Robert Trivers on Ernst Mayr


Ernst Mayr is dead at a hundred years of age, as lordly a cedar as ever stood in evolutionary biology and life more generally. He was full of vigor right up to the end. A stronger phenotype I never saw, personal quality matched to intellectual power. Everyone needs a moral compass in life and for a time in my life Ernst was exactly that, integrity, honesty, and a life based on sound moral principles — a standard to which one could turn for self-criticism and inspiration. His intellectual powers were legendary. He had a photographic memory, which only gave way in his 50s. He kept it hidden in his youth, in part because it gave him a rather unfair advantage in the German educational system built on rote learning. Later it gave him an additional power to those of analysis and synthesis that permitted such great books as Animal Species and Evolution (1963) and (with Jared Diamond, 2001) The Birds of Northern Melanesia. The distinctions he emphasized were fundamental, meaning vs mechanism, for example. Mechanism is what most biologists study, how does the machine work. But what about meaning? Why has the machine evolved to work the way it does? What is the meaning of the mechanism? Put that way, it is obvious that evolutionary biology deals with the profounder of the two halves.

More here.