misconceptions such as that of the master race, the nongenetic aspects of nonphysical characteristics, the concept of the tabula rasa of some psychologists, etc., Dobzhansky devotes much space to their refutation. The idea that modern man is no longer subject to natural selection is shown to be false. There is, however, a difference between primitive and modern man: the mortality differential of selection has been replaced by a fertility differential. Here the author could have perhaps stressed even more clearly that so-called Darwinian fitness consists of two drastically different components: genuine adaptive fitness and mere reproductive advantage. Dobzhansky's discussion of equality versus identity is particularly clear and constructive. "The notion that all men are born...biologically alike, is a fallacy...pernicious in the long run."

No other issue has beclouded the study of man as much as the continuing controversy between environmentalists and hereditarians. Dobzhansky does a great service by presenting much of the history of this controversy and an anthology of some of the more extreme claims. The issue is now theoretically resolved, since no intelligent student questions that man is a product both of his nature and of his environment (which includes his cultural history). Lysenkoism is as wrong as is racism, yet we are still far from being able to partition our phenotype into the contributions made by heredity and those

[p. 244]

made by the environment. It is obviously impossible to investigate man as we do animals, since neither controlled breeding nor raising in artificial environments is available as a method of analysis. Correlation tests among twins and other relatives, which are increasingly being refined and extended by human geneticists, are beginning to give accurate estimates. Dobzhansky presents, in Chapter 4, much of the evidence that now exists for a genetic contribution not only to intelligence but also to many other human traits. Since personality traits affect susceptibility to criminality, addiction to smoking, and other social characteristics, it is not surprising that greater concordance for some of these traits is found among identical than among fraternal twins.

These findings are still heatedly denied by some authors whose typological thinking forces them into a rigid determinism in which human fate is as inevitable as in a Greek tragedy. Many facts, such as the experience that identical twins do not necessarily behave in an identical manner, disprove the deterministic approach and open the gate to researches on methods for coping with an adverse genetic endowment. This is a far more constructive approach than the ostrich policy of denying the importance of the genotype.

Theodosius Dobzhansky (1963). Genetic Entities in Hominid Evolution. Chapter in: Classification and Human Evolution, edited by Sherwood L. Washburn. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co., pp 347-361.


Man behaves in this respect differently from Drosophila. Contrary to what racists so stridently proclaim, there is not a detectable trace of a loss of fitness in either the F1 or in later generations of hybrids between even the most distinctive human races. Nor is there any evidence of heterosis in the F1.


The genetic consequences of migration are worth more thought and study than they have thus far received. What happens when a race of a polytypic species improves its adaptedness and spreads to the areas of other races? There is no need to ascribe to our remote ancestors a degree of ferocity attained by only some of their descendants; the invaders need not have slaughtered the entire populations of the territories invaded. Genocide is less probable than genosorption, i.e., incorporation of genes of one population into the gene pool of another.



This article was concluded and sent to the publisher before the appearance of The Origin of Races by C. S. Coon. Dr. Coon and I are in agreement that the now living polytypic species, Homo sapiens, is descended from the single polytypic Homo erectus of the mid-Pleistocene. Dr. Coon has, however, chosen to believe that H. erectus was transformed into H. sapiens not once but five times, and that this transformation occurred much earlier in some places than in others. This belief, which has made Dr. Coon's work attractive to racist pamphleteers, is neither supported by conclusive evidence nor plausible on theoretical grounds. The specific unity of mankind was maintained throughout its history by gene flow due to migration and the process for which the word "genosorption" is suggested above. Excepting through such gene flow, repeated origins of the same species are so improbable that this conjecture is not worthy of serious consideration; and given a gene flow, it becomes fallacious to say that a species has originated repeatedly, and even more fallacious to contend that it has originated five times, or any other number above one.

Mayr, Ernst (1968). The Role of Systematics in Biology. Science, 159(3815), 595-599.

Many new concepts arose out of this work of the taxonomist but have since diffused broadly into genetics, ecology, physiology, and other areas of biology. By far the most important of these, as I have often stressed in the past, is population thinking. Biology, as all other sciences, was permeated by typological thinking until late in the 19th century, and is still today. When the learning psychologist speaks of The Rat or The Monkey, or the racist of The Negro, this is typological thinking. The early Mendelians were pure typologists. A mutation changed The Wildtype, and the result was a new type of organism, according to De Vries a new species. I have pointed out elsewhere (4) that taxonomists began as early as the 1840's and the 1850's to collect large series of individuals, population samples as we would now say, and describe the variation in those samples. From this purely pragmatic operation emerged eventually a whole new way of thinking which replaced typological essentialism. From taxonomy, population thinking spread into adjacent fields and was in part instrumental in the development of population genetics and population cytology. This one conceptual contribution alone has been of such great benefit to vast areas of biology as to justify support for systematics.

