Contact with Geneticists

Early in his work on South Sea island birds, Mayr encountered several cases of conspicuous geographic variation in sexual dimorphism and corresponded about hormonal and/or genetic control of bird plumages with Walter Landauer at the University of Connecticut at Storrs who worked on such problems with chickens. He introduced Mayr to L. C. Dunn, geneticist at the Department of Zoology of Columbia University (New York), in late 1931 or early 1932, and from then on Mayr participated at first occasionally and later regularly, in the genetics seminars. He attempted to include genetic research into his own work such as the article on the physiological-genetic determination of bird plumages (1933l), a presentation at the IOC in Rouen 1938 on sex ratio (1938n, 1939a), his lectures at Columbia University in early 1938 and a talk on speciation in birds at the AAA meeting in December 1939 discussing processes of isolation and divergence (Mayr 1940c). Hereafter L. C. Dunn invited him to give the Jesup lectures in March 1941, together with the botanist E. Anderson. Since 1943, Mayr attended regularly the summer meetings of geneticists at Cold Spring Harbor (p. 243).

Mayr and Th. Dobzhansky met for the first time in October-November 1936, when Dobzhansky visited New York to deliver a series of lectures at Columbia University10. Mayr invited him to the museum and showed him some beautiful examples of geographic differentiation and speciation in island birds he had studied (e.g., species of Pachycephala, Monarcha, Rhipidura, and others). When Dobzhansky came to New York again in late 1937, L. C. Dunn invited him, the Professor Schraders and the Mayrs for dinner. This indicates the fairly close ties Mayr had established with the zoology department of Columbia University. He described his personal and scientific relations with Th. Dobzhansky (1900-1975) as follows:

"For many years I had been unhappy about the neglect by the geneticists of the problems that confronted the taxonomists (see p. 45). Nowhere in the writings of the geneticists did I find any appropriate discussion of geographic variation, incipient species, and the completion of speciation. All they did, as I saw it, was to discuss what happened within a single gene pool. For this reason, I was quite excited when I read a paper by a person with the name of Dobzhansky who discussed geographic variation in ladybug beetles and the genetic basis of this variation. I was so enthusiastic that I did something I had never done before in my life, I sat down and wrote him a fan letter (p. 185). This was in 1935, and between that time and Dobzhansky's death in 1975 there has been continuous interaction among the two of us.

I became much better acquainted with him when, in 1936, Dobzhansky, who at that time was at Cal Tech in Pasadena, came to the East and worked at Cold Spring Harbor, visiting New York at regular intervals. At one or several of these visits he came to the American Museum of Natural History, where I demonstrated to him the marvelous geographic variation of South Sea island birds and the many cases of incipient species. This quite fascinated him, and I had the impression that it revived in him an interest in these kinds of questions, an interest that had been dormant while he was working on more or less physiological problems during the preceding 8 or 9 years at the Morgan Laboratory. Of course, I also attended his lectures at Columbia in 1936, and had then also occasion to talk with him. What Dobzhansky did for me primarily was to teach me the most modern evolutionary genetics. Even though by that time I had abandoned regular Lamarckism, that is, a belief in the inheritance of acquired characters, I still was, in a manner of speaking, fighting mutationism and held the widespread opinion, which of course Darwin also had had, that there are two sources of genetic variation, mutational and gradual ones. I think it was Dobzhansky who convinced me that by accepting very small mutations etc. one could bring both types of variation on a common genetic denominator.

10 These lectures were not Jesup lectures and his text was originally meant to be a standalone text in evolutionary genetics. Several months later, in May 1937, L.C. Dunn back dated, naming Dobzhansky a Jesup lecturer and including his book manuscript as the first volume in the revived Columbia Biological Series (Cain 2002a).

My next contact with Dobzhansky was in 1939 when Gretel and I traveled by train from New York to Pasadena (p. 112). Very shortly afterwards, Dobzhansky, of course, assumed his professorship at Columbia University, and from then on for the next years until I moved to Harvard in 1953, we had very regular contact, sometimes almost daily. He very often invited Gretel and me for dinner, and these dinner parties were always memorable because there were always some foreign visitors also present, and the conversations were at the highest level, much superior to any conversations I had at that time with people in the ornithological circles. What we didn't like so much was that Dobzhansky absolutely played the 'pasha,' as Gretel and I used to call him. Like the Turkish Pasha he was the absolute king pin and his poor wife was only his number-one slave. After dinner she usually retired to the kitchen, not so much because this was necessary, but because she liked to have a quiet smoke and Dobzhansky absolutely objected to her smoking. She persuaded Gretel to come along, and when Dobzhansky smelled the smoke she always said, 'Oh that was Gretel who smoked, not me!'

I admired Dobzhansky enormously, even though I realized that some of his character traits were less than admirable. Dobzhansky clearly had charisma, something that is difficult to describe, but everybody knew it. I was not the only one to admire him, but many others, and even though he was my very best friend from about 1941 until long after I had left for Cambridge, he probably was considered their best friend by many others, such as Michael Lerner and Howard Levene, both of whom openly wept at the memorial service for Dobzhansky in 1975.

