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Teaching evolution


A workshop in taxonomy
Ernst Mayr Scientist
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I tried a workshop in taxonomy, and that was a very interesting, novel type of a course. What I did was – with the help of curators at the Museum [of Comparative Zoology] – give each student… and the course was restricted to 10 in theory and I think only eight applied for it… each student got a particular group of… of species: one had species of spiders; one had species of snails; one had species of beetles; and I don't know what they all had. And they had to work out the differential… the differences among the different species, to diagnose their characters, work out a key, describe – if there was one – which, according to the literature, was a new species, describe it as a new species, learn all the practical methodological things in taxonomy because in taxonomy one learns things as an apprentice to a master, one cannot learn this kind of taxonomy from a book or from descriptions. Well, this was a very time expensive course. I had to constantly watch what every student was doing, helping him with it. It also was time-consuming on the curators to find the right kind of material, supply the students and so we said, well, we're not going to give it next year, and then the next year we said, well, we're not going to give it this year, maybe next year again. And eventually the course was never again revived.

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: Harvard University

Duration: 1 minute, 39 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008