Ernst Mayr (1982). The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Population Thinking versus Essentialism

Western thinking for more than two thousand years after Plato was dominated by essentialism. It was not until the nineteenth


century that a new and different way of thinking about nature began to spread, so-called population thinking. What is population thinking and how does it differ from essentialism? Population thinkers stress the uniqueness of everything in the organic world. What is important for them is the individual, not the type. They emphasize that every individual in sexually reproducing species is uniquely different from all others, with much individuality even existing in uniparentally reproducing ones. There is no "typical" individual, and mean values are abstractions. Much of what in the past has been designated in biology as "classes" are populations consisting of unique individuals (Ghiselin, 1974b; Hull, 1976).

There was a potential for population thinking in Leibniz's theory of monads, for Leibniz postulated that each monad was individualistically different from every other monad, a major departure from essentialism. But essentialism had such a strong hold in Germany that Leibniz's suggestion did not result in any population thinking. When it finally developed elsewhere, it had two roots; one consisted of the British animal breeders (Bakewell, Sebright, and many others) who had come to realize that every individual in their herds had different heritable characteristics, on the basis of which they selected the sires and dams of the next generation. The other root was systematics. All practicing naturalists were struck by the observation that when collecting a "series" of specimens of a single species they found that no two specimens were ever completely alike. Not only did Darwin stress this in his barnacle work, but even Darwin's critics concurred on this point. Wollaston (1860), for instance, wrote "amongst the millions of people who have been born into the world, we are certain that no two have ever been precisely alike in every respect; and in a similar manner it is not too much to affirm the same of all living creatures (however alike some of them may seem to our uneducated eyes) that have ever existed." Similar statements were made by many mid-nineteenth-century taxonomists. This uniqueness is true not only for individuals but even for stages in the life cycle of any individual, and for aggregations of individuals whether they be demes, species, or plant and animal associations. Considering the large number of genes that are either turned on or turned off in a given cell, it is quite possible that not even any two cells in the body are completely identical. This uniqueness of biological individuals means that we must approach groups of biological entities in a very different spirit from the way we deal with groups of identical inorganic entities. This is the basic meaning of population


thinking. The differences between biological individuals are real, while the mean values which we may calculate in the comparison of groups of individuals (species, for example) are manmade inferences. This fundamental difference between the classes of the physical scientists and the populations of the biologists has various consequences. For instance, he who does not understand the uniqueness of individuals is unable to understand the working of natural selection.

The statistics of the essentialist are quite different from those of the populationist. When we measure a physical constant -- for instance, the speed of light -- we know that under equivalent circumstances it is constant and that any variation in the observational results is due to inaccuracy of measurement, the statistics simply indicating the degree of reliability of our results. The early statistics from Petty and Graunt to Quetelet (Hilts, 1973) was essentialistic statistics, attempting to arrive at true values in order to overcome the confusing effects of variation. Quetelet, a follower of Laplace, was interested in deterministic laws. He hoped by his method to be able to calculate the characteristics of the "average man," that is, to discover the "essence" of man. Variation was nothing but "errors" around the mean values.

Francis Galton was perhaps the first to realize fully that the mean value of variable biological populations is a construct. Differences in height among a group of people are real and not the result of inaccuracies of measurement. The most interesting parameter in the statistics of natural populations is the actual variation, its amount, and its nature. The amount of variation is different from character to character and from species to species. Darwin could not have arrived at a theory of natural selection if he had not adopted populational thinking. The sweeping statements in the racist literature, on the other hand, are almost invariably based on essentialistic (typological) thinking.The sweeping statements in the racist literature, on the other hand, are almost invariably based on essentialistic (typological) thinking.


Ideological Resistance

Inevitably, the concept of natural selection was eventually applied to man. This resulted in various excesses (such as racism) but also in the counter claim that an assumption of genetic differences of selective significance in man was in conflict with the principle of equality. Extreme egalitarianism led to the development of strongly environmentalist schools, particularly in American anthropology and in behaviorist psychology. As noble as these movements were in their basic ideology, and perhaps as necessary as they were to combat racism and social prejudice, the major claims of these schools were not substantiated by any concrete evidence but were based on an unbiological concept of equality. The situation was made worse when Lysenkoism raised its ugly head in the USSR and when certain Marxist groups in the western countries decided to attack genetics and to promote environmentalism. Some of the attacks against sociobiology in recent years originated from the same ideology. Linking Darwin's name with Herbert Spencer's social Darwinism was also detrimental for the acceptability of natural selection (Freeman, 1974; Nichols, 1974; Hertwig, 1921; Greene, 1977; Bannister, 1979).



