On The Death Of A Scientist, And An Era

Ernst Mayr was 100 years old and working on another book

February 16, 2005 in THE KITCHEN SINK | Comments (0)

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The evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr of Harvard, who died this month at age 100, was the last of the European scientists who found refuge in the United States as Europe fell to the politics of absolute authority. Let us mourn the closing of the refuge.

Mayr was one of the architects of the “new synthesis,” which unified genetics and natural selection. His “Systematics and the Origin of Species” (1941) is a classic work of science, combining thorough field biology (He was the world’s expert on the birds of New Guinea) with scholarship and rigorous analysis. It proved the origin of species by reproductive isolation.

Born and educated in Germany, he came to the United States in 1931. A historian interviewed in the NPR obituary said the immigrant group of which Mayr was the last active survivor elevated the American scientific community from to the finest in the world.

It occurred to me as I heard this that every U.S. president from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush has at one time or another proclaimed America as “the richest and most powerful nation on earth.” The first superlative is reflected in all sorts of economic measures. The second is more elusive, but certainly it includes an implicit reference to weapons. And for this source of power, Americans owed a great deal to expatriate scientists drawn by the same atmosphere that drew Mayr in his separate field.

A researcher from NHK Television, the Japanese network, called the other day seeking my help in a search for living eyewitnesses to the Trinity test, which I wrote about on its 50th anniversary for the Albuquerque Journal (see my rewrite in “Book of Days” below). July will mark the 60th anniversary, and most of the witnesses are gone. It occurred to me that the era has been succeeded by its opposite. Like a reversed magnetic field, America might now be repelling rather than attracting people like Ernst Mayr.

Consider. Last June, 48 Nobel prize winners – in medicine, chemistry and physics – uncharacteristically involving themselves in politics, signed an open letter condemning the current American government in these words: “By reducing funding for scientific research, they are undermining the foundation of America’s future. By setting unwarranted restrictions on stem cell research, they are impeding medical advances. By employing inappropriate immigration practices, they are turning critical scientific talent away from our shores. And by ignoring scientific consensus on critical issues such as global warming, they are threatening the earth’s future.”

Or this. The Washington Post reported that for the first time in 30 years, universities are recording a downward enrollment of foreign students, especially in graduate schools and particularly among Chinese and Indian students. The United States is 17th among nations in the proportion of college students studying science. It was third in 1975.

Again. Because so much of modern science is “big science” relying on government funding, the scientific climate is affected by the political climate. The Los Alamos weather report is particularly dismal. Scientific staff morale at the prestigious national laboratory renowned for pure science is low following the bullying by Pete Nanos, the president’s new lab director. He shut the lab down in retribution for a security breach that turned out to be as fictitious as the Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction. (It is believed that Los Alamos scientists, who are experts, debunked the “aluminum tubes” evidence of Saddam’s program from the beginning.)

What is going on between science and politics? The Union of Concerned Scientists in a report signed by more than a thousand itemized some 85 accusations of anti-scientific activity by the government. The report began with a quote from George H. W. Bush when he was president in 1990: “Science, like any field of endeavor, relies on freedom of inquiry; and one of the hallmarks of that freedom is objectivity. Now, more than ever, on issues ranging from climate change to AIDS research to genetic engineering to food additives, government relies on the impartial perspective of science for guidance.”

Obviously the writers were of the opinion – although they did not express it precisely – that President George W. Bush does not subscribe to the philosophy of his father. It’s more than a Freudian thing. When Bob Woodward confronted the president with his father’s statement in opposition to invasion of Iraq, for instance, the response was: “You know he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to.” Which pretty much sums up the problem. It’s a religious thing. It’s also a retro thing, reviving a conflict that goes back to the rise of science in the 17th Century.

President Bush and his constituency of Christians (white, southern, evangelistic) are the dominant minority, perhaps even a majority, in politics. And evolution trails only the sexual issues (abortion, gay marriage) on their hit list. America is alone among industrialized nations in its closely divided opinion about evolution, according to a Northwestern University expert, Jon Miller, quoted by the weekly Science Times. He said U.S. opinion is divided evenly at 45 per cent each for evolution and creationism with 10 per cent undecided, while in other nations typically 80 per cent accept evolution and the remaining 20 per cent are not energized against it. “In Japan, something like 96 percent accept evolution,” he said.

