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The origins of my ideas on species


Working on collections
Ernst Mayr Scientist
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Where did [Charles] Darwin get all the information for his Origin of Species? Well, he got it largely… not just from the Beagle voyage, but also from the working out of the collections, and he devoted I believe it was eight years, for instance, to a monograph of the barnacles of the world. And it is almost invariably, except for Professor Ghiselin, been underestimated the lessons that Darwin learned from working on these collections. It isn't until you really study series of specimens, see the variation within the series, see how a population is structured, what the kind of variation it is that you find within a population, how it differs from a population that is on the next island, how much of the variation overlaps with this one – all these phenomena, you can't study them on a continent. And I would say that the study of islands, when it comes to the problem of speciation, teaches you far more than you could learn from anything else. And Darwin and [Alfred] Wallace were fortunate to have had that experience, so did [Erwin] Stresemann and [Bernhard] Rensch and so did I in New Guinea in the mountains, and in the Solomon Islands in the lowlands. It is an experience that cannot be replaced by anything else.

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: The Origin of Species, Beagle, New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Charles Darwin, Michael Ghiselin, Alfred Russel Wallace, Erwin Stresemann, Bernhard Rensch

Duration: 1 minute, 36 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008