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Mendel and the Path to Genetics: Portraying Science as a Social Process

Abstract

Textbook descriptions of the foundations of Genetics give the impression that besides Mendel’s no other research on heredity took place during the nineteenth century. However, the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859, and the criticism that it received, placed the study of heredity at the centre of biological thought. Consequently, Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin himself, Francis Galton, William Keith Brooks, Carl von Nägeli, August Weismann, and Hugo de Vries attempted to develop theories of heredity under an evolutionary perspective, and they were all influenced by each other in various ways. Nonetheless, only Nägeli became aware of Mendel’s experimental work; it has also been questioned whether Mendel even had the intention to develop a theory of heredity. In this article, a short presentation of these theories is made, based on the original writings. The major aim of this article is to suggest that Mendel was definitely not the only one studying heredity before 1900, if he even did this, as may be inferred by textbooks. Although his work had a major impact after 1900, it had no impact during the latter half of the nineteenth century when an active community of students of heredity emerged. Thus, textbooks should not only present the work of Mendel, but also provide a wider view of the actual history and a depiction of science as a social process.

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Notes

  1. Bateson’s book Mendel's Principles of Heredity: A Defence (1902) contains the first English translation of Mendel’s original paper Versuche über Plfanzen-Hybriden (Experiments in Plant Hybridisation, pp. 40–95). The translation was made by the Royal Horticultural Society, and was reprinted in Bateson’s book with modifications and corrections. The original paper was published in the Verhandlungen des naturforschenden Vereines in Brünn, Bd. IV für das Jahr 1865, Abhandlungen, 3–47, which appeared in 1866. Mendel’s paper was read at the meetings of the Brno Natural Science Society on February 8th and March 8th 1865.

  2. Olby’s book on the Origins of Mendelism was published in 1966. In 1985, a second considerably revised and expanded edition was published, that includes Olby’s (1979) paper and takes into account historical scholarship since 1966.

  3. I thank Richard Burian for his suggestion to put emphasis on the distinction between Mendel’s impact before 1900 and Mendel’s impact after 1900.

  4. Some recent biographies of Mendel are Orel (1996) and Henig (2000). There also exists a book by Orel (2003), but it is written in Czech. Although I owe a copy, I was unable to read it. To the best of my knowledge it has not been translated in English.

  5. It should be noted that in his paper Mendel does not refer to a first (F1) and second (F2) generation produced by the initial crosses, but to the hybrids and to the first generation bred from the hybrids, respectively.

  6. Some other questions have been raised as well, most importantly whether Mendel’s results were too good to be true. The controversy that started with an article by R. A. Fisher (1936) will not be dealt with here. However, it should be noted that this has been the subject of a recent book (Franklin et al. 2008).

  7. It should be noted that this is a Lamarckian spin on creating variation. Although it is Lamarck’s name that has been associated with the origin of variation due to changing responses to the environment and with the inheritance of acquired traits, Darwin accepted such ideas as well (see Kampourakis and Zogza 2007).

  8. This is one striking coincidence with Mendel’s life. Galton’s first paper on heredity was published in the same year that Mendel presented his own famous paper. The other coincidence is that they were both born in 1822.

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Acknowledgments

I thank Richard Burian for making several very valuable suggestions on an earlier version of this article and to four diligent reviewers for their comments on the revised manuscript.

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Kampourakis, K. Mendel and the Path to Genetics: Portraying Science as a Social Process. Sci & Educ 22, 293–324 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-010-9323-2

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Keywords

  • Dominant Character
  • Independent Assortment
  • Recessive Character
  • Physiological Unit
  • Hereditary Character