Thomas Hunt Morgan - Morgan and Evolution

Morgan and Evolution

Morgan was interested in evolution throughout his life. He wrote his thesis on the phylogeny of sea spiders (pycnogonids) and wrote four books about evolution. In Evolution and Adaptation (1903), he argued the anti-Darwinist position that selection could never produce wholly new species by acting on slight individual differences. He rejected Darwin's theory of sexual selection and the Neo-Lamarckian theory of the inheritance of acquired characters. Morgan was not the only scientist attacking natural selection. The period 1875 - 1925 has been called 'The eclipse of Darwinism'. After discovering many small stable heritable mutations in Drosophila, Morgan gradually changed his mind. The relevance of mutations for evolution is that only characters that are inherited can have an effect in evolution. Since Morgan (1915) 'solved the problem of heredity', he was in a unique position to examine critically Darwin's theory of natural selection.

In A Critique of the Theory of Evolution (1916), Morgan discussed questions such as: "Does selection play any role in evolution? How can selection produce anything new? Is selection no more than the elimination of the unfit? Is selection a creative force?" After eliminating some misunderstandings and explaining in detail the new science of Mendelian heredity and its chromosomal basis, Morgan concludes, "the evidence shows clearly that the characters of wild animals and plants, as well as those of domesticated races, are inherited both in the wild and in domesticated forms according to the Mendel's Law". "Evolution has taken place by the incorporation into the race of those mutations that are beneficial to the life and reproduction of the organism". Injurious mutations have practically no chance of becoming established. Far from rejecting evolution, as the title of his 1916 book may suggest, Morgan laid the foundation of the science of genetics. He also laid the theoretical foundation for the mechanism of evolution: natural selection. Heredity was a central plank of Darwin's theory of natural selection, but Darwin could not provide a working theory of heredity. Darwinism could not progress without a correct theory of genetics. By creating that foundation, Morgan contributed to the neo-Darwinian synthesis, despite his criticism of Darwin at the beginning of his career. Much work on the Evolutionary Synthesis remained to be done.

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