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The position of evolution in American science


George Gaylord Simpson
Ernst Mayr Scientist
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Let me come to [George Gaylord] Simpson. He was the third person in New York interested in evolution. I'm speaking now the time after 1939 when Dobzhansky had come, and he was my colleague at the American Museum [of Natural History]. In fact, when I came in 1931… Simpson was on the staff and we very often ate at the same staff table. We had a staff table where we ate and where I always had very vigorous and interesting and stimulating conversations with other members of the staff. But Simpson never participated. He was very silent and when many, many years later when I was already here in Harvard somebody once asked me and said, ‘Now, you must have had some very interesting conversations with Simpson, both of you sitting at the same staff table for so many years’. And I thought about it, and by God, I couldn't think of single one, and I felt a little uncomfortable about that. So I wrote a letter to Simpson which is in my file somewhere, and I said what about that, is… what… what is your impression? And he wrote back, ‘Yes, you're quite right, we never had any scientific conversations’. Now, Simpson was the kind of person who shunned having scientific discussions and the students would complain about that. In fact, he had very few students, he didn't want to have students. When he came to Harvard we thought well, he… later on he came to Harvard after he had the fall out with the director of the American Museum, we thought he would establish a fine school of students now, but he refused to accept any students, and so he was in Harvard for a number of years without ever having acquired a single student.

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: New York, American Museum of Natural History, Harvard University1939, 1931, Theodosius Dobzhansky, George Gaylord Simpson

Duration: 1 minute, 45 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008