While reading The Founders of Evolutionary Genetics I encountered a chapter where the late James F. Crow admitted that he had a new insight every time he reread R. A. Fisher’s The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. This prompted me to put down The Founders of Evolutionary Genetics after finishing Crow’s chapter and pick up my copy of The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. I’ve read it before, but this is as good a time as any to give it another crack.
Almost immediately Fisher aims at one of the major conundrums of 19th century theory of Darwinian evolution: how was variation maintained? The logic and conclusions strike you like a hammer. Charles Darwin and most of his contemporaries held to a blending model of inheritance, where offspring reflect a synthesis of their parental values. As it happens this aligns well with human intuition. Across their traits offspring are a synthesis of their parents. But blending presents a major problem for Darwin’s theory of adaptation via natural selection, because it erodes the variation which is the raw material upon which selection must act. It is a famously peculiar fact that the abstraction of the gene was formulated over 50 years before the concrete physical embodiment of the gene, DNA, was ascertained with any confidence. In the first chapter of The Genetical Theory R. A. Fisher suggests that the logical reality of persistent copious heritable variation all around us should have forced scholars to the inference that inheritance proceeded via particulate and discrete means, as these processes do not diminish variation indefinitely in the manner which is entailed by blending.
I flog R. A. Fisher’s The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection a fair amount on this site. You don’t need to understand everything in the book, nor do you have to agree with everything in it, but it is a great point of departure toward understanding evolutionary genetics. I’ve noted that you can get it free in PDF format. But if you want to browse it online in a easier format, here you go:
Long time readers are aware that one of my favorite books is R. A. Fisher’s The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. It’s a touch on the spendy side for a slim, though dense, book. But looking for stuff that’s public domain for my Kindle I noticed that you can get the 1930 version free. And it’s not just in Kindle formats, you can get it in PDF as well and read it on your computer. I think of TGTNG as somewhat like the Critique of Pure Reason of evolutionary genetics; even if your inclination is to rubbish it, it’s an importance place to begin.