CHARLES DARWIN (1809- 82)

1859 – England

‘All present day species have evolved from simpler forms of life through a process of natural selection’

Portrait of Charles Darwin ©

Organisms have changed over time and the ones living today are different from the ones that lived in the past. Furthermore, many organisms that once lived are now extinct.

The orthodox view was that of the Creationists. According to the Book of Genesis in the Bible, ‘God created every living creature that moves….’. Against this background, thinkers such as French naturalist Jean-Baptist Lamarck developed a picture of how species evolved from single-celled organisms.

Darwin’s breakthrough was to work out what evolution is and how it happens. His insight was to focus on individuals, not species and to show how individuals evolve by natural selection. The mechanism explained how all species evolved to become well suited to their environment. Later commentators have characterized this idea as ‘survival of the fittest,’ but this was never a phrase that Darwin himself used.

Darwin was influenced by CHARLES LYELL’s newly published book ‘Principles of Geology’, showing how landscapes had evolved gradually through long cycles of erosion and upheaval and by ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’ written in 1798 by THOMAS MALTHUS.

The publication of Darwin’s book ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’ in 1859 generated social and political debate that continues to this day. Darwin did not discuss the evolution of humans in this book.
In ‘The Descent of Man’, published in 1871, he presented his explanation of how his theory of evolution applied to the idea that humans evolved from apes. In modern form the theory contains the following ideas:

  • members of a species vary in form and behaviour and some of this variation has an inherited basis

  • every species produces far more offspring than the environment can support

  • some individuals are better adapted for survival in a given environment than others

this means that there are variations within each population gene pool and individuals with most favourable variations stand a better chance of survival – the survival of the fittest.

  • the favourable characteristics show up among more individuals of the next generation

there is thus a ‘natural selection’ for those individuals whose variations make them better adapted for survival and reproduction.

  • the natural selection of strains of organisms favours the evolution of new species, through better adaptation to their environment, as a consequence of genetic change or mutation.

Knowledge of DNA has enriched the theory of evolution. The modern view is still based on the Darwinian foundation; evolution through natural selection is opportunistic and it takes place steadily.

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GREGOR MENDEL (1822- 84)

1865 – Austria

  • ‘Law of Segregation: In sexually reproducing organisms, two units of heredity control each trait. Only one of such units can be represented in a single sexually reproductive cell’

  • ‘Law of Independent Assortment: Each of a pair of contrasted traits may be combined with either of another pair’

These laws laid the foundation for the science of genetics.

The biologist Lamarck (1744-1829) had proposed a theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics and had suggested that inherited characteristics are influenced by environment. Mendel planted an atypical variety of an oriental plant next to a typical variety – the offspring retained the essential traits of their parents, which meant that the characteristics that were inherited were not influenced by the environment. This simple test led Mendel to embark on the path that would lead to the discovery of the laws of heredity.

Mendel’s aim was to discover ” a generally applicable law of the formation and development of hybrids “. He addressed this by studying the effect of cross-breeding on seven pairs of contrasting characteristics of Pisum sativum, a strain of pea.
His work on peas indicated that features of the plant; seed shape, seed colour, pod shape, pod colour, flower colour, flower position and stem length; were passed on from one generation to the next by some physical element. He realised that each characteristic of a plant was inherited independently, and that the ratios of plants exhibiting each trait could be statistically predicted.

photograph of GREGOR MENDEL ©

GREGOR MENDEL

A common assumption in Mendel’s time was that when two alternative features were combined, an average of these features would occur. For example, a tall plant and a short one would result in medium height offspring. For seven years Mendel kept an exact record of the inherited characteristics of 28,000 pea plants, taking great pains to avoid accidental cross-fertilization; then he applied mathematics to the results. These quantitative data allowed him to see statistical patterns and ratios that had eluded his predecessors.

From his analysis he found that certain characteristics of plants are due to factors passed intact from generation to generation.
Mendel observed that individual plants of the first generation of hybrids (crossbred plants) usually showed the traits of only one parent. The crossing of yellow seeded plants with green seeded ones gave rise to yellow seeds; the crossing of tall stemmed ones with short-stemmed varieties gave rise to tall-stemmed plants.

The factors determining a trait are passed on to the offspring during reproduction.

Mendel worked out that the factors for each trait are grouped together in pairs and that the offspring receives one part of a pair from each parent.

Contrary to the popular belief of the time, these factors do not merge. Any individual pea always exhibits one trait or the other, never a mixture of the two possible expressions of the trait; only one trait from each pair of factors donated by the parents would be expressed in the offspring, although there are four possible combinations of factors.
This is now described as Mendel’s law of segregation.
An offspring inherits from its parents either one trait or the other, but not both.

He decided that some factors were ‘dominant’ and some were ‘recessive’ and was able to conclude that certain expressed traits, such as yellow seeds or tall stems, were the dominant ones and that other traits, such as shortness of stem and green seeds, were recessive. It appeared that the dominant factors consumed or destroyed the recessive factors – but this could not be the case, as the second generation of hybrids exhibited both the dominant and recessive traits of their ‘grandparents’. Across a series of generations of descendants, plants did not average out to a medium, but instead inherited the original features (for example, either tallness or shortness) in consistent proportions, a ratio of 3:1, according to the dominant factor.
The 3:1 ratio would apply because the dominant factor would feature whenever it was present.

He also noted that the different pairs of factors making up the characteristics of the pea plant ( such as the pair causing flower colour, the pair causing seed shape and so on ), when crossed, occurred in all possible mathematical combinations. This convinced him that the elements regulating the different features acted independently of each other, so the inheritance of one particular colour of flower was not influenced, for example, by the inheritance of pea shape.
This is now described as Mendel’s law of independent assortment.

He first articulated his results in 1865 and in 1866, which was shortly after Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ appeared, published them in an article ‘Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden’ (Experiments with plant hybrids).

No one before him had attempted to use mathematics and statistics as a means of understanding and predicting biological processes and during his lifetime and for some time after, his results were largely ignored.

Around the time of Mendel’s death, scientists using ever improving optics to study the minute architecture of cells coined the term ‘chromosome’ to describe the long, stringy bodies in the cell nucleus.

The seven traits studied in peas
TRAIT DOMINANT TRAIT RECESSIVE TRAIT
Type of seed surface smooth wrinkled
Colour of seed albumen yellow green
Colour of seed coat grey white
Form of ripe pod inflated constricted
Colour of unripe pod green yellow
Position of flowers on stem axial terminal
Length of stem tall short

‘There is doubt as to the probity of this Jesuit scholar, some claiming that his data was falsified whilst others argue that it is accurate’
Pilgrim, I. (1984) The Too-Good-to-be-True Paradox and Gregor Mendel. Journal of Heredity,#75, pp 501-2. Cited in Brake,M.L. & Hook, N. Different Engines – How science drives fiction and fiction drives science

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