Mayr at Harvard

In 1953, a decade after the triumph of his Systematics and the Origin of Species, Harvard attracted Mayr--by then the world's leading ornithologist--to the Museum of Comparative Zoology. The University would prove a spectacular incubator for him. Mayr published his second academic blockbuster in 1963, Animal Species and Evolution. Muses another noted Harvard evolutionary biologist, Steven J. Gould, in his new book, just published by Harvard University Press, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: "This work shaped my own evolutionary thinking more than any other book--and I am confident that most naturalists of my generation would offer the same testimony."

Mayr's impact was felt keenly at the MCZ. He brought with him a reputation for intellectual energy and academic drive that could intimidate undergraduates--but not all of them. In the spring of 1953, the first prospective senior thesis writer landed in Mayr's office. Robert Treat Paine III '54, scion of a storied Boston family and a lineal namesake of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was the best young bird watcher in the state.

"I've asked about you," Mayr told the young man, agreeing to direct his thesis. But not on Paine's proposed topic--redwing blackbirds. Instead, Mayr directed him to re-examine the relationships and classification of sparrows.

"I got one of the world's best educations into the details of the species concept," Paine remembers. Now emeritus himself, a member of the National Academy of Science in his own right, and a world-renowned ecologist, Paine got his first training in how to write a scientific paper through his intense internship with Mayr. "We spent hours in the collections," looking carefully at the morphology of specimens that only the Museum of Comparative Zoology could boast, Paine recalls. But that wasn't all. Mayr directed Paine to think carefully about many other features of sparrows that were key to understanding their species status: nest construction, how nests were lined, ranges of subspecies, molting plumage, diets, et cetera. For Paine, this was a seminal experience that helped launch a career that shook the world of ecology. For Mayr, it was just the way to do ornithology.

~S.P.

       

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