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Three periods in evolutionary biology


The workshop on evolutionary synthesis bears fruit
Ernst Mayr Scientist
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The reason why, as we can now say in retrospect, the workshop was particularly successful was that I had worked out an extremely detailed questionnaire which every participant had to answer, and these questionnaires are now all deposited at the American Philosophical Society so that anybody can check them if they don't like the final report that I wrote together with Will Provine. Now, I chose Will Provine because he was young, very active, very eager and I thought this would be a good person to help me. It turned out later on that actually his ideas were not at all the same as mine. He was not a trained biologist, but he was raised as a mathematician and he thought that the evolutionary synthesis had been mostly done by the population geneticists which I did not… this belief I did not share with him and, in fact, I was able to demonstrate that this was really not the case. However, all the evidence, all the… the statements of people could be read in the volume that was finally published in 1980. And there was one particularly interesting contribution. I had also invited, because he happened to live in Cambridge, TH Morgan's last student, his name was Weinstein, I think it's Alexander Weinstein. And at one point the discussions… in the discussions somebody said, ‘I noticed something very peculiar in the publications of TH Morgan. In 1916 in a book on evolution he presents a perfectly correct picture of Darwinian natural selection, but in his last book on evolution published 16 years earlier [sic] in 1932 he… everything he says about natural selection is wrong. How could this happen? Was this a matter of old age’? And then Weinstein spoke up and he said, ‘Oh, I can explain that’, he said, ‘When Morgan had finished the manuscript of his 1916 volume he brought it into the… into the fly room at Columbia University and there was [Alfred] Sturtevant sitting there and I, and Morgan said, ‘Would you be willing to read through my manuscript and tell me whether there's something wrong with it’? And we did and we both agreed that this chapter on natural selection was all wrong, was terrible. So we told him so and he got a little bit angry and he said, ‘Alright, you two write that chapter!’ And Sturtevant and Weinstein wrote that chapter and naturally everybody says it's a very good account of Darwinian selection, but it wasn't written by Morgan. And when he himself wrote his last book without the help of Sturtevant and Weinstein, of course he went back to all of his mistakes. And if it hadn't have been… been for this workshop… workshop and Weinstein's comments, nobody would ever be able to explain this discrepancy.

The late German-American biologist Ernst Mayr (1904-2005) was a leading light in the field of evolutionary biology, gaining a PhD at the age of 21. He was also a tropical explorer and ornithologist who undertook an expedition to New Guinea and collected several thousand bird skins. In 1931 he accepted a curatorial position at the American Museum of Natural History. During his time at the museum, aged 37, he published his seminal work 'Systematics and Origin of the Species' which integrated the theories of Darwin and Mendel and is considered one of his greatest works.

Listeners: Walter J. Bock

Walter J. Bock is Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Columbia University. He received his B.Sc. from Cornell and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. His research lies in the areas of organismal and evolutionary biology, with a special emphasis on functional and evolutionary morphology of the skeleto-muscular system, specifically the feeding apparatus of birds.

Tags: American Philosophical Society, 1980, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1916, 1932, Columbia University, William Provine, Thomas Hunt Morgan, Alexander Weinstein, Alfred Sturtevant

Duration: 3 minutes, 35 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008