Evolution has been politically risky since the birth of “Darwinism” in 1859. Mayr, for example, received many awards during his long career, but none with the high media exposure of the Nobel Prize. He once observed that Nobel Prizes are not given in evolutionary biology, saying, “Darwin wouldn’t have won it either.” Perhaps unintentionally, the Times obituary of Mayr reflected the New Age Darwin allergy by quoting a University of Florida science historian: “He was the Darwin of the 20th century, the defender of the faith.”

Faith? For Mayr, evolution had nothing to do with religion. In his popularized 1991 book, “One Long Argument,” he said evolution “is as much of a fact as the observation that the earth revolves around the sun rather that the reverse.”

Within a week of Mayr’s death the Times published a Creationist op ed piece that revived a 150-year-old mechanist metaphor in rebuttal of Darwinism. “The 18th-century clergyman William Paley likened living things to a watch, arguing that the workings of both point to intelligent design,” wrote Michael J. Behe, author of “Darwin’s Black Box.” He updated: “The resemblance of parts of life to engineered mechanisms like a watch is enormously stronger than what Reverend Paley imagined. In the past 50 years modern science has shown that the cell, the very foundation of life, is run by machines made of molecules. There are little molecular trucks in the cell to ferry supplies, little outboard motors to push a cell through liquid.”

This is Disney science, but it is taken seriously. “There are no research studies indicating that Darwinian processes can make molecular machines of the complexity we find in the cell,” Behe wrote, adding that, regardless, “whatever special restrictions scientists adopt for themselves don’t bind the public, which polls show, overwhelmingly, and sensibly, thinks that life was designed.”

Therefore, his point: that Intelligent Design should be taught in the schools. I’m waiting for a Times op ed piece arguing that the sun goes around the earth because of common sense observation and the latest artfully worded public opinion poll.

A decent respect for philosophy – including the British “Natural Theology” school of which Paley was a part – would keep politics out of this. Appeals to the overwhelming authority of ignorance do not prove anything. Perhaps all young students should be exposed to enduring questions such as: If life shows intelligent design, where is the Intelligent Designer? What’s at stake when God, or indeed Life, is separated from the world? Who created the Creator? If God created the world then why is it not perfect?

But this is moral or metaphysical philosophy, not science. Mayr pointed out that the natural theologians knew the difference between explaining how a thing works and its reason for existence. “Proximate causations could be explained mechanistically, by physical laws, but one could not explain ultimate causations without postulating a final goal or purpose,” Mayr wrote. And who can pretend to know the purpose of life, or even if it has a direction?

Behe, like his predecessors in Creationism, maintained that Darwinian evolution depends upon random mutations, that is, what in Darwin’s time were called “sports” of nature. This false attribution stacks the deck because sports are absurdly infrequent relative to the complexity of life. Mayr’s response, which he emphasized in his book, “What Evolution Is (2001),” was that the constant recombination of nucleic acids in meiosis is a sufficient source of randomness for natural selection. This, in the late 1930’s, was the key to Darwin’s “black box.”

The straightforward Creationists, with a prior commitment that is moral and religious, do not accept, as far as I have seen, the separation of induction based on the scientific investigation of nature from received teleology. And as long as the distinction will not hold, the teaching of evolution will be suppressed – if not by government action, then by the self-censorship of intimidated teachers.

The Soviet Union under Stalin repressed Darwinism – and sent biologists to the gulag – because the purge suited a political opportunist named Lysenko. In free societies like ours, of course, there are many escapes from implicit government dogma. For example, due in large part to the courageous stance of Nancy Reagan and Ron Reagan, the California voters approved some $10 billion in state funding for stem-cell research in defiance of federal constraints.

And Stanford University has started its own privately funded stem-cell research program with the help of a $12 million anonymous donation. This is hopeful. It is a private alternative to big science funded by government. It could even turn a profit, although that does not seem to be the point.

It’s the way things used to be, with capitalists doing good and government staying out of science and, for that matter, the arts. Ernst Mayr did not get his start in government research. His first job was bird collector in New Guinea for Walter Rothschild, who was building a collection for his personal museum in England. Mayr’s next job was with the South Seas Expedition funded American philanthropist Harry Payne Whitney. When the bird collections from these expeditions were acquired by what is now the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Mayr went with them, becoming curator. The “new synthesis,” which embraced genetics, paleontology, ecology, and taxonomy, was primarily the work of Mayr and George Simpson at the museum and the Columbia University geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky

Mayr was believed to have been working on a book in refutation of Intelligent Design within two weeks of his death. He published 600 articles, 200 of them after his official retirement in 1975, and 20 books. The last book was published in 2004 just after his 100th birthday. He was highly evolved.