When did population genetics emerge?

By Razib Khan | October 6, 2011 12:49 pm

I recently heard an eminent geneticist declare that population genetics began with Theodosius Dobzhansky’s Genetics and the Origin of Species in 1937. My immediate reflex was to be skeptical of this, at least going by Will Provine’s treatment in The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics, which seemed to push back the timing to the 1920s.

So I looked up “population genetics” in Ngram viewer.


These results are not consistent with my expectations. Looks like my intuition was wrong. At least for the term population genetics. Score one for experience and wisdom.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Population Genetics
  • Nameless_

    Dobzhansky crystallized the emerging discipline and brought it into spotlight in his text, but his work (in this aspect, anyway) was more synthetic than innovative.

    He was preceded by one other similar book (“The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection” by Fisher, 1930) and a series of papers by Fisher, Haldane and Wright going back to the early 20’s.

    The big puzzle for me is why Fisher’s book was mostly overlooked but Dobzhansky’s book became such a major hit.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    The big puzzle for me is why Fisher’s book was mostly overlooked but Dobzhansky’s book became such a major hit.

    fisher’s book is harder read. a particular problem for biologists at the time who were weak on quantitative skills. see: r. a. fisher: life of a scientist. people like dobzhansky and mayr servered to channel fisher and wright’s views to their more experimental/observational colleagues.

  • Charles Nydorf

    The ideas go back a long ways. Hardy and Weinberg both published versions of their theorem in 1908. Karl Pearson had been thinking along the same lines somewhat earlier.

  • ihateaphids

    I agree, Provine’s book clearly suggests the wheels were in motion earlier. Yes, perhaps the phrase did not become popular until the 30-40’s, but the field itself was in development by the first two decades

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #4, yeah. the field may have crystallized in a formative sense well before the term. this was true of genetics.

  • http://www.propithecus-verreauxi.com rich lawler

    Population genetics as a field didn’t begin with Dobzhansky in my mind, but I believe he was the first to use the phrase “population genetics” in his 1937 book (page 11-12). One could make a case, however, that “ecological genetics” (the field, not the phrase) began with Dobzhansky…

  • ben g

    The first population genetics paper was Hardy-Weinberg in 1908. Whether or not the field had a name, that’s where it started.

  • Henry Harpending

    With all appropriate deference to Darwin, I teach that the beginning of modern evolutionary biology, a superset of population genetics, begain with Fisher’s 1918 paper On the Correlation Between Relatives Under the Supposition of Mendelian Inheritance. Thinking I must be somewhere in left field, I mentioned my viewpoint once to Mike Rose. He immediately agreeed.


  • Charles Nydorf

    Upon reflection, the crucial breakthrough came from reinterpreting evolutionary theory in population genetics terms. Chetvirikov and Haldane were the pioneers in this new interpretation. Fisher and Wright carried out the program.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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