Journal: News & Comment

Tuesday, February 08, 2005
# 10:13:00 PM:

Man of a century

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Between 1928 and 1930, when he was in his mid-20s, Dr. Ernst Mayr catalogued hundreds of kinds of birds in New Guinea. Before him, most scientists thought that the species of organisms they described were simply convenient categories for study. But he found differently:

I discovered that the very same aggregations or groupings of individuals that the trained zoologist called separate species were called species by the New Guinea natives. I collected 137 species of birds. The natives had 136 names for these birds—they confused only two of them. The coincidence of what Western scientists called species and what the natives called species was so total that I realized the species was a very real thing in nature.

Dr. Mayr went on to define a distinct species as scientists do today. Organisms that cannot successfully interbreed are distinct species, no matter how otherwise similar they may be (donkeys and horses can mate, but their offspring are sterile mules, so they are different species). Conversely, organisms that can successfully interbreed are the same species, no matter how outwardly different (St. Bernard and Pomeranian dogs can breed—with some difficulty—so they are the same species).

That was only one of his earliest accomplishments. Mayr was also a key player in the synthesis of genetics, field biology, and evolutionary theory that helped scientists realize that Darwin's processes of natural selection really work—and how they work—even with all the entirely new information learned since Darwin's time. (In effect, he and his contemporaries learned afresh that Darwinian evolution is real, and demonstrated the molecular mechanisms by which it operates.) He also created from scratch the study of the history and philosophy of biology.

Mayr was one of the most important scientists of the 20th century, and thus one of those who has most helped shape our modern understanding of the world. He died this week at the age of 100.


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