BOOK REVIEWED–In 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).
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….