Early 20th-century research at the interfaces of genetics, development, and evolution: Reflections on progress and dead ends

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Three early 20th-century attempts at unifying separate areas of biology, in particular development, genetics, physiology, and evolution, are compared in regard to their success and fruitfulness for further research: Jacques Loeb's reductionist project of unifying approaches by physico-chemical explanations; Richard Goldschmidt's anti-reductionist attempts to unify by integration; and Sewall Wright's combination of reductionist research and vision of hierarchical genetic systems. Loeb's program, demanding that all aspects of biology, including evolution, be studied by the methods of the experimental sciences, proved highly successful and indispensible for higher level investigations, even though evolutionary change and properties of biological systems up to now cannot be fully explained on the molecular level alone. Goldschmidt has been appraised as pioneer of physiological and developmental genetics and of a new evolutionary synthesis which transcended neo-Darwinism. However, this study concludes that his anti-reductionist attempts to integrate genetics, development and evolution have to be regarded as failures or dead ends. His grand speculations were based on the one hand on concepts and experimental systems that were too vague in order to stimulate further research, and on the other on experiments which in their core parts turned out not to be reproducible. In contrast, Sewall Wright, apart from being one of the architects of the neo-Darwinian synthesis of the 1930s, opened up new paths of testable quantitative developmental genetic investigations. He placed his research within a framework of logical reasoning, which resulted in the farsighted speculation that examinations of biological systems should be related to the regulation of hierarchical genetic subsystems, possibly providing a mechanism for development and evolution. I argue that his suggestion of basing the study of systems on clearly defined properties of the components has proved superior to Goldschmidt's approach of studying systems as a whole, and that attempts to integrate different fields at a too early stage may prove futile or worse.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3-12
Number of pages10
JournalDevelopmental Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2011


  • Biological synthesis
  • Developmental genetics
  • Goldschmidt
  • Loeb
  • Reductionist research
  • Wright

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Biology
  • Developmental Biology
  • Cell Biology


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