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The Law of Strict Priority


Check-list of the Birds of the World
Ernst Mayr Scientist
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I was not a member of the bird department, however I did take a considerable interest in what was going on in the bird department. And the bird department, at that particular moment, was in considerable difficulties because the year before I came… I came in ’53, and in ’52 the curator of birds James Peters had died. And he had begun a… a mammoth project, namely the production of a so-called Check-list of the Birds of the World. Now, the word ‘check-list’ doesn't spell out just what this all includes. It not only gave the names of all the species and subspecies of birds, but it also gave the synonyms of these names when the same species was repeatedly described under different names. This was properly recorded, it gave the place where it was published, and it gave a detailed description of the geographic range. So there was a… a great deal of work involved and Peters had covered… he had done six volumes plus one volume that he had assigned to a colleague for a particular group of South American families where Peters was not particularly qualified to do that. But there… there still remained to be about eight additional volumes to be done, and the… now curator of birds, James Greenway, was not a trained biologist and he was at a considerable loss as to what to do. And so I agreed to work with him, and in fact more or less took over the project, and the most important task I had was if I could… I realised at once that this couldn't be done by one man and Peters was over ambitious trying to do that. And so we decided that each family of birds that still needed to be dealt with should be done by a particular author, by a different author, and we wrote… I wrote letters to about a dozen or so people and all of them agreed to collaborate except one person who said he was too busy. And this person, interestingly enough, was the least distinguished of all the 12 that I had written to and in the subsequent years – I prefer not to mention his names now – he never produced anything of any significance. But what was more important was that the… the really good ornithologists, the really busy ones all agreed to collaborate and so we turned out volume after volume. I did my share of families and after a good many years the project was finished and the secretary of the curator of birds made an alphabetical index to all the names and now this work is completed and it is the only complete listing of all species, the subspecies of any group of animals or plants in the world and it is of immense value for anybody doing comparative studies, behavior studies, geographical work and so forth. They can always go to this and find the necessary information. And something happened that is really… almost… if you know how scattered the literature is and all that… is almost unbelievable; we did not miss a single species, in all the years since this was published nobody said oh, but you didn't include such and such. It was complete and, of course, new species are being discovered but the original volume, the original monument is there and it is just wonderful.

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: Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, 1952, 1953, Check-list of the Birds of the World, James Lee Peters, James Greenway

Duration: 4 minutes, 5 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008