Ernst Mayr

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Ernst Mayr, 1994

Ernst Walter Mayr (July 5, 1904February 3, 2005) was a German biologist, one of the 20th century's leading evolutionary biologists, and renowned taxonomist, tropical explorer, ornithologist, and historian of science.


  • Biological classifications have two major objectives: to serve as a basis of biological generalizations in all sort of comparative studies and to serve as a key to an information storage system... Is the classification that is soundest as a basis of generalizations also most convenient for information retrieval? This, indeed, seems to have been true in most cases I have encountered.
    • Mayr (1981) as cited in: C. Gnoli (2011) "Ontological foundations in knowledge organization: the theory of integrative levels applied in citation order". Scire actas. 17-1
  • Evolution, thus, is merely contingent on certain processes articulated by Darwin: variation and selection. No longer is a fixed object transformed, as in transformational evolution, but an entirely new start is, so to speak, made in every generation.
    • Ernst Mayr (1988) Toward a new philosophy of biology: observations of an evolutionist. p. 457
  • According to the concept of transformational evolution, first clearly articulated by Lamarck, evolution consists of the gradual transformation of organisms from one condition of existence to another
  • I published that theory [of speciational evolution] in a 1954 paper…and I clearly related it to paleontology. Darwin argued that the fossil record is very incomplete because some species fossilize better than others... I noted that you are never going to find evidence of a small local populatlon that changed very rapidly in the fossil record... Gould was my course assistant at Harvard where I presented this theory again and again for three years. So he knew it thoroughly. So did Eldredge. In fact, in his 1971 paper Eldredge credited me with it. But that was lost over time.
  • Having reached the rare age of 100 years, I find myself in a unique position: I'm the last survivor of the golden age of the Evolutionary Synthesis. That status encourages me to present a personal account of what I experienced in the years (1920s to the 1950s) that were so crucial in the history of evolutionary biology.
  • Life is simply the reification of the process of living.
    • Attributed to Ernst Mayr in: artin John Ingrouille, Bill Eddie (2006) Plants. p. 400

What evolution is: Talk with Ernst Mayr (2001)

Ernst Mayr, Jared Diamond (2001) What evolution is: Talk with Ernst Mayr on, October 31, 2001.
  • The funny thing is if in England, you ask a man in the street who the greatest living Darwinian is, he will say Richard Dawkins. And indeed, Dawkins has done a marvelous job of popularizing Darwinism. But Dawkins' basic theory of the gene being the object of evolution is totally non-Darwinian. I would not call him the greatest Darwinian
    • First response to the following remark by EDGE: It seems to me that Darwin is much better known in England than in the United States. Books about Darwin sell well and people debate the subjects. Here in America what passes for intellectual life doesn't necessarily include reading and having an appreciation of Darwin.
  • The idea that a few people have about the gene being the target of selection is completely impractical; a gene is never visible to natural selection, and in the genotype, it is always in the context with other genes, and the interaction with those other genes make a particular gene either more favorable or less favorable. In fact, Dobzhanksy, for instance, worked quite a bit on so-called lethal chromosomes which are highly successful in one combination, and lethal in another. Therefore people like Dawkins in England who still think the gene is the target of selection are evidently wrong. In the 30s and 40s, it was widely accepted that genes were the target of selection, because that was the only way they could be made accessible to mathematics, but now we know that it is really the whole genotype of the individual, not the gene. Except for that slight revision, the basic Darwinian theory hasn't changed in the last 50 years
    • Part of the answer to the question "Where do you think Darwinism is going to go in the next 50 years?"

Quotes about Ernst Mayr

  • This new consensus seemed so compelling that Ernst Mayr, the dean of modern Darwinians, opened the ashcan of history for a deposit of Geoffrey's ideas about anatomical unity.
    • Stephen Jay Gould (1998) Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms "Brotherhood by Inversion", p. 329
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