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Conrad Hal Waddington

(1905—1975) geneticist and embryologist


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(1905–1975)

British geneticist who proposed the theory of genetic assimilation to account for cases in which apparently acquired characteristics are brought under some degree of genetic control. He was awarded the CBE in 1958.

Waddington studied geology at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, receiving his degree in 1926. He was later appointed lecturer in zoology and embryology at Strangeways Laboratory, Cambridge (1933–45), and in 1947 moved to Edinburgh University as professor of animal genetics. His early research in embryology led to his interest in the relationship between development and genetics. Waddington recognized how the development of organisms follows a well-defined course in spite of variations in conditions, i e development is canalized. In explaining his concept of genetic assimilation, introduced in 1942, he cited the example of calluses on the rumps of ostriches. These first developed not by mutation but as a result of abrasion by the ground. Waddington suggested that selection over a long period stabilized the shape and size of the calluses and eventually this canalized development came to be triggered by a gene mutation, thereby ensuring the spread of the mutation throughout the population. He also performed experiments with fruit flies (Drosophila), which he claimed demonstrated this phenomenon occurring, but these have been criticized as merely instances of artificial selection and genetic fixation of hitherto undisclosed degenerative characters.

Much concerned with the impact of science on society and the conservation of global resources, Waddington was a founder member of the Pugwash Conference and the Club of Rome. His books include Introduction to Modern Genetics (1939), Principles of Embryology (1956), The Ethical Animal (1960), and a discussion of the influence of science on modern art, Behind Appearances (1970). Waddington became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1947.

Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).


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