William Bateson

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William Bateson

William Bateson (8 August 1861 – 8 February 1926) was an English geneticist, most noted as the first person to use the term genetics to describe the study of heredity and biological inheritance, and the chief populariser of the ideas of Gregor Mendel following their rediscovery in 1900 by Hugo de Vries and Carl Correns.


  • Misconception was especially brought in by describing descent in terms of "blood". The common speech uses expressions such as consanguinity, pure-blooded, half-blood, and the like, which call up a misleading picture to the mind. Blood is in some respects a fluid, and thus it is supposed that this fluid can be both quantitatively and qualitatively diluted with other bloods, just as treacle can be diluted with water.
    • Australian Meeting of the British Association. Inaugural Address. August 20th, 1914.
  • Truer notions of genetic physiology are given by the Hebrew expression "seed". If we speak of a man as "of the blood-royal" we think at once of plebeian dilution, and we wonder how much of the royal fluid is likely to be "in his veins"; but if we say he is "of the seed of Abraham" we feel something of the permanence and indestructibility of that germ which can be divided and scattered among all nations, but remains recognisable in type and characteristics after 4000 years.
    • Australian Meeting of the British Association. Inaugural Address. August 20th, 1914.

Mendel's Principles of Heredity (1913)[edit]

  • It was in the attempt to ascertain the interrelationships between species that experiments n genetics were first made. The words "evolution" and "origin of species" are now so intimately associated with the name of Darwin that we are apt to forger that the idea of common descent had been prominent in the mnds of naturalists before he wrote, and that, for more than half a century, zealous investigators had been devoting themselves to the experimental study of that possibility. Prominent among this group of experimenters may be mentioned Koelreauter, John Hunter, Herbert Knight, Gartner, Jordan. Naudin, Godron, Lecoq, Wichura--men whose names are familiar to every reader of Animals and Plants unders Domestication.
    • Introductory Chapter, p. 2
  • I well remember receiving from one of the most earnest of my seniors the friendly warning that it was waste of time to study variation, for "Darwin had swept the field." Parenthetically we may notice that though scientific opinion in general became rapidly converted to the doctrine of pure selection, there was one remarkable exception. Systematists for the most part kept aloof. Everyone was convinced that natural selection operating in a continuously varying population was a sufficient account of the origin of species except the one class of scientific workers whose labours familiarised them with the phenomenon of specific difference. From that time the systematists became, as they still in great measure remain, a class apart.
    • Introductory Chapter, p. 3
  • If species had really arisen by the natural selection for impalpable differences, intermediate forms should abound, and the limits between species should be on the whole indefinite. As this conclusion follows necessarily from the premisses, the selectionists believe and declare that it represents the facts of nature. Difference between species being by axiom indefinite, the differences between varieties must be supposed to be still less definite. Consequently the conclusion that evolution must proceed by insensible transformation of masses of individuals has become an established dogma.
    • p. 3
  • Of the contributions made during the essayist period three call for notice: Weismann deserves mention for his useful work in asking for the proof that "acquired characters" or, to speak more precisely, parental experience can really be transmitted to the offspring. The ocurrence of progressive adaptation by transmission of effects of use had seemed so natural to Darwin and his contemporaries that no proof of the physiological reality of the henomenon was thought necessary. Weismann's challenge revealed the utter inadequacy of the evidence on which the beliefs were based. They are doubtless isolated observations which may be interpreted as favouring the belief in these transmissions, but such meagre indications as exist are by general consent admitted to be too slight to be of much assistance in the attempt to understand how the more complex adaptive mechanisms arose.
  • The concept of evolution as proceeding through the gradual transformation of masses of individuals by the accumulation of impalpable changes is one that the study of genetics shows immediately to be false. Once for all, that burden so gratuitously undertaken in ignorance of generic physiology by the evolutionists of the last century may be cast into oblivion. For the facts of heredity and variation unite to prove that genetic variation is a phenomenon of individuals.
    • Chapter XV, p. 289.
  • That the variations are controlled by physiological law, we have now experimental proof; but that this control is guided ever so little in response to the needs of adaptation there is not the smallest sign.
    • Chapter XV, p. 289.
  • In the light of the new knowledge various plausible, but frequently unsatisfying, suggestions put forward, especially by Wallace, Weismann, and their followers, as probable accounts of evolutionary progress, must be finally abandoned.
    • Chapter XV, p. 289.

