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Systematics and the Origin of the Species


Lucky accidents that led to fame
Ernst Mayr Scientist
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In 1937, he published a pioneering book called Genetics and the Origin of Species which was the book that started the so-called evolutionary synthesis. And I, myself, was invited to contribute one volume to that series in which Dobzhansky published his volume, and I published a volume on Systematics and the Origin of Species. And I always tell a little story about how… Columbia University when Professor Dunn was the chairman of that series… got the idea that I might be a suitable person to write this volume. There was a meeting in Columbus, Ohio, in 1939, at the Great Congress of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, their annual meeting, and there was a symposium organized by Dobzhansky on speciation, and the person who talked before me was a famous geneticist with the name of Sewall Wright who was famous for being a terrible speaker. And there we were let into this huge auditorium, the biggest one that Ohio State had, and the platform was huge because they had… their orchestras played there and the audience seated 3000 people. And in front of that platform was a lectern with a fixed microphone. And Sewall Wright was the speaker just before me. He went to this microphone and he talked to it… into it a little bit, but then after a very short time he left his place, he went to the other end, the back of the… big platform where a series of blackboards were, because he’s a mathematician and he had to put mathematical formula there. Nobody understood a word he said, and he talked to this blackboard all the time. Every once in a while he would go sort of halfway back to the… lectern and talk to the audience. They still didn’t hear him because he wasn’t anywhere near the microphone. Then he overstayed his time. Anyhow… it was about as bad a lecture as you can imagine, and however the people had heard the famous Sewall Wright and most of them left after that lecture, but those that stayed heard me. And I was glued to the lectern and the microphone, I had beautiful slide – this was in the days before Kodachromes, but we had a… an… an artist at the American Museum [of Natural History] who was very good at coloring glass slides, and he colored these beautiful glass slides of geographic variation in my South Sea Island birds. And I talked for only 25 minutes instead of, like Sewall Wright, about 45 minutes, and after Sewall Wright’s lecture, my lecture seemed to be a marvellous lecture. And a very short time afterwards Professor Dunn came up to me and said, would I be willing to give some of the famous Jesup Lectures at Columbia University? And that was another one of these lucky accidents of my life, that Sewall Wright had spoken just before me. Well, to go back to the Jesup Lectures… we were asked to talk about speciation. There were two people involved. I, to give two lectures on speciation in animals, and a botanist with the name of Edgar Anderson who gave two lectures on speciation in plants. And everything went fine except that Edgar Anderson was manic depressive and he got into a depressive state and didn’t deliver his manuscript. So Columbia University Press came to me and they said, could I expand my two lectures into a whole book, and well, I said, yes I would, and I did, and that is how my book Systematics and the Origin of Species originated.

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: Genetics and the Origin of Species, Systematics and the Origin of Species, Columbia University, Columbus, Ohio, American Association for the Advancement of Science, South Sea Island, Columbia University Press, Jesup Lectures, American Museum of Natural History, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Leslie Clarence Dunn, Sewall Wright, Edgar Anderson

Duration: 4 minutes, 9 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008