International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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MONDAY, JULY 6  /  15:30 - 17:00  /  DS-M320
Organized session / standard talks
Topics in the history of genetics: Mendel and experimental evolution

Yafeng Shan (University College London, United Kingdom)

This session aims to reexamine the history of the origin of genetics, especially Gregor Mendel from philosophical, historical, and sociological perspectives.

Entwicklung or Vererbung? A new analysis of Mendel's Versuche

Yafeng Shan (University College London, United Kingdom)

The traditional understanding of Mendel's contribution as the discovery of the laws of heredity was seriously challenged in the late 1970s. Some (for example, Callender, 1988; Olby, 1979) develop the revisionist interpretation by postulating that Mendel's real concern is about the genesis of new species by hybridisation. Recently Müller-Wille and Orel (2007) tried to reconciliate the two views by arguing that though Mendel's story is oversimplified by the traditional interpretation, it is right to maintain that Mendel's work is about inheritance. However, the debate goes murky especially when Mendel’s contribution is not explicitly distinguished from what Mendel’s objective is, and what was Mendel’s understanding of his own work. I revisit Mendel’s work on Pisum by focusing on three questions: What is Mendel’s real concern in his paper Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden (1866)? What did Mendel believe that he achieved in the paper? Can Mendel’s paper be understood as a study on heredity? And my answers are 1. Mendel’s real concern in his paper is not about heredity. Rather, under Gärtner’s influence, it is about development of hybrids in their progeny. 2. Mendel himself well confirmed in the 1866 paper and his correspondence with Nägeli that his key contribution is to discover the laws of development of hybrids. 3. Mendel’s work on Pisum cannot be understood as a study on heredity, no matter how heredity is interpreted.

The great train crash of 1866

Michael Buttolph (University College London, United Kingdom)

It is a fundamental objective of science to disseminate new work, so that it can be evaluated and used in later work. Mendel’s paper on pea hybrids was published in 1866 but there was no significant discussion of this work until 1900. This can be explained if Mendel (1866) did not disclose anything that was of great value to science when it was published, in which case the system of science succeeded in adequately disseminating and evaluating Mendel’s ideas (whether or not Mendel’s ideas assumed a new significance in the changed intellectual climate of 1900). On the other hand, if at any time before 1900 a more widespread knowledge the work would have been beneficial for science, then it should have been accorded greater and earlier recognition. In that case the ‘long neglect’ of Mendel (1866) was a failure of the system of science; being both unintended and undesired, it can be seen as an accident. Since 1900, there have been many suggestions as to the ‘cause’ of this accident – obscurity of publication, mathematical analysis unfamiliar to botanists of the time, inconsistency with the ideas of Darwin, and so on. Generally each author contends for a single cause; but it is a basic tenet of modern accident theory that significant accidents have multiple causes. Here each candidate ‘cause’ is not considered as an explanation which could be sufficient in itself to explain what happened; instead each is regarded as one of many factors that made a greater or lesser contribution to the ‘long neglect’. These many factors and their interrelations are mapped to produce a logical representation which sheds light on the immediate reception of Mendel (1866), and also provides new insights into the disputes about mendelism after 1900.

Purposes and implications of early experimental evolution

Kele Cable (University of Minnesota, United States)

With the experimental turn in biology at the turn of 19th/20th centuries, especially in the science of heredity, even evolutionary biology was folded into the experimental program. Scientists brought various organisms under their control in order to enact directed changes in domesticated animals and crops in addition to an array of laboratory-based experimental organisms. This creation – “experimental evolution” – replaced nature with humans, not only as the agent(s) of natural selection, but as the agent(s) that creates variation, controls genetics/heredity, and modifies the environment, with the purpose of developing not only an understanding of evolution, but also methods to control the process that underwrites life itself, so that humans could evolve organisms according to their own desires. My paper will focus on the issue of agency in experimental evolution. especially within the context of the work of various evolutionists and geneticists, such as Darwin and Mendel, Hugo de Vries, Charles Davenport, T.H. Morgan, and William Castle. I will discuss what they considered the purposes of experimental evolution to be and what wider implications they thought their work held, for both science and society.