What I most admired in Dobzhansky was his 'Bildung,' his interest and reading in philosophy, literature, psychology, and many other fields usually totally ignored by the average biologist. I sometimes borrowed books from him which he had recommended to me, usually books outside of biology. One of his great interests was anthropology, and this later documented itself in his book Mankind Evolving (1962), for a long time perhaps the most useful book for a person interested in man but not wanting to read something that was too technical. Of course, what made him particularly attractive to me was that he had such a similar background, continental natural history. He had been in taxonomy before becoming a geneticist, and when I talked about my scientific problems he knew exactly what I was talking about. There was no other geneticist of whom this could have been said. Also, since he had been working with ladybug beetles which are often highly polymorphic, he realized that the usual morphological-typological species concept was not valid and that one should have a biological species concept. However, like Darwin many years earlier, he was not always consistent. I remember that I was quite shocked when he published a paper around 1937-1938 on the classification of some of his beetles in western North America and, as far as I was concerned, confused morphs (intraspecific variants) and different species.

Dobzhansky loved verbal arguments. He and I argued by the hour about all aspects of evolution. What he did not like, was any printed criticism by his friends. Carl Epling once made the mistake of doing that and this was the end of their friendship. I have the feeling that verbal argument for Dobzhansky was like playing a game, but printed criticism was like an insult. For Dobzhansky everything was either black or white. He was very positive about any and all opinions. His 'That is what I say' was a proverb at Columbia University. To be quite frank, I was sometimes quite upset by Dobzhansky's megalomania. When he didn't get his way in some controversy or administrative arrangement, he could become extremely difficult.

At that time there were distinctly two schools in population genetics; a reductionist one going back to R. A. Fisher, and a holistic one. Dobzhansky definitely belonged to theholisticone butwas notnearly as concrete aboutitaseitherMichael Lerner or Bruce Wallace or, for that matter, as myself. In the 1940's and 1950's when I had my closest contact with genetics I benefited more from my conversations with Bruce Wallace than with Dobzhansky.

Dobzhansky loved to travel and he wrote the most wonderful letters to his friends which, eventually, Bentley Glass collected and published under the title The Roving Naturalist (1980; American Philosophical Society). In addition to traveling he was passionate about horseback riding and used every opportunity to do so.

In due time as he became more and more famous, Dobzhansky apparently was not too happy being just one professor in the Columbia Zoology Department. And this is why L. C. Dunn wanted to make a special genetics department for him. This caused great dissension at Columbia.

Dobzhansky was notorious for being an egotist. He avoided all social responsibilities and, for instance, never attended any committee meetings, not even the faculty meetings of his department. He was furious when they made decisions he didn't like, but nevertheless continued not attending. He never served as the secretary, treasurer, or editor of any society. The only office he was willing to accept was that of the president, and he loved to give a presidential address in this capacity.

Dobzhansky had only one child, his daughter Sophie. He rather definitely stated that more children would be a nuisance and would interfere with his work. Also, when the time came for Sophie to go to school and she and his wife Natasha wanted to move to one of the suburbs, Dobzhansky prevented it, so Sophie grew up so to speak on the pavement of Manhattan. She was rather resentful about it, as well as about being the only child and had herself, I believe, five children.

What was Dobzhansky's influence on me? Most importantly, perhaps, his sensible type of genetics reconciled me with genetics and geneticists whom I had been rather opposed to previously. Presumably, it was he who cured me of any last remnants of my Lamarckian past. On the other hand, I never followed him in his extreme adherence to Sewall Wright's ideas on neutrality. At a time when he still thought his chromosome arrangements were without selective significance I already was convinced they had and expressed this to him. Later on, when he and Epling published the work on the 'desert snow' (Linanthus), it soon became obvious to me that the distribution of white and blue color was not a strictly random matter, but to some extent at least, controlled by selection. Even Sewall Wright came around to this, but Dobzhansky only very slowly. He and I had quite a few arguments about human blood groups and I said all along they must have selective significance while Dobzhansky insisted that they were strictly neutral.

When in 1951 he published the third edition of his Genetics and the Origin of Species, he thought this was so to speak the capstone on population genetics. All sorts of open issues were rather concealed in this volume as if he were trying to sweep all difficulties under the rug. At that time he temporarily switched over to the study of human genetics and together with Dunn, even founded a human genetics institute at Columbia University, because he felt that population genetics was finished. He later returned to it in connection with his scientific feud with H. J. Muller as to the nature and amount of genetic variation in populations. I had the feeling that this was not a very promising issue, and, as a matter of fact, nothing really came of it and it prevented Dobzhansky from making any major contributions during the last 25 years of his life.

As a person, he was very important in my life, and as I said before, for many years I considered him my closest friend until the time when I felt I had more in common in my ideas and ideals with John A. Moore, then also at Columbia, later at Riverside [see p. 297-298]. I have considered the latter my best friend since the 1960's and that he still is in 1993. What united Dobzhansky and myself was not only our similar European scientific background, but also our being non-English scientific immigrants. In the time before and during the war there was a great Anglophilia in this country and anyone being a German, or worse, a Russian, was looked down on. One had to be at the receiving end of these evaluations to be able to feel them. Dobzhansky's reaction to all this was so strong in the last months of his life that he switched almost entirely to talking only with people who could speak Russian, particularly Michael Lerner."

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