Ernst Mayr and the ‘Biology of Birds’

Sanford Hall of Birds, American Museum of Natural History cartoon in New Yorker

The synthesis period in evolutionary studies (most people call this the “evolutionary synthesis”) of the 1930s and 1940 has had a standard narrative for many years, but pressure has increasing for a revision. For example, there’s much more to Ernst Mayr than his authorship of the book, Systematics and the Origin of Species (1942). This paper reconstructs the exhibition Mayr helped designed at the American Museum of Natural History. It also discusses the considerable range of activities Mayr had underway in the 1930s to support the programme he called, “bird biology”. 

When Ernst Mayr arrived in New York in 1931, he carried considerable intellectual baggage. Here was a disciple of Erwin Stresemann, an export, sent to America on short-term contract work. He not only imported considerable factual knowledge about birds in the South Pacific but also arrived fully intending to transplant a research tradition deriving from the Seebolm-Hartert and Stresemann “schools.” In his early correspondence, Mayr expressed great concern over the state of American ornithology. While he encountered many bird enthusiasts and nomenclature-based workers, he found only few “scientific” or biological workers. For a decade, he worked to improve this situation. Many activities show the imprint of his effort to convert American ornithology into a discipline focused on the biology of birds. The AMNH exhibition he worked on, the Sanford Hall’s “Biology of Birds,” offered a physical manifestation of this agenda. (From Cain 2009: 125)

This paper appears as chapter 6 in Cain and Ruse (2009). The citation is:

  • Joe Cain. 2009. Ernst Mayr and the ‘Biology of Birds’, in Joe Cain and Michael Ruse, eds. 2009. Descended from Darwin: Insights into the History of Evolutionary Studies, 1900-1970 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society). ISBN: 978‐1‐60618‐991‐7. Download whole volume in one ZIP file.

Papers in this volume are freely available for download open access, through the generous support of the American Philosophical Society.

Ernst Mayr and the ‘Biology of Birds’

Cain 2009 Ernst Mayr and the Biology of Birds
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