Edge 154— February 8, 2005
(2,100 words)

ERNST MAYR (1905-2005)

Ernst Mayr: A Remembrance

He went down,
As when a lordly cedar, green with boughs,
Goes down with a great shout upon the hills,
And leaves a lonesome place against the sky

— Edwin Markham (1901)

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.

He protected and promoted evolutionary thought from every angle. He was a rock and a bulwark against the arrogant and the ignorant. Four groups come to mind. First, the molecular biologists of his time, who, if they had had their way, would have swept all of evolutionary biology into a trash heap to be carted away—but who now can not make sense of their own field without evolutionary logic. Second, the physicists, who taught that the history and methodology of physics was the history and methodology of science itself—and that a "theory of everything" can be formulated purely in the language of physics.

Third, Ernst stood strong against the medical profession. Long before "Darwinian Medicine" he preached against the absurdity of memorizing the names of the 206 human bones while not taking a single course in evolutionary biology, a course that might help physicians understand the human organism in terms of what it is designed to do (as well as understand the parasites that afflict us). Feed thalidomide and other heavy chemicals to women pregnant with child in order to alleviate morning sickness? Depends, in part, on whether you think the sickness evolved to serve a useful function (protect the fetus from naturally occurring poisons) or was a mere side-effect of the pregnant state. And, finally, he was a rock and a bulwark against those who would arrogantly assert—without study or deep thought—how their God must have created the living universe. In short, Ernst was a mighty cedar "under" which, in the words of the great prophet Ezekiel (17,23), "dwell all fowl of every wing; in the shadow of the branches thereof shall they dwell".

Ernst was also a very loving man. He was, for example, a loving host. When my beautiful wife Lorna was seven months pregnant with our first child, we drove to New Hampshire to spend a day with the Mayrs on their farm. He took us for a nature walk, nearly half a mile long with a remarkably clean path among the pine needles. When I commented on this I learned that Ernst himself had gotten up at six that morning to sweep that long path clean, lest Lorna slip, fall and injure herself.

He was also a loving husband. I once visited Ernst and his wife Gretel in their home in Cambridge. Ernst mentioned a paper in German that he had recently translated, when Gretel cut him off and said, "But, Ernst, it was I who translated that paper". Then, she turned to me and said, "You know, Bob, Ernst and I are like one, but still it was I who translated the paper". Ernst looked sheepish and never referred to that paper again without adding "which my wife so kindly translated for me".

And, finally, he was a loving teacher. I remember the time he was urging intellectuals to reproduce—not go wild, you understand, but at least replace themselves in the human population. To be sure, he said, we were partly a "homozygous fringe" but we should still make the effort. I loved that moment. How tiresome it is to hear people forever promoting themselves and producing ever feebler arguments on how that benefits everyone. Here was someone who could describe himself (and his kind) as being a "homozygous fringe", an effervescent congruence of doubled-up genes with their own defects, unlikely to be preserved as such in the future. Here was someone you could count on to look reality square in the face, still urge the students to do what was good for them, but without (may God bless his soul and the family he leaves behind) all the self-deception.

Robert Trivers
Cambridge, MA
February 8, 2005

(ROBERT TRIVERS is an evolutionary biologist at Rutgers University and the author of Natural Selection and Social Theory.)


Also on Edge:
WHAT EVOLUTION IS: A Talk with Ernst Mayr — Introduction by Jared Diamond
ERNST MAYR'S Edge Bio Page
Ernst Mayr: EdgeVideo (7:30 min.) DSL+ | Modem

TED 2005 Conference | 11:00 am—12:30 pm | Wednesday, February 23

An Edge Reality Club Meeting at TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design)
Monterey Marriott Hotel
, Monterey, CA — San Carlos Ballroom (Mezzanine level)

Three of the World's Leading Scientists Ask Each Other the Questions They are Asking Themselves

Panelists: Rodney Brooks , Ray Kurzweil, J. Craig Venter
Moderator: John Brockman

Rodney Brooks
Ray Kurzweil
Craig Venter

"Everything is up for grabs. Everything will change. There is a magnificent sweep of intellectual landscape right in front of us."


Last year's Edge-TED event was a great success. In "What's New In The Universe", physicists alan guth, Paul Steinhardt, and Leonard Susskind, electrified the audience and energized each other with their well-argued arguments setting forth their theories.

This year, we explore the intersection of computation and biology. One aspect of our culture that is no longer open to question is that the most significant developments in the sciences today (i.e. those that affect the lives of everybody on the planet) are about, informed by, or implemented through advances in software and computation. In no other field is this as evident as in the biology. In this Edge event, three of the world's leading scientists ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.


