Biology without Mendelism?

4 November 2016

Gregory Radick
Department of Philosophy
University of Leeds


It's well known that the early years of the 20th century saw lively — and in Britain, ferocious — debate over Gregor Mendel's 1866 paper on hybrid peas. On the one side were the "Mendelians," led by the Cambridge biologist William Bateson, who regarded Mendel's methods and concepts as having established a powerfully promising new science of inheritance. On the other side were the "biometricians," led by the Oxford biologist W. F. R. Weldon, who, though impressed in a limited way with Mendel's achievement, regarded emerging Mendelism — and especially its indifference to heredity-environment interactions, and to the variability those interactions bring about — as a backwards step for biology. The Mendelians, of course, won the argument. Today, 150 years after the publication of Mendel's paper, in the age of genomics, epigenetics and systems biology, Mendel's pea experiments remain a standard starting point for instruction about inheritance. But why, exactly, did the Mendelians win? Could things have worked out differently? What if, after 1900, biology had developed in a Weldonian direction instead? Drawing on new archival research as well as on a recent experimental study looking at how Mendelian versus Weldonian curricula in genetics affected student attitudes towards genetic determinism, this talk will offer some preliminary answers.

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