The reprinting of this classic book provides students with one of the few authoritative, analytical works dealing with the early history of genetics. Those of us who had the privilege of knowing and working with Sturtevant benefited greatly from hearing first-hand his accounts of that history as he knew it and, in many instances, experienced it. Fortunately, Sturtevant put it all together in this book.

In his preface to the book, Sturtevant lists the persons that he knew personally and who were major players in the field, in addition to those who occupied the famous fly room (Chapter 7) at Columbia University. As a result, much of the history is based on first-hand contacts as well as on a scholarly and critical review of the literature of genetics and cytology.

Sturtevant was clearly present at the creation of modern genetics, if dated from 1910 when Morgan commenced work on Drosophila. Of Morganís three students - Sturtevant, Bridges, and Muller - Sturtevant was ideally suited to write the history because of his remarkable memory, his knowledge of almost all aspects of biology, and a keen analytical ability that extended not only to his experimental work, but also to tracing the history of the underlying ideas.

Sturtevant was a gifted writer and also an authority on many of the subjects he covers. While he was a sophomore in college, he deduced the linear order of the genes. Later, he postulated the existence of inversions and duplications before they were verified cytologically. Sturtevant was especially interested in how genes produce their effects and, consequently, was the father of a field now called developmental genetics. In this area, his style was to analyze exceptions to the rule. In so doing, he identified the phenomenon of position effect, in which the position of a gene (that of the Bar, and double-Bar, eye mutations) can be shown to affect its function. He identified the first clear case of a non- autonomously expressed gene, vermilion, mutants of which produce a vermilion, instead of the normal red, eye color. This was an important exception to the rule that sex-linked mutants behaved autonomously in gynandromorphs. How this led to the field of biochemical genetics is explained in Chapter 16.

In the tradition of such biologists as Darwin, Galton, and Bateson and of many of the early Mendelians, Sturtevant was an ardent evolutionist. He had a seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of embryology, anatomy, morphology, and taxonomy that served him well in treating evolutionary concepts historically, as described in Chapter 17. It is a wide-ranging chapter that covers many topics, including the development of population genetics, the role of gene mutations in evolution, and, prophetically, the conservation of biochemical pathways in major groups from bacteria to vertebrates. His own experimental work, typically only briefly referred to, included his work on interracial and interspecific hybrids in the genus Drosophila, and the demonstration that the genetic content of different species of that genus is remarkably conserved, whether it be in the X chromosome or in each of the specific autosomal arms. Sturtevant always had a healthy skepticism, surely one of the most important qualities of a successful scientist. This is shown by his doubt of the value of many laboratory experiments in population genetics, on the basis that they cannot faithfully duplicate what really goes on in the great out-of-doors.

It may come as a surprise to many students to realize how much opposition there was in some quarters to the early discoveries of the Morgan school. Sturtevantís account of such controversies is a recurrent theme of this book, as it should be in a historical treatise.

Science has often been advanced by scientists who questioned existing dogma and found it flawed. Or, conversely, such dogma has probably in some cases slowed progress for years. Would advances in genetics have been more rapid had there not been the virtually universal belief that genes were proteins, or that development of an organism involved cytoplasmic rather than nuclear heredity? Sturtevant does not waste space speculating about such issues, but he does discuss several cases in which progress was held back because of failure to develop a satisfactory terminology and symbolism.

Sturtevant had a strong social consciousness that comes forth in Chapter 20. There he treats the history of human genetics, stressing the difficulties and pitfalls that plague studies in this field. He devotes considerable space to an objective and critical analysis of the so-called ďnature vs. nurtureĒ question.

In the last chapter, Sturtevant discusses how discoveries in science and particularly genetics tend to come about. He addresses in his typically analytical way the often-cited dictum: The time has to be ripe for a discovery to be made and that when that time comes someone is bound to make the discovery. He concludes that this attitude greatly oversimplifies what generally happens in science.

I believe Sturtevantís writing of this book after his retirement was one more intellectual exercise to stave off boredom. He had reduced his experimental work to an hour or so each day, and it must have been more difficult to keep up with the expanding literature of the field. His book is clearly a labor of love and his personality shines through every page.

E. B. Lewis
California Institute of Technology
July, 2000

The full text of the book is available on-line, in PDF format.

CSHL Press

Edward. B. Lewis received the B.A. degree from the University of Minnesota in 1939 and the Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology in 1942, where he studied under A. H. Sturtevant.

Dr. Lewis received the 1995 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discoveries concerning "the genetic control of early embryonic development".

Electronic Scholarly Publishing: Foundations of Classical Genetics

Copyright © 2001 Robert J. Robbins
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