Systems Thinking Versus Population Thinking: Genotype Integration and Chromosomal Organization 1930s–1950s

Ehud Lamm*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article describes how empirical discoveries in the 1930s–1950s regarding population variation for chromosomal inversions affected Theodosius Dobzhansky and Richard Goldschmidt. A significant fraction of the empirical work I discuss was done by Dobzhansky and his coworkers; Goldschmidt was an astute interpreter, with strong and unusual commitments. I argue that both belong to a mechanistic tradition in genetics, concerned with the effects of chromosomal organization and systems on the inheritance patterns of species. Their different trajectories illustrate how scientists’ commitments affect how they interpret new evidence and adjust to it. Dobzhansky was moved to revised views about selection, while Goldschmidt moved his attention to different genetic phenomena. However different, there are significant connections between the two that enrich our understanding of their views. I focus on two: the role of developmental considerations in Dobzhansky’s thought and the role of neutrality and drift in Goldschmidt’s evolutionary account. Dobzhansky’s struggle with chromosomal variation is not solely about competing schools of thought within the selectionist camp, as insightfully articulated by John Beatty, but also a story of competition between selectionist thinking and developmental perspectives. In contraposition, Goldschmidt emphasized the role of low penetrance mutations that spread neutrally and pointed out that drift could result from developmental canalization. This account adds to the dominant story about Goldschmidt’s resistance to the splitting of development from genetics, as told by Garland Allen and Michael Dietrich. The story I tell illustrates how developmental thinking and genetic thinking conflicted and influenced researchers with different convictions about the significance of chromosomal organization.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)641-677
Number of pages37
JournalJournal of the History of Biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1 Nov 2015


  • Chromosomal inversions
  • Coadaptation
  • Evolution of Genetic Systems
  • Heterosis
  • Levels of selection
  • Neutral evolution
  • Systemic mutations


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