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Discussion groups in New York and Cambridge


Changing the Law of Strict Priority
Ernst Mayr Scientist
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In the 1940s and ’50s a group of us younger ones decided that something had to be done, this had to be changed, and I was one of the most active in this group. Another one was a Dane with the name of Lenke; another one was an American at the Field Museum [of Natural History] in Chicago, K P Schmidt; and there were two or three others. And we met in Copenhagen and we made considerable progress in loosening up the laws. The secretary of the International Commission was not a biologist at all, he was a lawyer, he was… he was somewhat reasonable but he didn't quite understand the idea that in nomenclature, the main purpose of nomenclature is stability because it has to do with information. And things, however, were shaping up to… to move in the right direction and then unfortunately K… K P Schmidt, who was an herpetologist, was bitten by a poisonous snake and died. And that set us back, and then, at another congress in London, some people… really good biologists, zoologists, including Professor Mertens at the Senckenberg Museum in… in Frankfurt, all of a sudden came up and took with him the whole German delegation, went back to strict priority, while at the Copenhagen delegation the German delegation solidly was for a sensible rule of nomenclature. And so that was another setback. Then came another, then I worked behind the scenes and succeeded with the help of, naturally, numerous other people to have… we had a very incompetent president of the commission. And we succeeded in getting Alden H Miller, an American ornithologist who had very sensible ideas, elected to… to be the president and to preside at the next international congress. And, shortly before the congress, at the age of 59, Miller died of a sudden heart attack. So there was one unfortunate accident after the other. Then came the Washington meeting and… it was nip and tuck which would win, common sense or strict priority. And at that point the very incompetent president and secretary, and the secretary was perhaps even more incompetent, didn't watch that suddenly, just before the voting, there was a big influx of people who had no connection with the congress; they were government entomologists who were being… being incited, were being mobilised by one of the strict priority people to come into the hall and then they adding their votes to the strict priority. Again the strict priority thing won, and that was totally illegal, these people never should have been permitted to vote because it… it said in the bylaws that only members of the congress are entitled to vote. Well, to make a long story short, eventually the younger generation saw that this… this was impossible, but an awful lot of name changing in the meantime had taken place and had disturbed the nomenclature, but there's now a new draft of the rules almost ready to be published, I believe. Professor Bock is a member of the commission and that, I understand, is very sensible and places the main emphasis on stability. I might go one step back; I did one thing at the Copenhagen meeting: I proposed that the rules should have a preamble in which it was clearly stated that stability was the major purpose of the rules and that preamble was adopted. And whenever the strict priority people were pushing too hard I would always say, ‘Well, the preamble says that stability is the major purpose of the rules’.

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: 1940s, 1950s, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, Copenhagen, International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, London, Frankfurt, Senckenberg Museum, Washington, Karl Patterson Schmidt, Robert Mertens, Alden H Miller, Walter Bock

Duration: 4 minutes, 36 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008