Problems In Genetics (1913)[edit]

  • As systematic inquiry into the natural facts was begun it was at once found that the accepted ideas of variation were unfounded. Variation was seen very frequently to be a definite and specific phenomenon, affecting different forms of life in different ways, but in all its diversity showing manifold and often obvious indications of regularity. This observation was not in its essence novel. Several examples of definite variation had been well known to Darwin and others, but many, especially Darwin himself in his later years, had nevertheless been disposed to depreciate the significance of such facts. They consequently then lapsed into general disparagement. Upon more careful inquiry the abundance of such phenomena proved to be far greater than was currently supposed, and a discussion of their nature brought into prominence a consideration of greater weight, namely that the differences by which these definite or discontinuous variations are constituted again and again approximate to and are comparable with the class of differences by which species are distinguished from each other.
    • Preface
  • Few who are familiar with the facts that genetic research has revealed are now inclined to speculate as to the manner by which the process [species come into existence] has been accomplished. Our knowledge of the nature and properties of living things is far too meagre to justify any such attempts. Suggestions of course can be made: though, however, these ideas may have a stimulating value in the lecture room, they look weak and thin when set out in print.
    • Preface
  • In spite of Darwin's hopes, the acceptance of his views has led to no real improvement — scarcely indeed to any change at all in either the practice or aims of systematists. In a famous passage in the Origin he confidently declares that when his interpretation is generally adopted "Systematists will be able to pursue their labours as at present; but they will not be incessantly haunted by the shadowy doubt whether this or that form be a true species. This, I feel sure, and I speak after experience, will be no slight relief. The endless disputes whether or not some fifty species of British brambles are good species will cease." Those disputes nevertheless proceed almost exactly as before. It is true that biologists in general do not, as formerly, participate in these discussions because they have abandoned systematics altogether; but those who are engaged in the actual work of naming and cataloguing animals and plants usually debate the old questions in the old way. There is still the same divergence of opinion and of practice, some inclining to make much of small differences, others to neglect them. Not only does the work of the sytematists as a whole proceed as if Darwin had never written but their attitude towards these problems is but little changed.
    • p. 10
  • I am well aware that some very eminent systematists regard the whole problem as solved. They hold as Darwin did that specific diversity has no physiological foundation or causation apart from adaptation, and that species are impermanent groups, the delimitations of which are ultimately determined by environmental exigency or "fitness." The specific diversity of living things is thus regarded as being something quite different in nature from the specific diversity of inorganic substances. In practice those who share these opinions are, as might be anticipated, to be found among the 'lumpers' rather than among the 'splitters.' In their work, certainly, the Darwinian theory is actually followed as a guiding principle; unanalysed intergradations of all kinds are accepted as impugning the integrity of species; the underlying physiological problem is forgotten, and while the product is almost valueless as a contribution to biological research, I can scarcely suppose that it aids greatly in the advances of other branches of our science.
    • p. 12.
  • In Darwin's time no serious attempt had been made to examine the manifestations of variability. A vast assemblage of miscellaneous facts could formerly be adduced as seemingly comparable illustrations of the phenomenon "Variation." Time has shown this mass of evidence to be capable of analysis. When first promulgated it produced the impression that variability was a phenomenon generally distributed amongst living things in such a way that the specific divisions must be arbitrary. When this variability is sorted out, and is seen to be in part a result of hybridisation, in part a consequence of the persistence of hybrids by parthenogenetic reproduction, a polymorphism due to the continued presence of individuals representing various combinations of Mendelian allelomorphs, partly also the transient effect of alteration in external circumstances, we see how cautious we must be in drawing inferences as to the indefiniteness of specific limits from a bare knowledge that intermediates exist.
    • p. 15
  • Since the belief in transmission of acquired adaptations arose from preconception rather than from evidence, it is worth observing that, rightly considered, the probability should surely be the other way. For the adaptations relate to every variety of exigency. To supply themselves with food, to find it, to seize and digest it, to protect themselves from predatory enemies whether by offence or defence, to counter-balance the changes of temperature, or pressure, to provide for mechanical strains, to obtain immunity from poison and from invading organisms, to bring the sexual elements into contact, to ensure the distribution of the type; all these and many more are accomplished by organisms in a thousand most diverse and alternative methods. Those are the things that are hard to imagine as produced by any concatenation of natural events; but the suggestions that organisms had had from the beginning innate in them a power of modifying themselves, their organs and their instincts so as to meet these multifarious requirements does not materially differ from the more overt appeals to supernatural intervention. The conception, originally introduced by Hering and independently by S. Butler, that adaptation is a consequence or product of accumulated memory was of late revived by Semon and has been received with some approval, especially by F. Darwin. I see nothing fantastic in the notion that memory may be unconsciously preserved with the same continuity that the protoplasmic basis of life possesses. That idea, though purely speculative and, as yet, incapable of proof or disproof contains nothing which our experience of matter or of life at all refutes. On the contrary, we probably do well to retain the suggestion as a clue that may some day be of service. But if adaptation is to be the product of these accumulated experiences, they must in some way be translated into terms of physiological and structural change, a process frankly inconceivable.
    • p. 190
  • Memory is a mystery as deep as any that even psychology can propound. [Natural] Philosophers might perhaps encourage themselves to attack the problem of the nature of memory by reflecting that after all the process may in some of its aspects be comparable with that of inheritance, but the student of genetics, as long as he can keep in close touch with a profitable basis of material fact, will scarcely be tempted to look for inspiration in psychical analogies.
    • p. 191

Quotes about Bateson[edit]

  • More than one hundred years ago, William Bateson suggested that studying the regulation and timing of development was the key to understanding evolutionary change. He was right.

External links[edit]

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