Posted by: Dan | July 23, 2006

Fisher-Wright Controversy at H&P of Biology

On his History and Philosophy of Biology, etc. blog, Robert Skipper has a long post on the Fisher-Wright Controversy, trying to expand upon Will Provine’s thoughts some 20 years ago. Skipper offers a thoroughly interesting h&p of biology lesson, that honestly, I was unaware of, and for that purpose alone I’m recommending it to others interested in evolution, biology and the philosophy of science. (HT: Gene Expression)

The facts that Cornell’s own Will Provine plays a role in the tale, and that it
demonstrates how real debates in science occur, only helps.

R. A. Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane, and Sewall Wright are the architects of theoretical population genetics. Between 1918 and 1932, these three theorists ushered in the field and set the stage for the period of the history of evolutionary biology usually called the “evolutionary synthesis.” It’s well known that from 1929 until Fisher’s death in 1962 that Fisher and Wright were engaged in a sometimes heated controversy over their alternative qualitative interpretations of their quantitative models. In 1985, Will Provine published “The R. A. Fisher—Sewall Wright Controversy” in Oxford Surveys of Evolutionary Biology (Provine 1985). In that paper, Provine discusses three key disputes between Fisher and Wright: (1) evolution of dominance, (2) their general evolutionary theories, and (3) evolution of the Scarlet Tiger Moth, Panaxia dominula. Now, Provine’s biography of Wright published in 1986 is a fuller treatment of the controversy (Provine 1986). However, I’m in the process of writing, basically, a new version of Provine’s paper in which I revisit each of the debates of his 1985 essay. In this post, I look at Fisher’s and Wright’s dispute over genetic dominance.


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