Hybrids, pure cultures, and pure lines: from nineteenth-century biology to twentieth-century genetics

Staffan Müller-Wille
Universität Zu Lübeck
Prompted by recent recognitions of the omnipresence of horizontal gene transfer among microbial species and the associated emphasis on exchange, rather than isolation, as the driving force of evolution, this essay will reflect on hybridization as one of the central concerns of nineteenth-century biology. I will argue that an emphasis on horizontal exchange was already endorsed by ‘biology’ when it came into being around 1800 and was brought to full fruition with the emergence of genetics in 1900. The true revolution in nineteenth-century life sciences, I maintain, consisted in a fundamental shift in ontology, which eroded the boundaries between individual and species, and allowed biologists to move up and down the scale of organic complexity. Life became a property extending both ‘downwards’, to the parts that organisms were composed of, as well as ‘upwards’, to the collective entities constituted by the relations of exchange and interaction that organisms engage in to reproduce. This mode of thinking was crystallized by Gregor Mendel and consolidated in the late nineteenth-century conjunction of biochemistry, microbiology and breeding in agro-industrial settings. This conjunction and its implications are especially exemplified by Wilhelm Johannsen’s and Martinus Beijerinck’s work on pure lines and cultures. An understanding of the subsequent constraints imposed by the evolutionary synthesis of the twentieth century on models of genetic systems may require us to rethink the history of biology and displace Darwin’s theory of natural selection from that history’s centre
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DOI 10.1016/j.shpsc.2007.09.012
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References found in this work BETA

Mendel No Mendelian?Robert Olby - 1979 - History of Science 17 (1):53-72.
Early Mendelism and the Subversion of Taxonomy: Epistemological Obstacles as Institutions.Staffan Müller-Wille - 2005 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C 36 (3):465-487.

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Citations of this work BETA

The ‘Big Picture’: The Problem of Extrapolation in Basic Research.Tudor M. Baetu - 2016 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 67 (4):941-964.
Sources of Wilhelm Johannsen's Genotype Theory.Nils Roll-Hansen - 2009 - Journal of the History of Biology 42 (3):457-493.
Models and the Mosaic of Scientific Knowledge. The Case of Immunology.Tudor M. Baetu - 2014 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C 45 (1):49-56.
Chance, Experimental Reproducibility, and Mechanistic Regularity.Tudor M. Baetu - 2013 - International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 27 (3):253-271.

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