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J Hist Biol. 2009 Fall;42(3):457-93.

Sources of Wilhelm Johannsen's genotype theory.

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Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas, University of Oslo, P.O. Box 1020, Blindern, 0315 Oslo, Norway.


This paper describes the historical background and early formation of Wilhelm Johannsen's distinction between genotype and phenotype. It is argued that contrary to a widely accepted interpretation (For instance, W. Provine, 1971. The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press; Mayr, 1973; F. B. Churchill, 1974. Journal of the History of Biology 7: 5-30; E. Mayr, 1982. The Growth of Biological Thought, Cambridge: Harvard University Press; J. Sapp, 2003. Genesis. The Evolution of Biology. New York: Oxford University Press) his concepts referred primarily to properties of individual organisms and not to statistical averages. Johannsen's concept of genotype was derived from the idea of species in the tradition of biological systematics from Linnaeus to de Vries: An individual belonged to a group - species, subspecies, elementary species - by representing a certain underlying type (S. Müller-Wille and V. Orel, 2007. Annals of Science 64: 171-215). Johannsen sharpened this idea theoretically in the light of recent biological discoveries, not least those of cytology. He tested and confirmed it experimentally combining the methods of biometry, as developed by Francis Galton, with the individual selection method and pedigree analysis, as developed for instance by Louis Vilmorin. The term "genotype" was introduced in W. Johannsen's 1909 (Elemente der Exakten Erblichkeitslehre. Jena: Gustav Fischer) treatise, but the idea of a stable underlying biological "type" distinct from observable properties was the core idea of his classical bean selection experiment published 6 years earlier (W. Johannsen, 1903. Ueber Erblichkeit in Populationen und reinen Linien. Eine Beitrag zur Beleuchtung schwebender Selektionsfragen, Jena: Gustav Fischer, pp. 58-59). The individual ontological foundation of population analysis was a self-evident presupposition in Johannsen's studies of heredity in populations from their start in the early 1890s till his death in 1927. The claim that there was a "substantial but cautious modification of Johannsen's phenotype-genotype distinction" (Churchill, 1974, p. 24) from a statistical to an individual ontological perspective derives from a misreading of the 1903 and 1909 texts. The immediate purpose of this paper is to correct this reading of the 1903 monograph by showing how its problems and results grow out of Johannsen's earlier work in heredity and plant breeding. Johannsen presented his famous selection experiment as the culmination of a line of criticism of orthodox Darwinism by William Bateson, Hugo de Vries, and others (Johannsen, 1903). They had argued that evolution is based on stepwise rather than continuous change in heredity. Johannsen's paradigmatic experiment showed how stepwise variation in heredity could be operationally distinguished from the observable, continuous morphological variation. To test Galton's law of partial regression, Johannsen deliberately chose pure lines of self-fertilizing plants, a pure line being the descendants in successive generations of one single individual. Such a population could be assumed to be highly homogeneous with respect to hereditary type, and Johannsen found that selection produced no change in this type. Galton, he explained, had experimented with populations composed of a number of stable hereditary types. The partial regression which Galton found was simply an effect of selection between types, increasing the proportion of some types at the expense of others.

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