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Making genetic history – Jerry A. Coyne

BOOK REVIEWEDIn Pursuit of the Gene: From Darwin to DNA

by James Schwartz

Harvard University Press: 2008. 384 pp.

Fruitful collaborations were formed in Thomas Hunt Morgan’s fly genetics lab.

When I was a student, ‘doing genetics’ meant crossing two different strains or species. Now it means sequencing DNA, preferably human. Between these two poles lies the history of genetics, a pathway fraught with sharp turns, steep gradients and dead ends — and engagingly recounted in James Schwartz’s new book.

Despite its subtitle, In Pursuit of the Gene is not a comprehensive history of genetics, but focuses solely on classical genetics. Schwartz, a science writer, begins with Charles Darwin’s ill-fated ‘pangenesis’ theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and runs through the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s work on inherited traits. The story continues with the consolidation of Mendelism and chromosomal inheritance by Thomas Hunt Morgan and his students in the ‘Fly Room’ lab at New York’s Columbia University, where modern genetics began, and concludes in 1946 with Hermann Joseph Muller’s Nobel Prize in Medicine for inducing mutations with X-rays. Later history, from the discovery by Oswald Avery and colleagues that DNA was the ‘transforming principle’, to the Human Genome Project, is squeezed into a 12-page epilogue. Those seeking a history of molecular genetics should read Horace Freeland Judson’s magisterial The Eighth Day of Creation (Simon & Schuster, 1979).

Read more…

Here is the part that caught my attention:

The book’s apogee is its tale of the “Mendel Wars” around the beginning of the twentieth century, the struggle to bring together Mendel’s ideas on heredity and Darwin’s theory of evolution. On one side were the Mendelians, including Francis Galton, William Bateson and Charles Hurst, who accepted Mendelism but considered natural selection as ineffective, seeing evolution as occurring by ‘macromutations’, or single genetic changes of very large effect. On the other side stood the biometricians, most notably Karl Pearson and Raphael Weldon, who accepted the ubiquity of Darwinian selection but rejected Mendelian genetics. Given the strong egos involved and the fundamental nature of the science at stake, the battles Schwartz recounts were fierce. Friendships were destroyed, careers threatened. After a particularly contentious meeting about the genetics of horse coat colour at the Royal Society in London, Pearson hissed at Hurst, “You shall never be Fellow here as long as I live“.

I wonder if they also Expelled folks in those days…hmmmmm…. 

 

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9 Responses to Making genetic history – Jerry A. Coyne

  1. This post brought to mind academic intolerance toward ID that I witnessed six years ago at Hillsdale College. In November 2002, I took part in a symposium on ID at Hillsdale (go here for Jonathan Wells’ report). Frank Steiner, a professor of biology at Hillsdale and the school’s dean of sciences, had the last word. He made clear that ID would never be taught at Hillsdale as long as he was dean.

  2. It appears the Darwin Eugenics discussion has yet another naunce:

    If Galton was not a Darwinist (except by being a relative), then his push for Eugenics was not exactly based on Darwinism, at least not full blown Darwinism.

    neo-Darwinism has blurred everything. It merged the traditional Darwinists with their hated enemy the Mendalians….unfortunately for Mendel, because of neo-Darwinism, his ideas are now associated with Darwin, who had nothing to do with Mendel’s work.

    At the rate we’re going, we’ll have neo-Darwinsm which not only gives Darwin some credit for genetics, but also for Al Gore’s internet….

  3. 3

    Well that’s truely shocking Mario!

    Who would have thought that scientists (the very pinnacle of evolutionary progress) would allow ego to trump scientific objectivity?

    We must again acknowledge that there is ‘nothing new under the sun’ as there appears to be much evolution yet to be gained within the genetic predispositions of materialistic thinkers.

  4. What Jerry Coyne have to do with this?

  5. Morning spelling. I meant: “What does Jerry Coyne have to do with this?”

  6. OK, Jerry A. Coyne wrote the review. I’ll try and pay more attention next time.

  7. William Provine’s book, “The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics”, covers this tension, with its final development being Fisher, Haldane, etc.

  8. Thank you for the J. Wells piece, Bill.

    I especially liked this from (of all people) Niles Eldredge concerning the Cambrian explosion:

    “creationists love to call it an instant” the Cambrian explosion was preceded by the Ediacaran fossils and took 10 million years.”

    Right. The proper term is “punctuated.” :)

  9. So, is their any objective measurable pathway that Ediacara biota could evolve into biodiversity as we know it within 10 million years solely via RM/NS? Wonder what Lenski has to say LOL.

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