Ernst Mayr's scientific legacy shines after nearly a century

Ernst Mayr digs through the pile of papers on his coffee table and pulls out a recent edition of Science. The magazine is already open to the page he wants, and he taps the black and white photograph with his finger.

"I've seen this in Moscow in 1972," he says. "Twenty-eight years ago." He is looking at a picture of a dinosaur fossil discovered in 1970 - a fossil that researchers recently described as having feathers similar to those of modern birds. If their theory proves correct, it could turn the accepted theory of avian evolution upside down. But even in 1972, Dr. Mayr says, "I knew that it was a reptile, which it is, and that it had feather-like structures on its back."

Mayr, a professor emeritus of zoology at Harvard University, has always been ahead of the curve. In 1926, at the age of 21, he completed his doctorate in zoology - summa cum laude - after only 16 months. He was one of the founders of the "modern evolutionary synthesis," an intellectual coup that helped fuse Charles Darwin's theories of evolution with a genetic explanation of how that evolution could occur. He helped define the most widely accepted concept of "species" - simply put, an interbreeding population or group of populations - and is responsible for establishing a field for the philosophy of biology.

Mayr has been referred to as "the Darwin of the 20th century," and when he's talking science - whether evolution, gene patenting, or extra-terrestrial intelligence - the description does not seem unjustified. He is confident in his opinions and his theories, and he does not underestimate the impact they have had on the scientific world. Referring to the Darwin comparison, he says, "I have been called that. And the reason is - of course, I'm not the one to say it - the reason is that I've probably made more constructive contributions to evolutionary thinking than any other person."

Does he believe the comparison between himself and Darwin is a valid one?

"No, I don't think so," he says. "Darwin was very unique."

Time has been on his side. Mayr has now seen and participated in almost a century of evolutionary biology; a lot has changed in 97 years, and some of the discoveries he has witnessed are almost as startling as the red, Christmas-print suspenders he is wearing in mid-July, with his khaki slacks and pinstriped shirt.

One of the most surprising discoveries, he says, was that of DNA. "No one expected all genetic material to be the same, or that bacteria would belong to the same group as mammals."

Now, with the completed sequence of the human genome, DNA is once again in the public eye. In one of Mayr's books,"This is Biology" (1997), Mayr writes that human evolution is no longer possible. Humans need to compete, he says, for natural selection to occur, but in today's world such competition no longer exists. Nor, he says, is there anything that would force superior genotypes to survive while eliminating the poorer genetic combinations.

Does the genome foster eugenics?

The completion of the human genome, however, raises the question of whether human evolution might be feasible through the use of eugenics - deliberate, artificial selection for favored traits.

For purely practical reasons, Mayr says, eugenics is currently impossible because humans lack the necessary knowledge. "What do we know about genetics? We don't know which genes are responsible for intelligence, for memory, for quick thinking, for mathematical talent, so how can we select for these things if we know nothing about it?"

He admits, however, that "the genome project might move us in that direction because nothing else has."

Instead, he has a different suggestion. "What we could hope is that with proper education, we can make all individuals better than they are now. To get rid of the expression of criminal tendencies and that sort of thing."

Yet, while the future may hold the potential to change genetic profiles, Mayr is perfectly happy with his own.

He credits two things as being the most important in shaping his life's path: luck and a good genotype.

Looking back now, he says, "I've had an exciting life."

Mayr has worked hard to earn his reputation. His bookshelves are jammed with tomes by some of the most eminent minds in biology: Darwin, Steven J. Gould, E.O. Wilson, not to mention a few of his own. He once spent 2 1/2 years studying birds in the tropics of New Guinea.

A life of publishing

He has published more than 650 professional papers, authored 25 books, and is currently working on three more volumes - a fourth is already in press, due out at the beginning of next year.

Scientists have referenced Mayr's works so many times that computer programs can not handle the number of results an inquiry returns.

And during his exploring days, he discovered 25 new species of birds; something, he points out, that no other living person can say.

Mayr is the only living member of many such clubs, including one he plans to commemorate next year: "On June 24 of 2001," he says, "I will celebrate the 75th jubilee of my getting my PhD. I think I'm the only person in the world who can say that."

Yet even while he celebrates his accomplishments, he distances himself from them.

"I'm very comfortable with the Indian idea of incarnations," he says, referring to the young man who explored the tropics of New Guinea. "This wasn't me. That was a young kid named Ernst Mayr."

And Mayr's philosophy on life appears to be in harmony with the evolution he studies. If given the chance, he says, he would not want to return to New Guinea. "You can't always go back to where you were before, because everything changes."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.