RODNEY BROOKS, a computer scientist and AI researcher, is interested in making living systems.

Rod Brooks' midlife research crisis has been to move away from looking at humanoid robots and toward looking at the very simple question of what makes something alive—what the organizing principles are that go on inside living systems. In his lab at MIT, his is trying to build robots that have properties of living systems that robots haven't had before.

Brooks is puzzled that "we've got all these biological metaphors that we're playing around with — artificial immunology systems, building robots that appear lifelike — but none of them come close to real biological systems in robustness and in performance. They look a little like it, but they're not really like biological systems." He worries that in looking at biological systems we are missing something that is already there — that has always been there. To Brooks, this might be called "the essence of life," but he is talking about a biochemical phenomenon, not a metaphysical one. Brooks is searching for a new conceptual framework that, like computation, does not involve any new physics or chemistry — a framework that gives us a different way of thinking about the stuff that's there. "We see the biological systems, we see how they operate," he says, "but we don't have the right explanatory modes to explain what's going on and therefore we can't reproduce all these sorts of biological processes. That to me right now is the deep question."

Brooks is Director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), and Fujitsu Professor of Computer Science. He is also Chairman and Chief Technical Officer of iRobot Corporation. His most recent book was Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us.


RAY KURZWEIL believes "we are entering a new era. I call it the Singularity. It's a merger between human intelligence and machine intelligence which is going to create something bigger than itself. It's the cutting edge of evolution on our planet. One can make a strong case that it's actually the cutting edge of the evolution of intelligence in general, because there's no indication that it has occurred anywhere else. To me that is what human civilization is all about. It is part of our destiny, and part of the destiny of evolution, to continue to progress ever faster and to grow the power of intelligence exponentially."

Kurzweil, an inventor and entrepreneur, has been pushing the technological envelope for years in his field of pattern recognition. He was the principal developer of the first omni-font optical character recognition machine, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first CCD flat-bed scanner, the first text-to speech synthesizer, the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments, and the first commercially marketed large vocabulary speech recognition system. He is the author of The Age of Intelligent Machines; The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence; and (with Terry Grossman, M.D.) Fantastic voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever.


J. CRAIG VENTER is one of leading scientists of the 21st century for his visionary contributions in genomic research. He is advancing the science of genomics and in applying genomic advances to some of the world’s most vexing public health and environmental challenges. Major research foci include human genomic medicine, environmental and evolutionary genomics (which includes the Venter Institute Global Sampling Mission), biological energy production, synthetic biology, and the intersection between genomics and environmental and energy policy.

In 1998, Venter became the first president of Celera Genomics to sequence the human genome using the whole genome shotgun technique, new mathematical algorithms, and new automated DNA sequencing machines. The completed sequence of the human genome was published in February 2001 in the journal, Science. In addition to the human genome, Venter and his team at Celera sequenced the fruit fly, mouse, and rat genomes. In 2003, Venter launched a global expedition to obtain and study microbes from environments ranging from the world’s oceans to urban centers. This mission, now in progress, is yielding insights into genes that make up the vast realm of microbial life.

He is founder and president of the J. Craig Venter Institute and the J. Craig Venter Science Foundation.


"Good, narrative history, combined with much fine writing...quirky, absorbing and persuasive in just the way that good stories are." Nature "Some of the biggest brains in the world turn their lenses on their own lives...fascinating...an invigorating debate."Washington Post • "Compelling." Disocver • " An engrossing treat of a book...crammed with hugely enjoyable anecdotes...you'll have a wonderful time reading these reminiscences." — New Scientist • "An intriguing collection of essays detailing the childhood experiences of prominent scientists and the life events that sparked their hunger for knowledge. Full of comical and thought-provoking stories." — Globe & Mail • "An inspiring collection of 27 essays by leading scientists about the childhood moments that set them on their shining paths." Psychology Today

Curious Minds:
How a Child Becomes a Scientist

Original essays vy Nicholas Humphrey • David M. Buss • Robert M. Sapolsky • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi • Murray Gell-Mann • Alison Gopnik • Paul C. W. Davies • Freeman Dyson • Lee Smolin • Steven Pinker • Mary Catherine Bateson • Lynn Margulis • Jaron Lanier • Richard Dawkins • Howard Gardner • Joseph LeDoux • Sherry Turkle • Marc D. Hauser • Ray Kurzweil • Janna Levin • Rodney Brooks • J. Doyne Farmer • Steven Strogatz • Tim White • V. S. Ramachandran • Daniel C. Dennett • Judith Rich Harris • edited, with an introduction by John Brockman


When We Were Kids:
How a Child Becomes a Scientist (UK)