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The biological species concept


Learning molecular biology at Cold Spring Harbor
Ernst Mayr Scientist
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The great advantage of Cold Spring Harbor was that this was the time when molecular biology was being born and Cold Spring Harbor was one of the major places where it developed. This is where Max Delbrück started his phage courses and where the French molecular biologists [Boris] Ephrussi, [Jacques] Monod, [André] Lwoff, [François] Jacob, Rotergey [sic] would also come some summers, not every summer, and where people came from the Rockefeller Institute and so forth. And every day there were long discussions in the evening, informal ones about all the various problems, and I must say that at that time I probably knew about as much about molecular biology and molecular genetics as anybody did. Jim Watson was there a great deal and so on and so forth, and this experience of learning all about molecular biology in its early stages has helped me through the rest of life because even though many of the modern papers I don't understand, too… too technical, but the basic principles I have learnt at that time and of course I have never forgotten. So my summers in Cold Spring Harbor have been a very important thing. Also in another way because all the people I met there are familiar with me and even though I'm organismic biologist working with whole animals, they've always considered me as somebody who was… who understood molecular biology and was basically friendly toward it, while most organismic biologists were just plain hostile to… or… to molecular biology. And this carried beyond the borders of… of the United States, and led to the following amusing situation: that in France my friends tried for many years to have me elected to the Académie des Sciences, the leading scientific institution. But the nomination has to be made by one of the sections of the Académie and sections relevant in my case was the section of zoology, and the members of the section of zoology at that time – this was in the ’70s and early ’80s – they were mostly Lamarckians, and, of course, they wouldn't nominate a Darwinian like myself. So finally somebody in the section of molecular biology thought this was scandalous and he… this is all… I heard this by hearsay – I can't guarantee for every word I say – he said to the section of molecular biology, how about our section nominating Mayr and then he will surely get elected? So they did in… indeed and I immediately got elected. However, if you go to the membership list of the Académie des Sciences you find that I am listed not under zoology, but I am listed under molecular biology. So I'm now, so to speak, a bona fide member of molecular biology.

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: Cold Spring Harbor, Rockefeller University, France, United States of America, Académie des sciences, , 1970s, 1980s, Max Delbrück, Charles Darwin, Jacques Monod, Boris Ephrussi, André Michel Lwoff, François Jacob

Duration: 3 minutes, 29 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008