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Working with Earle Gorton Linsley


A symposium on the evolutionary synthesis
Ernst Mayr Scientist
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The importance of the evolutionary synthesis was not at first realized, and many people didn't even know there had been such a thing. And in the… early 1970s the American Academy of Arts and Sciences here in Boston decided to sponsor symposia on the history of biology. And I discussed it with them and said, ‘How about a symposium on the evolutionary synthesis?’ And they said, 'Well, sounds… sounds wonderful’. So I organised it and I invited all the still living architects of the synthesis. Unfortunately… Julian Huxley was too ill and old to come, [Bernhard] Rensch, who at first said he would come, came down with a case of shingles and couldn't come, [George Gaylord] Simpson, who at that time had become quite - and I used this term deliberately, quite paranoid - refused to come, and so we went without him. We invited a great number of geneticists and as many… but not including Sewall Wright. And I had my very definite reasons for not inviting him because he was always talking too long and very often his memory was very poor. But I was afterwards very much attacked for that and I'm willing to accept these attacks, but I had my very good reasons. We had, I think, 12 geneticists there so Sewall Wright really was not needed, I think he would have only caused confusion. Well, this was a… quite a successful volume, in fact so much so that Harvard Press has just decided to republish it and, because they were out of… it was out of print and there was still enough of a demand, and asked me to write a new foreword for… which I did. And in this foreword I am trying to correct one misconception about the evolutionary synthesis. There was an earlier synthesis in the evolutionary field, and that was the synthesis between genetics and Darwinism. The early geneticists, the… the Mendelians – [William] Bateson, [Hugo] de Vries and Joe Hanson – did not believe in… in natural selection. They said all evolution happens by major mutations, by major saltation, jumps that create something entirely new, and they very much attacked natural selection. Well, that lasted until about 1915, and the period from 1916 to about 1932 or 1935 the geneticists came to terms with Darwinism under the leadership particularly of RA Fisher and [JBS] Haldane. And that period is a… was a sort of a synthesis, but it wasn't the synthesis which took place between 1937, [Theodosius] Dobzhansky's book, and 1947, the Princeton conference which brought together the two big subdivisions of evolutionary biology, the study of adaptedness and the study of the origin of organic diversity.

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: 1970s, Boston, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University Press, 1915, 1916, 1932, 1935, 1937, 1947, Princeton University, Julian Huxley, Bernhard Rensch, George Gaylord Simpson, Sewall Wright, Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel, Ronald Fisher, JBS Haldane, Theodosius Dobzhansky, William Bateson, Hugo de Vries, Joe Hanson

Duration: 3 minutes, 23 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008