The recognition that natural selection, and natural selection alone, had raised man from the level of an ape to that of a human being suggested to Galton soon after Darwin's death that one might apply this principle of selection in order to achieve a biological improvement of man. This utopian scheme, to which he gave the name eugenics, found at first many adherents. In fact, a large number of geneticists and other biologists agreed in their writings that it was a noble idea to improve mankind by facilitating the reproduction of the "best" members of the species and by preventing the reproduction of individuals who had genetic diseases or were otherwise inferior. Actually, two kinds of eugenics must be distinguished. Negative eugenics endeavors to reduce the number of deleterious genes in a population by preventing the reproduction of carriers of dominant genes and by reducing the reproductive rate of heterozygous carriers of recessives (where such heterozygotes can be diagnosed). Positive eugenics strives to enhance the reproductive capacity of "superior" individuals (Haller, 1963; Osborn, 1968). When one reads the writings of these early believers in eugenics, one is impressed by their idealism and humanity. They saw in eugenics a means to go beyond the improvements made possible by education and a rise in the standard of living. No political bias was at first attached to eugenics, and it was supported by the entire range of opinion from the far left to the far right. But this did not last long. Eugenics soon became a tool of racists and of reactionaries. Instead of being applied strictly to population thinking, it was interpreted typologically; soon, without the show of any evidence, whole races of mankind were designated as superior or inferior. In the long run it led to the horrors of Hitler's holocaust.

As a consequence it has become almost impossible, since 1933, to discuss eugenics objectively. This does not invalidate the fact, however, that it was through natural selection that man reached humanity, and it is equally true that we know of no method other than selection to improve the human genotype. Nevertheless, to apply artificial selection to man is impossible, at least for the time


being, for a number of reasons. The first one is that it is quite unknown to what extent nonphysical human characteristics have a genetic basis. Second, human society thrives on the diversity of talents and capabilities of its members; even if we had the ability to manage the selection, we would not have any idea for what particular mixture of talents we should strive. Finally, the concept that people are genetically different, even were it scientifically even better established than it is today, is not acceptable to the majority of western people.


This is only a small sample of widely held misconceptions concerning inheritance. Inheritance, being such a conspicuous phenomenon, became the subject of a diversified folklore-"science," the remnants of which can be found among laypersons even today. Animal breeders, for instance, insisted that if a female of a pure race had once been inseminated by a male of a different race or by a mongrel, her "blood" would be permanently impure so that she could no longer be used for breeding purposes. This belief often was also applied to mankind, particularly in the racist literature. It was also widely believed that a single offspring could be fathered by several males so that a child of a female who had received several males in the period during which she had conceived would combine the characteristics of these several fathers. There was also the belief in a great plasticity of the genetic material; for example, it was believed that any accidents of the mother, like being frightened by a snake, might affect the fetus.


4. Several authors, more or less independently, recognized the importance of Darwin's shift from competition among species to competition among individuals: Vorzimmer (1969), Herbert (1971), Ghiselin (1969; 1971-72). The lesson that Darwin's struggle for existence is a reproductive competition among individuals was, alas, not understood at all by most of those who subsequently operated most freely with the struggle for existence, particularly racists and adherents of so-called social Darwinism (or more correctly, social Spencerism). This is true, for instance, for most authors cited by Greene (1977), but occasionally even Darwin expressed himself ambiguously (Greene 1981).

Mayr, Ernst (1994). Typological versus Population Thinking. Chapter 8 of: Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology. Elliott Sober, ed. MIT Press. 157-160


All racist theories are built on this [typology] foundation. Essentially, it asserts that every representative of a race conforms to the type and is separated from the representatives of any other race by a distinct gap.

Mayr, Ernst (1995). Darwin’s Impact on Modern Thought. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 139(4), 317-325.


Population thinking is a major and very beneficial contribution made by Darwin. For instance, it completely refutes the typological aspects of racism. One can no longer make typological statements based on mean values of human population groups because we now know that every individual is different from every other individual, not only of other races, but even of his own race. Unfortunately, in our educational system and in other aspects of our culture, we are still tending to think too typologically, and do not allow sufficiently for the unique differences among individuals. This heritage from Darwin has not yet been fully adopted by our culture.

Ernst Mayr (2004). What Makes Biology Unique?: Considerations on the Autonomy of a Scientific Discipline. Cambridge University Press, 9/08/2004, 232 pages.


Typological thinking, therefore, is unable to accommodate variation and has given rise to a misleading conception of human races. Caucasians, Africans, Asians, and Inuits are types for a typologist that differ conspicuously from other human ethnic groups and are sharply separated from them. This mode of thinking leads to racism. Darwin completely rejected typological thinking and instead used an entirely different concept, now called population thinking (see below).


