Ernst Mayr

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Ernst Mayr 1994 at the University of Konstanz
Ernst Mayr (right) and Axel Meyer in Konstanz (1998)

Ernst Walter Mayr (born July 5, 1904 in Kempten (Allgäu) , † February 3, 2005 in Bedford ( Massachusetts )) was a German-American biologist and the main proponent of modern synthetic evolutionary theory .

He received several important awards and, according to numerous colleagues, is one of the most influential naturalists of the 20th century.


Ernst Mayr was born on July 5, 1904 in Kempten im Allgäu , but grew up in Saxony . He was the second of the three sons of Helene Pusinelli Mayr and the doctorate in law and district judge Otto Mayr. Even as a boy he was interested in birds . In 1923 he wrote his first treatise on by himself in Moritzburg observed in the wild Pochard . In the same year he began to study medicine at the Ernst Moritz Arndt University Greifswald , but switched to zoology at an early age and worked at the Zoological Museum in Berlin (now part of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin ). In 1926, at the age of 21, he received his doctorate in zoology on an ornithological topic .

His sponsor Erwin Stresemann sent Mayr on an expedition to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands in 1928 and 1930 , where he collected birds for the avid bird lover Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild . The knowledge about biogeography he gained there became the basis of his later evolutionary theoretical considerations. In 1931 he went to the United States to work on the bird collection at the American Museum of Natural History in New York , the largest natural science museum in the world, as a bird expert. He stayed in New York for around 20 years. In 1950, after several delays, he was granted American citizenship.

In 1953 he moved as a professor at Harvard University in Cambridge , where he made sure that the theory of evolution, until then a stepchild of American biological sciences, achieved greater prestige. Even after his retirement in 1975 he continued to work at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, where he worked until his death.

Ernst Mayr married Gretel Simon in May 1935 in Freiburg im Breisgau . The couple had two daughters. Mayr died in Bedford (Massachusetts) in 2005 after a very brief illness.


Bust of Mayr in the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

Mayr became internationally known for his studies on the systematics of birds and as the main proponent of the "synthetic theory of evolution" , which brought Charles Darwin's concept of " natural selection " into harmony with the knowledge of genetics . He wrote fundamental works on systematics , in which he developed, among other things, the concept of the biological species as a reproductive community, also on speciation (1942, for example, his influential book Systematics and the Origin of Species ), and also philosophical treatises on typology and essentialism . Mayr also developed the now generally accepted notion of allopatric speciation , according to which the splitting of a species into two daughter species can be triggered by geographical separation.

Mayr advocated the thesis that biology is to a certain extent independent of the laws of nature that apply in physics and chemistry , since the peculiarities of the individual species do not arise from reproducible laws, but from unique historical events. That is why one should not speak of laws in biology, but rather of concepts.

His most influential writings also include the manuscript for his lecture on “ Taxonomic categories in fossil hominids ” at the Cold Spring Harbor Symposium on Quantitative Biology at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the summer of 1950. In it, Mayr criticized the confusing number of generic categories - and Art - names for fossils that belong to the early relatives of anatomically modern humans ( Homo sapiens ). He convinced the paleoanthropologists to assign all alleged ancestors of humans discovered in the meantime to the genus Homo and to refrain in future from naming individual finds with a genus and species name; Instead, such individual finds should be named after their origin (for example Sterkfontein find instead of “ Plesianthropus ” for Mrs. Ples ). In fact, numerous older finds from Asia and Africa were then combined in Homo erectus . More recent finds were made on Homo sapiens , which among other things had the consequence that Homo neanderthalensis was referred to as " Homo sapiens neanderthalensis " and Homo sapiens as " Homo sapiens sapiens " for several decades . Mayr suggested the designation " Homo transvaalensis " for the very old fossils from Africa, previously (and now again) designated as Australopithecus . Only after various fossil finds from the 1990s onwards was Mayr's minimalist concept questioned (see, for example, Homo ergaster , Homo antecessor , Homo naledi , Ardipithecus , Orrorin , Sahelanthropus ).

His most recent publications appeared in 1998 and 2001: This is Biology (German published as Das ist Biologie , Spektrum Akademischer Verlag) and What Evolution is (German edition: Das ist Evolution , Bertelsmann-Verlag).

In an obituary, the Berlin evolutionary biologist Matthias Glaubrecht described the importance of Ernst Walter Mayr in the Frankfurter Rundschau on February 8, 2005: “ While Darwin only created the shell of an epochal building of ideas in 1859 with his selection theory, Mayr especially in the 1930s and 1940s made on the interior work. "

Disputes and criticism

Mayr turned out to be a controversial advocate of a traditionalist understanding of evolution when he accused Willi Hennig of spreading “confusion” with his “one-sided” cladism . The following negative comments were made about this article:

When Mayr polemicises against phylogenetic systematics , he usually goes below his level and resorts to argumentatio ad hominem , as is the case here. He declares his point of view for that of “the biologist” as if the “cladists” he so apostrophized were not.

Willi Hennig felt compelled to rectify Ernst Mayr and criticized his point of view.

Today's taxonomy is based on Hennig's phylogenetic concept, which was rejected by Mayr and which Carl Woese has supplemented with a molecular biological basis. This resulted in the current classification of living beings into the three domains ( bacteria , archaea and eukaryota ).

This system was consistently attacked by Mayr. According to Mayr, there is no need in biology to divide prokaryotes into two domains. In this context, he again argued ad hominem by questioning Woeses' reputation as a "non-biologist". Woese argued against it that the evolution theory advocated by Mayr is not a generally valid law of nature, but can only be applied to eukaryotes with sexual reproduction, but not to microorganisms.


