William Bateson

William Bateson (Robin Hood’s Bay, August 8, 1861 – February 8, 1926) was a English geneticist, a Fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge. He was the first person to use the term genetics to describe the study of heredity and biological inheritance, and the chief populariser of the ideas of Gregor Mendel following their rediscovery in 1900 by Hugo de Vries and Carl Correns.

Bateson was the son of William Henry Bateson, Master of St John’s College, Cambridge. He was educated at Rugby School and at St John’s College in Cambridge, where he graduated BA in 1883 with a first in natural sciences.

Taking up embryology, he went to the United States to investigate the development of Balanoglossus. This worm-like enteropneust hemichordate led to his interest in vertebrate origins. In 1883-4 he worked in the laboratory of W. K. Brooks, at the Chesapeake Zoölogical Laboratory in Hampton VA, U.S.A. Turning from morphology to study evolution and its methods, he returned to England and became a Fellow of St John’s. Studying variation and heredity, he travelled in western Central Asia.

Work on biological variation (to 1900)

Bateson’s work published before 1900 was concerned with the systematic study of structural variation displayed by living organisms and the light this might shed on the mechanism of biological Evolution, and was strongly influenced by both Darwin’s approach to the collection of comprehensive examples, and Galton’s quantitative (“biometric”) methods. In his first significant contribution, he shows that some biological characteristics (such as the length of forceps in earwigs) are not distributed continuously, with a normal distribution, but discontinuously (or “dimorphically”). He sees the persistence of two forms in one population to be a challenge to the then current conceptions of the mechanism of Heredity, and says “The question may be asked, does the dimorphism of which cases have now been given represent the beginning of a division into two species?”

In his 1894 book, “Materials for the study of variation”, he took this survey of biological variation significantly further. He was concerned to show that biological variation exists both continuously, for some characters, and discontinuously for others, and coins the terms “meristic” and “substantive” for the two types. In common with Darwin, he felt that quantitative characters could not easily be “perfected” by the selective force of evolution, because of the perceived problem of the “swamping effect of intercrossing”, but proposed that discontinuously varying characters could. Amongst other interesting observations, were variations in which an expected body part has been replaced by another (which he called homeotic). The animal variations he studied included bees with legs instead of antennae; crayfish with extra oviducts; and in humans, polydactyly, extra ribs, and males with extra nipples. Importantly, Bateson wrote, “The only way in which we may hope to get at the truth [concerning the mechanism of biological Heredity] is by the organization of systematic experiments in breeding, a class of research that calls perhaps for more patience and more resources than any other form of biological enquiry. Sooner or later such an investigation will be undertaken and then we shall begin to know.”

Crayon drawing by D.G. Lillie, 1909.

In 1897, he reported some significant conceptual and methodological advances in his study of variation. “I have argued that variations of a discontinuous nature may play a prepondering part in the constitution of a new species.” He attempts to silence his critics (the “biometricians”) who misconstrue his definition of discontinuity of variation by clarification of his terms: “a variation is discontinuous if, when all the individuals of a population are breeding freely together, there is not simple regression to one mean form, but a sensible preponderance of the variety over the intermediates… The essential feature of a discontinuous variation is therefore that, be the cause what it may, there is not complete blending between variety and type. The variety persists and is not “swamped by intercrossing”. But critically, he begins to report a series of breeding experiments, conducted by his pupil, Miss E.R. Saunders, using the alpine brassica Biscutella laevigata in the Cambridge botanic gardens. In the wild, hairy and smooth forms of otherwise identical plants are seen together. They intercross the forms experimentally, “When therefore the well-grown mongrel plants are examined, they present just the same appearance of discontinuity which the wild plants at the Tosa Falls do. This discontinuity is, therefore, the outward sign of the fact that in heredity the two characters of smoothness and hairiness do not completely blend, and the offspring do not regress to one mean form, but to two distinct forms.”

At about this time, Hugo de Vries and Carl Erich Correns began similar plant breeding experiments. But, unlike Bateson, they were familiar with the extensive plant breeding experiments of Gregor Mendel in the 1860s, and they did not cite Bateson’s work. Critically, Bateson gave a lecture to the Royal Horticultural Society in July 1899, which was attended by Hugo de Vries, in which he describes his investigations into discontinuous variation, his experimental crosses, and the significance of such studies for the understanding of Heredity. He urges his colleagues to conduct large-scale, well-designed and statistically analysed experiments of the sort that, although he did not know it, Mendel had already conducted, and which would be “rediscovered” by de Vries and Correns just six months later.

Founding the discipline of genetics

Bateson became famous as the outspoken Mendelian antagonist of Walter Raphael Weldon, his former teacher, and Karl Pearson who led the biometric school of thinking. This concerned the debate over saltationism versus gradualism (Darwin had been a gradualist, but Bateson was a saltationist). Later, Ronald Fisher and J.B.S. Haldane showed that discrete mutations were compatible with gradual evolution: see the modern evolutionary synthesis.

Between 1900 and 1910 Bateson directed a rather informal “school” of genetics at Cambridge. His group consisted mostly of women associated with Newnham College, Cambridge. They provided assistance for his research programme at a time when Mendelism was not yet recognized as a legitimate field of study. The women, such as Muriel Wheldale (later Onslow), carried out a series of breeding experiments in various plant and animal species between 1902 and 1910. The results both supported and extended Mendel’s laws of heredity.

Bateson was the first to suggest the word “genetics” (from the Greek gennō, γεννώto give birth) to describe the study of inheritance and the science of variation in a personal letter to Adam Sedgwick, dated April 18, 1905. Bateson first used the term “genetics” publicly at the Third International Conference on Plant Hybridization in London in 1906. Although this was three years before Wilhelm Johannsen used the word “gene” to describe the units of hereditary information, De Vries had introduced the word “pangene” for the same concept already in 1889 and etymologically the word genetics finds its origin in Darwin’s concept of pangenesis.

Bateson co-discovered genetic linkage with Reginald Punnett, and he and Punnett founded the Journal of Genetics in 1910. Bateson also coined the term “epistasis” to describe the genetic interaction of two independent traits.

Other biographical information

In his later years he was a friend and confidant of the German Erwin Baur. Their correspondence includes their discussion of eugenics.

His son was the anthropologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson.

He was elected in June, 1894 a Fellow of the Royal Society and won their Darwin Medal in 1904 and their Royal Medal in 1920. He also delivered their Croonian lecture in 1920.

Post suggested by Alan Mason – Via William Bateson

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One Response to William Bateson

  1. alfy says:

    Thank you for posting Bateson so promptly. A very full account. I have often thought that his name should be better known, particularly among professional biologists. One of the key ideas, (featuring in an earlier Alfy deskarati rant) is that natural variation, rather than mutation is the basis of the process of natural selection.
    Bateson helped to provide the experimental evidence for this and he stressed the importance of properly designed experiments subjected to appropriate statistical analysis. The fact that this is now a commonplace of biological research is evidence of the importance of Bateson as the pioneer and founder of this approach.
    Maybe we should promote the study of Bateson in the US midwestern universities, as these seem to be the source of some of the dafter and more confused current ideas on natural selection.

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