Modelling populations: Pearson and Fisher on mendelism and biometry

The debate between the Mendelians and the (largely Darwinian) biometricians has been referred to by R. A. Fisher as ‘one of the most needless controversies in the history of science’ and by David Hull as ‘an explicable embarrassment’. The literature on this topic consists mainly of explaining why the controversy occurred and what factors prevented it from being resolved. Regrettably, little or no mention is made of the issues that figured in its resolution. This paper deals with the latter topic and in doing so reorients the focus of the debate as one between Karl Pearson and R. A. Fisher rather than between the biometricians and the Mendelians. One reason for this reorientation is that Pearson's own work in 1904 and 1909 suggested that Mendelism and biometry could, to some extent, be made compatible, yet he remained steadfast in his rejection of Mendelism. The interesting question then is why Fisher, who was also a proponent of biometric methods, was able to synthesise the two traditions in a way that Pearson either could not or would not. My answer to this question involves an analysis of the ways in which different kinds of assumptions were used in modelling Mendelian populations. I argue that it is these assumptions, which lay behind the statistical techniques of Pearson and Fisher, that can be isolated as the source of Pearson's rejection of Mendelism and Fisher's success in the synthesis.
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DOI 10.1093/bjps/53.1.39
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Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther, Ryan Giordano, Michael D. Edge & Rasmus Nielsen (2015). The Mind, the Lab, and the Field: Three Kinds of Populations in Scientific Practice. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 52:12-21.
Charles H. Pence (2015). The Early History of Chance in Evolution. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 50:48-58.
Denis M. Walsh (2013). Descriptions and Models: Some Responses to Abrams. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 44 (3):302-308.
Charles H. Pence (2011). “Describing Our Whole Experience”: The Statistical Philosophies of W. F. R. Weldon and Karl Pearson. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 42 (4):475-485.

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