Mayr held around 20 academic degrees , including a. the honorary doctorate of the University of Konstanz (philosophy). He was the recipient of the so-called "three-pointed crown of biology": the Balzan Prize , the International Prize of Biology and the Crafoord Prize . In 1954 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). In 1965 Mayr received the William Brewster Medal of the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU), in 1967 the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal of the NAS. In 1972 Mayr was elected a member of the Leopoldina , which awarded him the Gregor Mendel Medal in 1980 . In 1977 he was awarded the Linnean Medal of the Linnean Society of London . In 1984 he received the Darwin Medal of the Royal Society , which in 1988 accepted him as a "Foreign Member". In 1986 he was awarded the George Sarton Medal , the highly prestigious prize for the history of science of the History of Science Society (HSS) founded by George Sarton and Lawrence Joseph Henderson . The American Philosophical Society , of which he had been a member since 1965, awarded him their Benjamin Franklin Medal in 1995 . In 1989 he was accepted into the Académie des Sciences in Paris. The Society for Biological Systematics made him an honorary member in 2003.

In Kempten, a memorial plaque was attached by the Kempten Local History Association to the building that followed the building of his birthplace on Kotterner Strasse, which was destroyed by a bomb during World War II .

Fonts (selection)

  • List of New Guinea birds: a systematic and faunal list of the birds of New Guinea and adjacent islands. American Museum of Natural History, 1941.
  • Systematics and the Origin of Species. 1942.
  • Taxonomic categories in fossil hominids. In: Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology 1950. Volume 15, 1950, pp. 109-118, doi: 10.1101 / SQB.1950.015.01.013
  • Methods and Principles of Systematic Zoology. 1953. German: Basics of the zoological systematics. Blackwell Wissenschaftsverlag, Berlin 1975, ISBN 3-490-03918-1 .
    • 2nd edition: Ernst Mayr, Peter D. Ashlock: Principles of Systematic Zoology. Mcgraw-Hill College, 1991, ISBN 0-07-041144-1 .
  • Animal Species and Evolution. 1963. German: Concept of species and evolution. 1967.
  • The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance. 1982. German: The development of the biological world of thought: diversity, evolution and inheritance. 1984 online
  • Toward a New Philosophy of Biology. 1988. German: A new philosophy of biology. 1991.
  • One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought. 1991. German: ... and Darwin is right. 1994.
  • This is biology. The Science of the Living World. 1998. German: This is biology - the science of life. 2000, ISBN 3-8274-1015-0 .
  • What evolution is. 2001. German: This is evolution. 2005, ISBN 3-442-15349-2 .
  • Concepts of biology. With a foreword by Matthias Glaubrecht. Hirzel, Stuttgart 2005, ISBN 3-7776-1372-X (revised and new essays on the history of evolutionary biology, on Darwin's theories of evolution, their history, development and effects).


  • Jürgen Haffer : Ornithology, Evolution, and Philosophy. The Life and Science of Ernst Mayr 1904-2005. Springer, 2007.
  • Kärin Nickelsen: Strong opinions and three passions: Ernst Mayr spent almost his entire life thinking about the theory of evolution - from a biological, historical and philosophical point of view. In: Der Tagesspiegel . No. 20414, supplement "Evolution". Berlin, October 18, 2009, p. B 4.

See also

Web links

Commons : Ernst Mayr  - Collection of Images


Individual evidence

  1. Ernst Mayr's video document on his American citizenship ,, accessed on December 28, 2014.
  2. Jürgen Haffner (2007: 103)
  3. ^ W. Eric Meikle, Sue Taylor Parker: Naming our Ancestors. An Anthology of Hominid Taxonomy. Waveland Press, Prospect Heights (Illinois) 1994, ISBN 0-88133-799-4 , p. 151.
  4. ^ Ernst Mayr: Taxonomic categories in fossil hominids. In: Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology 1950. Volume 15, 1950, pp. 109-118, doi: 10.1101 / SQB.1950.015.01.013 . Reprinted in: W. Eric Meikle, Sue Taylor Parker: Naming our Ancestors. An Anthology of Hominid Taxonomy. Waveland Press, Prospect Heights (Illinois) 1994, ISBN 0-88133-799-4 , pp. 152-170.
  5. As Australopithecus transvaalensis had Robert Broom in 1936 a skull find from Sterkfontein referred (to be today Australopithecus africanus provided), see R. Broom: New fossil anthropoid skull from South Africa. In: Nature. Volume 138, 1936, pp. 486-488, doi: 10.1038 / 138486a0
  6. Ernst Mayr: Cladistic analysis or cladistic classification? . In: Journal of Zoological Systematics and Evolutionary Research . 12, No. 1, pp. 94-128. doi : 10.1111 / j.1439-0469.1974.tb00160.x .
  7. Rolf Löther: The mastery of the manifold, philosophical foundations of taxonomy. VEB Gustav Fischer Verlag Jena 1972. p. 157.
  8. ^ Willi Hennig: Cladistic Analysis or Cladistic Classification ?: A Reply to Ernst Mayr . In: Systematic Zoology . 24, No. 2, 1975, pp. 244-256. doi : 10.2307 / 2412765 .
  9. Ernst Mayr: Two empires or three? . In: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences . 95, No. 17, 1998, pp. 9720-9723.
  10. ^ Carl R. Woese: Default taxonomy: Ernst Mayr's view of the microbial world . In: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences . 95, No. 19, 1998, pp. 11043-11046. doi : 10.1073 / pnas.95.19.11043 .
  11. ^ Entry on Mayr, Ernst (1904–2005) in the archive of the Royal Society , London
  12. ^ List of members since 1666: Letter M. Académie des sciences, accessed on January 21, 2020 (French).
  13. ^ GfBS: Honorary member of the Society for Biological Systematics (GfBS). In: March 4, 2016. Retrieved July 12, 2017 .