Sunday, 8 December 2013

Lewontin (1974) on population genetic theory

Here's a nice metaphor for the theory of population genetics by Richard Lewontin (1974. The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change, Columbia University Press, New York, p. 189):

“For many years population genetics was an immensely rich and powerful theory with virtually no suitable facts on which to operate. It was like a complex and exquisite machine, designed to process a raw material that no one had succeeded in mining. Occasionally some unusually clever or lucky prospector would come upon a natural outcrop of high-grade ore, and part of the machinery would be started up to prove to its backers that it really would work. But for the most part the machine was left to the engineers, forever tinkering, forever making improvements, in anticipation of the day when it would be called upon to carry out full production.
     Quite suddenly the situation has changed. The mother-lode has been tapped and facts in profusion have been poured into the hoppers of this theory machine. And from the other end has issued–nothing. It is not that the machine does not work, for a great clashing of gears is clearly audible, if not deafening, but it somehow cannot transform into a finished product the great volume of raw material that has been provided.”