Ornithology, Evolution, and Philosophy: The Life and Science of Ernst Mayr 1904–2005

  • Jürgen Haffer
Springer: 2007. 473 pp. $1193540717773 9783540717775 | ISBN: 3-540-71777-3

Returning from an expedition to New Guinea in 1965, John Terborgh and I laid out our hundreds of bird specimens in the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology for Ernst Mayr to identify. Ernst had made only one collecting trip to New Guinea 36 years previously, and his last publication on New Guinea birds had appeared in 1954. Nevertheless, as he walked along the shelf and glanced at one specimen after another, he quickly identified each by its Latin species name and then by its subspecies name; he told us which zoologist had described it, in what year and in which journal; gave the alternative names under which other zoologists had discussed it; and explained its broader biological significance (for example, “Check that one for altitudinal hybridization”). He hesitated only at one obscurely mottled specimen: “See if that's a female Rhagologus.” We found later that it was indeed a female Rhagologus, a whistler whose relatives are usually banded black and gold.

Ernst Mayr at 98. At 100, he published his twenty-first book and the last seven of his 856 papers. Credit: R. FRIEDMAN/CORBIS

This incident illustrates some of what made Ernst Mayr the greatest evolutionary biologist of the twentieth century. He is known especially for having woven together field studies of natural history, museum studies of taxonomy, and laboratory studies of population genetics to solve problems of the origin of species. He is also known for his syntheses of modern evolutionary biology and for contributions to understanding biology's distinctiveness within the history and philosophy of science. He released the last of his 21 books, What Makes Biology Unique?, on his hundredth birthday, after which he published the last seven of his 856 papers. He died five months short of turning 101. These achievements, plus his distinctive intellect and personality, make him an interesting subject for a biographer and historian of science.

Jürgen Haffer's is the first book-length biography of Ernst Mayr. Although others will surely follow, Haffer's will remain unique, as it was virtually co-authored by Mayr as a hybrid between an authorized biography and an autobiography. After meeting Mayr at the age of 64, Haffer interviewed and corresponded with him, and completed a draft in time for Mayr to review it. Haffer is himself a distinguished ornithologist and evolutionary biologist, so he understands and can explain Mayr's achievements. Like his subject, he is German-born but fluent in English, so he was able to read the young Mayr's diaries and letters in German and to appreciate how Mayr's German background and his American citizenship contributed to his science and his life.

A theme that emerges repeatedly from Haffer's account is the large role that chance played in Mayr's career — and the hard work and intrinsic ability that enabled him to profit from it. The first major stroke of luck was Mayr's field observation, at age 18, of a rare duck, the red-crested pochard. This led to his introduction to Germany's leading ornithologist, Erwin Stresemann, who helped the student Mayr to switch from medicine to biology. Mayr worked 18 hours a day to complete his PhD thesis in just 16 months.

Mayr had more good luck at his first lecture to a large general audience in December 1939. He was preceded by a dreadful one-hour lecture delivered by the geneticist Sewall Wright with his back to the microphone. Mayr's contrasting clear and splendid talk resulted in an invitation to write his first great book, Systematics and the Origins of Species. Students of creativity should compare Mayr with other scientists who also enjoyed good fortune and achieved distinction, but without equalling his greatness.

Haffer recognizes the qualities that contributed to Mayr's scientific achievements. Besides his outstanding memory for detail, instant visual pattern recognition, a synthetic ability to place details in a wider context, and legendary capacity for hard work, he was quick to learn (for example, he learned the Malay language from other passengers during his 26-day boat voyage from Italy to Java). He was determined in the face of resistance — as in his 11-year, ultimately successful, struggle to win US citizenship for his wife and himself from the anti-German New York immigration office. His social skills enabled him to survive in New Guinea, to befriend the tribes people there and amass rare bird collections from them, to establish hundreds of productive collaborations with other scientists, and to establish friendships with younger generations — such as Haffer and myself — as he outlived his own age cohort.

Mayr enjoyed a rare self-confidence. Haffer's book contains a long letter written by the 19-year-old Mayr to his mentor Stresemann, suggesting studies that Stresemann should pursue — quite shocking, considering the authoritarian posture of German professors to their students even today. Mayr confessed he was “terribly amused at my forwardness” when he re-read this letter 68 years later. The same self-confidence took him to New Guinea at age 23 to live as the only European in jungle camps with New Guineans. This belief in himself rested on a realistic assessment of his own strengths and limitations, constraining him — unlike some other great scientists and many great musicians — to stay within his competence. For instance, he decided after many months of preliminary study not to extend his book Animal Species and Evolution to discuss plants, or The Growth of Biological Thought to include physiology and embryology, because he recognized his lack of familiarity with these subjects.

Mayr would defend his ideas vigorously. Often construed as dogmatism, it was a trait that he explained as heuristically useful by inviting challenge. He did not hesitate to discard his own long-held views when presented with convincing contrary evidence, as when the naturalist James Chapin persuaded him to abandon his original lamarckian outlook. Because Mayr had previously stressed the evolutionary significance of peripheral isolates, I expected trouble when, during our collaboration on our book The Birds of Northern Melanesia, I sent him an analysis demonstrating that such isolates rarely spread upstream in northern Melanesia — but he raised no objection.

This biography is required reading for evolutionary biologists, historians and philosophers of science, and for scholars of creativity. It is organized for such a readership: Haffer separates the phases of Mayr's career and the fields of his science, explains the scientific problems that Mayr studied, and appends Mayr's complete curriculum vitae, bibliography and an analysis of his publications.

Room remains for another biography of Mayr aimed at a broad public interested in how creative and productive minds are formed. Much more can be extracted from Mayr's diaries and letters, and from reminiscences of his students and younger friends. My advice to such a biographer: start soon, while those people are still available — and be grateful that Haffer has done so much of the groundwork in this splendid account.