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Why didn't Darwin discover Mendel's laws?
Published: Friday, February 27, 2009 - 09:28 in Paleontology & Archaeology 
Learn more about: evolution darwin gregor mendel 
Mendel solved the logic
of inheritance in his monastery garden with no more technology than
Darwin had in his garden at Down House. So why couldn't Darwin have
done it too? A Journal of Biology article argues that Darwin's
background, influences and research focus gave him a viewpoint that
prevented him from interpreting the evidence that was all around him,
even in his own work. Darwin's commitment to quantitative variation as
the raw material of evolution meant he could not see the logic of
inheritance, argues Jonathan Howard of the University of Cologne,
"Quantitative variation was at the heart of Darwin's evolution, and
quantitative variation is the last place where clean Mendelian
inheritance can be seen," says Howard. "Darwin boxed himself in, unable
to see the laws of inheritance in continuous variation, unable to see
the real importance of discontinuous variation where the laws of
inheritance could be discerned."
Moravian priest and scientist Gregor Mendel (1822 - 1884) studied
clear-cut, inherited traits in pea plants, which he grew in the
monastery gardens in Brno. Mendel showed that trait inheritance follow
simple laws, which were later named after him. Mendel's work was
rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century, and laid the
foundations for genetics. Mendel had a good understanding of biology,
but his understanding of physics, statistics and probability theory
were far superior to Darwin's. 
Darwin's view of biology was greatly influenced by geologist Charles
Lyell during and after the 1831-1836 Beagle voyage, leading to Darwin's
focus on infinitely tiny differences between individuals giving
infinitesimal advantages or disadvantages in survival. For Darwin,
selection of these variants over hundreds of thousands of generations
was the critical process in evolution.
Darwin's book The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same
Species details breeding experiments involving a well-defined "unit"
character, yielding clear data interpretable as 'Mendelian' ratios. But
these went unremarked by Darwin, who insisted, because of his belief
that only quantitative variation contributed to evolution, that the
rules of inheritance were too complex and not ready for definitive
Heredity and variation played central roles in Darwin's development
of the theory of evolution by natural selection. His view that
variation is caused by random, quasi-physical events outside
environmental control, is much as we believe today. But he never freed
himself from the incorrect belief that environmentally determined
changes could also be inherited, another victim of his focus on
quantitative characters, height, weight and so on, which are strongly
influenced by environmental effects.
This year marks the bicentennial of Darwin's birthday, and 150 years since his 
book "The Origin of Species" was first published.
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