Journal Article

Modelling Populations: Pearson and Fisher on Mendelism and Biometry

Margaret Morrison

in The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science

Published on behalf of British Society for the Philosophy of Science

Volume 53, issue 1, pages 39-68
Published in print March 2002 | ISSN: 0007-0882
Published online March 2002 | e-ISSN: 1464-3537 | DOI:
Modelling Populations: Pearson and Fisher on Mendelism and Biometry

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The debate between the Mendelians and the (largely Darwinian) biometricians has been referred to by R. A. Fisher as ‘one of the most needless controversies in the history of science’ and by David Hull as ‘an explicable embarrassment’. The literature on this topic consists mainly of explaining why the controversy occurred and what factors prevented it from being resolved. Regrettably, little or no mention is made of the issues that figured in its resolution. This paper deals with the latter topic and in doing so reorients the focus of the debate as one between Karl Pearson and R. A. Fisher rather than between the biometricians and the Mendelians. One reason for this reorientation is that Pearson's own work in 1904 and 1909 suggested that Mendelism and biometry could, to some extent, be made compatible, yet he remained steadfast in his rejection of Mendelism. The interesting question then is why Fisher, who was also a proponent of biometric methods, was able to synthesise the two traditions in a way that Pearson either could not or would not. My answer to this question involves an analysis of the ways in which different kinds of assumptions were used in modelling Mendelian populations. I argue that it is these assumptions, which lay behind the statistical techniques of Pearson and Fisher, that can be isolated as the source of Pearson's rejection of Mendelism and Fisher's success in the synthesis.

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Subjects: Philosophy of Science ; Science and Mathematics

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