Acceptance Speech – Berne, 17.2.1984


Ernst Mayr

1983 Balzan Prize for Zoology

For his fundamental contributions to the contemporary study of evolution based on research in the field of zoology. For his criticism of the concept of species, his analysis of natural selection and the processes of formation of species and for his penetrating study of the impact of the Darwinian revolution on modern thought.

Mr. President,
members of the Fondazione Balzan,
distinguished guests.

The Premio Balzan is the highest honor in the whole world that can be bestowed upon a biologist. This fact should make it obvious why I was so overjoyed when I learned that one of the 1983 prizes had been awarded to me. It is therefore my foremost desire and pleasure to express my sincere thanks to those who nominated me and to thank the General Prize Committee for having selected me. I would also like to thank all those who throughout my life have made my work possible and have supported it so generously.

I was born under a lucky star. The call in 1930 to the natural history museum in New York, owing to a recommendation by my beloved teacher, Erwin Stresemann, not only gave me an unparalleled opportunity to work on the superb collections of the Whitney South Sea Expedition but also spared me the miseries of the blackest period in Germany’s history. Through my friendship with Theodosius Dobzhansky I was enabled to work for 10 summers at Cold Spring Harbor and thus to participate in the birth of molecular biology, even though only in the role of an interested spectator. This has deeply affected my thinking ever since. Finally, I was privileged to spend 30 years at Harvard University, a center of intellectual freedom and a place where achievement in scholarly pursuits is still valued. I could not have been luckier in the opportunities which fate provided for me.

Evolutionary biology is a vast field, but one can perhaps distinguish two major study areas: first, that dealing with the adaptive changes from generation to generation under the influence of natural selection, and secondly, the study of the origin and meaning of the vast diversity of organic life. It is this second area that was my chosen field of research. There are literally millions of species of animals, plants, and microorganisms on our globe. This raises endless questions: What do we mean when we speak of species? What is their biological significance? To answer these questions correctly is of crucial importance for ecological studies and for the understanding of animal behaviour.
From this I moved to the problem of the multiplication of species.

I was able to confirm and greatly strengthen the theory of geographic speciation and I showed that one form of it, the origin of new species in peripherally isolated founder populations, is of particular importance for macroevolution. Each advance in our understanding led to new questions. I am happy to be able to tell you that I am still actively working on their solution.

Evolutionary biology occupies a unique position among the sciences. Undoubtedly it is a true science (Naturwissenschaft) and yet it is also a historical science. This dual role of evolutionary biology is of fundamental importance. C.P. Snow some years ago deplored the chasm between the sciences and the humanities. For him, as a physicist, science meant the physical sciences; and they are indeed separated from the humanities by a deep gap. The dual structure of evolutionary biology makes it possible to bridge this gap. And this is one of the important roles played by evolutionary biology in our culture. But evolutionary biology is important also for another reason. The basic ideas developed in this field during the past 150 years are influencing all branches of scholarship. Concepts like evolutionary change (in contrast to a constant, static world), natural selection, and populational as opposed to essentialistic thinking, have entered all areas of human thinking. They are among the most unifying concepts in all the sciences. Natural selection, for instance, was shown by Eigen to be crucial even for the understanding of the pre-biotic origin of life. The consistent applications of population thinking and of the principle of natural selection are beginning to have a pronounced impact on philosophy.

The introduction of the concept of natural selection has radically changed the eternal controversy over chance or necessity, that goes back to Greek philosophy. Darwin showed that there is a third option which permits an escape from the weakness of an exclusive reliance on either chance or necessity. Natural selection is a two-step process. During the first step unlimited variation is produced, and this production of variation is largely governed by chance. But natural selection takes over as soon as a new individual is produced through the fertilization of an egg. Thereby it produces results that long were erroneously interpreted as results of an internal necessity. Philosophers right up to the present day, have not yet made full use of the wonderfully heuristic concept of natural selection.

I would like to emphasize a point, made also by previous recipients of the Balzan Prize, which is that I consider the prize as much a recognition of a particular area of scholarship as that of a person. The late Teodosius Dobzhansky coined the felicitous phrase that ‘nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’. Evolution is the most powerful organizing concept in the world of life. I want to express my deep appreciation to the General Prize Committee for having singled out the field of evolutionary zoology for the receipt of an award.

Finally, I would like to praise the Fondazione Balzan for the important contribution it is making to the cultural life of all the world. By ranking all areas of scholarship equally, from mathematics to physics to biology and the social sciences, and to areas of the humanities and the arts, it stresses the importance of cultivating all branches of human learning and of the human spirit, The future development of mankind will enormously benefit from this balanced viewpoint.

Balzan Prize Awards Ceremony 1983
Bern, Rathaus – 17 February 1984

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Fondazione Internazionale Premio Balzan