Archive for History of Exact Sciences

, Volume 66, Issue 4, pp 359–396

The analytic geometry of genetics: part I: the structure, function, and early evolution of Punnett squares


DOI: 10.1007/s00407-012-0096-7

Cite this article as:
Wimsatt, W.C. Arch. Hist. Exact Sci. (2012) 66: 359. doi:10.1007/s00407-012-0096-7


A square tabular array was introduced by R. C. Punnett in (1907) to visualize systematically and economically the combination of gametes to make genotypes according to Mendel’s theory. This mode of representation evolved and rapidly became standardized as the canonical way of representing like problems in genetics. Its advantages over other contemporary methods are discussed, as are ways in which it evolved to increase its power and efficiency, and responded to changing theoretical perspectives. It provided a natural visual decomposition of a complex problem into a number of inter-related stages. This explains its computational and conceptual power, for one could simply “read off” answers to a wide variety of questions simply from the “right” visual representation of the problem, and represent multiple problems, and multiple layers of problems in the same diagram. I relate it to prior work on the evolution of Weismann diagrams by Griesemer and Wimsatt (What Philosophy of Biology Is, Martinus-Nijhoff, the Hague, 1989), and discuss a crucial change in how it was interpreted that midwifed its success.

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy, Conceptual Foundations of Science, and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of ChicagoChicagoUSA