Population thinking is of tremendous importance in daily life. For instance, the failure to apply population thinking is the major source of racism. Many of Darwin's associates, such as Charles Lyell and T.H. Huxley (Mayr 1982), never adopted population thinking and remained typologists all their lives. Consequently they were unable to understand and accept natural selection. Typological thinking was so firmly rooted in the thinking of the period that it is not surprising it took eighty years until, in the 1930s, the concept of natural selection was finally universally adopted by evolutionists.

pp. 166-167:

The situation is somewhat different with the development of new concepts. When Darwin's theorizing forced the inclusion of man in the tree of common descent, it caused indeed an ideological revolution. On the other hand, as was correctly emphasized by Popper, Mendel's new paradigm of inheritance did not. Changes in concepts have far more impact than new discoveries. For instance, the replacement of essentialistic by population thinking had a revolutionary impact in the fields of systematics, evolutionary biology, and even outside of science (in politics). This shift had a profound effect on the interpretation of gradualism, speciation, macroevolution, natural selection, and racism. The rejection of cosmic teleology and of the authority of the Bible have had equally drastic effects on the interpretation of evolution and adaptation. The impact of a revolutionary new concept or discovery on the prevailing paradigm is highly variable. In the case of Darwin's theory of natural selection, the ideological commitment of the preceding paradigm to essentialism, theism, teleology, and physicalism, necessitated not only the most profound revolution ever produced by a new theory but also the longest period of delay.

The publication in 1859 of Darwin's Origin of Species was unique in representing a multiple scientific revolution. I am referring to the very special case of the simultaneous proposal of several revolutionary theories, such as that of common descent and of natural selection. These are really two independent scientific revolutions and either one can exist without the other. The enthusiastic acceptance of the theory of common descent and the virtual non-acceptance of the theory of natural selection in the first eighty years after 1859 definitely proves this independence. The reason for the difference in reception is that common descent was rather easily accommodated in the thinking of the period while natural selection was not.

Lastly, I’ll throw in this 1997 interview, mostly for the last line on Mayr being “one of these euphoric guys.” (And for the reiteration of the deadness of eugenics.)

Angier, Natalie (1997). “Ernst Mayr at 93.” Natural History, 106 (4), 8-11. May 1997. PDF page 269 of:

Ernst Mayr, one of the world's greatest evolutionary biologists, is interviewed about evolution and other aspects of biology.

How much do you think we can understand about our nature by taking the perspective of sociobiology, or evolutionary psychology as it's called nowadays? The relationship between men and women,for example?

Most of the behaviors between males and females have nothing to do with sociality. They're behaviors between two individuals, each acting with the ultimate objective to enhance individual reproductive success. This is true even of things like sibling rivalry. Most of these interactions are not social phenomena in the broad sense, and that's why I don't like to call it sociobiology. But when you come to the real social phenomena, the migrations of wildebeests or whales, you won't read a word about them in the sociobiological literature.

Where do you think the human species is going? Do you believe we can continue to evolve in a genetic sense?

There's absolutely no chance of the human species evolving. First of all, we can never speciate. We cover every niche, every spot on the earth, so there's no opportunity for isolation. Moreover, I do not feel there's any natural selection in any positive sense going on right now. Of course, there are those who have talked about eugenics, but we all know that eugenics is impossible for many reasons. I can't see the development of man into superman or anything like that. Theoretically we could have cultural evolution and develop higher and better concepts. But if you have no basis for a change in genes, then unfortunately you can only develop through cultural evolution.

Why do you say "unfortunately?"

Because the cultural things can be lost so quickly.

On the subject of ethics and eugenics, your own background is interesting. You left Germany in 1931, at the start of the Nazi era.

I had a very interesting life, no question about it. I came from the fourth generation in which there was a medical doctor, and I was to be a medical doctor. But I switched to zoology because I was very adventurous and wanted to see the world.. I wanted to go on an expedition. Fortunately just as I was finishing my doctorate, Lord Rothschild needed somebody in New Guinea.

Did you like being in New Guinea?

Well, it's exciting, but it's a tough life, I'll tell you that. I had malaria, I had dysentery, I had dengue, I had everything you can have. Weeks would go by and there was no one to talk to except natives, and I was always alone.

I understand you were living off the land and eating birds of paradise, among other things. What does a bird of paradise taste like?

Most land birds really taste almost about the same. They have a soft and rather flavorful meat. I ate only one bird that was absolutely awful, and that was a cormorant. That was so fishy it was almost inedible.

Do you keep a regular schedule for work?

More or less. I have an alarm that wakes me up at 6:15 every morning. I have a little kitchenette. I take one meal outside, and one I make myself. I'm quite active. I write, give lectures, travel abroad.

Have you had any major disappointments, any regrets?

Well, I probably do, but I'm one of these euphoric guys. I always look to the future and never look back.