Of stirps and chromosomes: Generality through detail

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 94 (C):177-190 (2022)
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One claim found in the received historiography of the biometrical school (comprised primarily of Francis Galton, Karl Pearson, and W. F. R. Weldon) is that one of the biometricians' great flaws was their inability to look past their population-focused, statistical, gradualist understanding of evolutionary change – which led, in part, to their ignoring developments in cellular biology around 1900. I will argue, on the contrary, that the work of the biometricians was, from its earliest days, fundamentally concerned with connections between statistical patterns of inheritance and the underlying cellular features that gave rise to them. Such work remained current with contemporary knowledge of chromosomes, cytology, and development; in this article, I explore the first case. The biometricians were thus well positioned to understand the relationship between the patterns of Mendelian inheritance and the statistical distributions with which they primarily occupied themselves. Ignorance of this connection, then, is not the reason why they rejected Mendelism. Further, both Galton and Weldon – though each in their own unique way – decided to turn to biological detail as a way to better justify the generality of their statistical approaches to heredity. Perhaps paradoxically, then, for these biometricians, detail offered an approach to theoretical generality.

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Charles H. Pence
Université Catholique de Louvain

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