History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences

, Volume 38, Issue 1, pp 138–150 | Cite as

Ernst Mayr’s interactions with J. B. S. Haldane

  • Veena Rao
  • Vidyanand Nanjundiah
Notes and Comments


Ernst Mayr and J. B. S. Haldane, major contributors to the ‘modern synthesis’ in evolutionary theory, set an example of how scientific disagreements need not come in the way of friendship. After getting acquainted, they kept discussing issues related to evolution until just before Haldane’s death in 1964. Their dissimilar backgrounds meant that they adopted different approaches. A major disagreement emerged regarding the right way to look at the role of genes in evolution. Mayr felt that the elementary models of population genetics were oversimplifications and therefore inadequate for representing evolutionary processes, though he was not consistent in his attitude. Haldane, on the other hand, maintained that the mathematical treatment of simple models had an important role to play. The Mayr-Haldane interactions illustrate divergent viewpoints concerning the utility of mathematics in biology.


Population genetics Beanbag dispute Evolution Mathematical models 



VR thanks Ernst Mayr for graciously agreeing to provide his recollections of Haldane, and for interceding with the Harvard University Archives, Pusey Library, for permission to publish archival material. This contribution forms part of the research project titled ‘J. B. S. Haldane’s Indian Period’, supported by the Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.National Institute of Advanced StudiesBangaloreIndia
  2. 2.Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS)Wallenberg Research Centre at Stellenbosch UniversityStellenboschSouth Africa
  3. 3.Centre for Human GeneticsBangaloreIndia

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