Ideias antigas

Fósseis, árvores, minorias, filhos e outras coisas fora de moda

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Apenas uma relíquia do Plioceno...

quarta-feira, agosto 17, 2005

The importance of having Ernst

LIMPANDO MINHA CAIXA POSTAL, vi um e-mail do psicanalista e historiador da ciência Frank Sulloway contendo um trecho de carta enviada às filhas do zoólogo alemão Ernst Mayr por ocasião de sua morte, no começo do ano. Era algo fadado a ficar perdido, mas que eu acho que merece registro.

Ernst was, without doubt, the most important intellectual figure in my
life. He was my closest mentor and a towering model for anyone to try to live up
to.He was always remarkably generous with his time to younger scholars and
scientists. He was well known at the Museum of Comparative Zoology for his
open-door policy, which effectively invited people to drop in unannounced, so
that they could chat with Ernst about scientific matters.

Ernst dutify read and
commented on every paper that I ever gave him to read, supplying excellent
advice regarding corrections and revisions. He read my undergraduate thesis on
"Darwin and the Beagle Voyage" (1969), although he was not required to do so,
and he volunarily wrote a report about it for the History of Science Department,
which I was very flattered to be able to read later, because it was so positive
and thoughtful. Others were often surprised by the fact that Ernst would read
papers sent to him by mail, by people he did not even know, and he would supply
important comments and suggestions. Once I tried to thank Ernst for reading a
paper of mine, by presenting him with a bottle of cogniac. But Ernst would not
accept it, saying that it was a pleasure for him to read such manuscripts and
that I should drink the bottle myself. How he had time to read all these
manuscripts, and to write and proof read everything he published himself,
remains a mystery to me.

I first got to know Ernst in 1967, when I was just 20
years old and organizing the Harvard-Darwin film expedition to retrace Darwin´s
route in South America.Ernst agreed to be the chairman of my little film
advisory group, which I had assembled to give this project a semblance of
legitimacy. Thanks in part to Ernst´s name and prestige, I was able to raise
$25,000 for this film expedition--a considerable sum in those days. While in
South America for four months, doors opened at the very mention of Ernst´s name,
and local scientists eagerly offered their services as guides into the jungles
of Brazil, the pampas of Argentinia, the channels of Tierra del Fuego, and the
mountains of the Andes, in Chile. Because of my own association with Ernst,
people often thought I was a PHD, but I had yet to obtain even my bachelor´s

After I wrote a paper for Ernst´s graduate seminar in evolutionary
theory, in the fall of 1970, Ernst took me under his wing. He was very impressed
by this paper, which showed that Darwin had mistaken the various forms of
Darwin´s finches, in the Galapagos Islands, for the forms they mimic through
convergent evolution, and hence that Darwin had not been an evolutionist during
his visit to these islands. I showed that it was the case of the Galapagos
mockingbirds that finally converted Darwin to evolution, after his return to
England and a meeting, in March 1837, with ornithologist John Gould. (Gould, it
turned out, understood Darwin´s Galapagos birds much better than Darwin did.)

Ernst always dutifully cited me for these historical discoveries. By contrast,
Stephen Jay Gould, who cotaught this seminar with Ernst, later plagiarized my
discoveries in the "New York Review of Books." (When I reminded Gould that he
had taken these ideas from my 1970 paper in Ernst´s and his seminar, he did
apologize and later put in a reference to this source for his discussion in his
book "Ever Since Darwin.") After I took this seminar with Ernst, in 1970, Ernst
used to invite me to informal seminars at his house. I also used to drop by on
an occasional basis just to chat, since I lived nearby. Mostly Ernst brought me
up to date about his latest ideas, or talked about the things that interested
him, and I just listened. Many times, in subsequent years, Ernst brought up how
much he had enjoyed these conversations and how much he missed them. But I never
felt that I was contributing much, although I think I was rather good at knowing
just enough about whatever was being discussed to be able to make some comment
that allowed Ernst to expand to a new or related topic. In short, I was good at
keeping him talking (and I did enjoy these encounters). I also taught two
seminar courses with Ernst in the history of biology, in the early 1970s, and
this was a great learning experience for me.

I owe much of the success of my
career to Ernst and his unflagging support for me. In 1973 he nominated me for a
Junior Fellowship at Harvard, and when the Senior Fellows did not see things his
way, he nominated me again the next year. This time I got the fellowship, one of
the most prestigeous that a young scholar could possibly receive. Ernst was like
that--he did not take no for an answer when he believed strongly in something or
someone. Other letters of recommendation that he wrote for me were doubtless
largely responsible for my receiving subsequent fellowships.

There are so many
ways that Ernst´s intellectual style has influenced my own scholarship. His
thinking was so logical, his scholarship so meticuous, and his intellectual
sweep so impressive. In my own career, I always tried to live up to this stellar
example and to make Ernst proud of the fact that he had nurtured my scholarship
along and had supported me so generously with his time, recommendations, and
advice.Ernst´s influence on me continues as I write here in the Galapagos
Islands. I recently read a manuscript by scientist visiting these islands, who
works on Darwin´s finches. I thought the conclusions of the paper were basically
wrong because they violated Ernst´s fundamental ideas about the role of
geographical isolation in the emergence of new species. So I rewrote the
conclusion to the paper, showing that the interesting case, involving Geospiza
fuliginosa (the Small Ground Finch) that scientist had studied was actually
consistent with Ernst´s model of allopatric speciation, although the scientist´s
findings perhaps added a new wrinkle to that model. My corrections were entirely
accepted, and now I am a coauthor on the paper. But it is really to Ernst that I
owe such a basic understanding of the origin of species and hence my
coauthorship of this paper on Darwin´s finches.

I have heard Ernst say, several
times, how much his own career was enabled by luck, such as the wonderful
episode about seeing the pair of birds with a red bill in Germany, that had not
been seen in that region for nearly a century--and how this chance observation
led to his meeting Stresemann and his subsequent career in science. Well, the
greatest stroke of good fortune in my career was my meeting Ernst as a young
undergraduate in 1967, and the considerable interest he took, thereafter, in my
own career.