Birds, Whiskey, and the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis: Ernst Mayr in the Solomon Islands

Ethan Linck in Hypocrite Reader:

ScreenHunter_1575 Dec. 19 20.42Near the end June in 1929, a 25-year old German ornithologist named Ernst Mayr was sitting in a hut in New Guinea, skinning and stuffing birds, when he received a telegram. Carried by a Papuan runner, it was a decidedly unlikely event: at the time, New Guinea was almost unimaginably remote, and Mayr had been out of contact with his mentor at the University of Berlin for nearly a year. But the telegram’s contents proved to be as significant as its delivery was improbable. At the urging of his advisor, Dr. Stresemann, Mayr was to take the first steamer down the coast and board the freight schooner France, assuming duties as the ornithologist for the American Museum of Natural History’s Whitney South Seas Expedition. The Whitney Expedition’s own ornithologist had recently taken ill, the telegram explained, leaving the leader only with a gaggle of Yale college seniors who “knew nothing about birds.” Mayr followed Stresemann’s orders, and boarded the France from the island port of Samarai. He spent the next nine months building a collection of bird specimens from the Solomon Islands — and the subsequent decade using this collection to become one of the principal architects of the modern evolutionary synthesis, filling the lingering gaps in Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

How did shooting and skinning birds in an obscure corner of the South Pacific lead to one of the 20th century’s major scientific achievements?

More here.