Ernst Mayr: Biologist-historian

Richard W. Burkhardt

Research output: Contribution to journalLetterpeer-review


Ernst Mayr's historical writings began in 1935 with his essay "Bernard Altum and the territory theory" and have continued up through his monumental Growth of Biological Thought (1982) and his One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought (1991). Sweeping in their scope, forceful in their interpretation, enlisted on behalf of the clarification of modern concepts and of a broad view of biology, these writings provide both insights and challenges for the historian of biology. Mayr's general intellectual formation was guided by the German Bildung ideal, with its emphasis on synthetic and comprehensive knowledge. His understanding of how to write history was inspired further by the example of the historian of ideas Arthur Lovejoy. Some strengths and limitations of this approach are explored here through attention to Mayr's treatment of the French biologist J.-B. Lamarck. It is contended that Mayr's contributions to the history of biology are not restricted to his own very substantial historical writings but also include his encouragement of other scholars, his development of an invaluable archive of scientific correspondence, and his insistence that historians who write about evolution and related subjects acquire an adequate understanding of the principles of Darwinian biology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)359-371
Number of pages13
JournalBiology & Philosophy
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 1994


  • Arthur Lovejoy
  • Bernard Altum
  • Bildung
  • Ernst Mayr
  • J.-B. Lamarck
  • history of biology
  • scientific practice
  • speciation
  • zoogeography

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • History and Philosophy of Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Ernst Mayr: Biologist-historian'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this