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“Evolution in Mendelian Populations”

An early attempt by William Ernest Castle to unify the laws of Mendelian inheritance with Darwin’s theory of speciation invoked the idea that species become distinct from one another as one species or the other acquires a novel Mendelian factor.[5] Castle’s conclusion was based on the observation that novel traits that could be studied in the lab and that show Mendelian inheritance patterns reflect a large deviation from the wild type, and Castle believed that acquisition of such features is the basis of “discontinuous variation” that characterizes speciation.[5] Darwin discussed the inheritance of similar mutant features but did not invoke them as a requirement of speciation.[4] Instead Darwin used the emergence of such features in breeding populations as evidence that mutation can occur at random within breeding populations, which is a central premise of his model of selection in nature.[4]Later in his career, Castle would refine his model for speciation to allow for small variation to contribute to speciation over time. He also was able to demonstrate this point by selectively breeding laboratory populations of rats to obtain a hooded phenotype over several generations.[6]

Castle’s was perhaps the first attempt made in the scientific literature to direct evolution by artificial selection of a trait with continuous underlying variation, however the practice had previously been widely employed in the development of agriculture to obtain livestock or plants with favorable features from populations that show quantitative variation in traits like body size or grain yield.

Castle’s work was among the first to attempt to unify the recently rediscovered laws of Mendelian inheritance with Darwin’s theory of evolution. Still, it would be almost thirty years until the theoretical framework for evolution of complex traits would be widely formalized.[7] In an early summary of the theory of evolution of continuous variation, Sewall Wright, a graduate student who trained under Castle, summarized contemporary thinking about the genetic basis of quantitative natural variation: “As genetic studies continued, ever smaller differences were found to mendelize, and any character, sufficiently investigated, turned out to be affected by many factors.