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Closing the door on Hugo de Vries' Mendelism

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Recent studies have shown that Hugo de Vries did not rediscover Mendel's laws independently and that the classical story of the rediscovery of Mendel is largely a myth. Until now, however, no satisfactory account has been provided of the background and development of de Vries' views on heredity and evolution. The basic tenets of de Vries' Mutationstheorie (1901–1903) and his conception of Mendelism are still insufficiently understood. It has been suggested that de Vries failed to assimilate Mendelism and that he wrote his Mutationstheorie in a state of confusion. In this paper I argue that we can arrive at a better understanding by adopting a more symmetrical approach. My analysis will concentrate on three important aspects of de Vries' thinking which have been insufficiently appreciated until now. The first is that de Vries' reading of Mendel compelled him to change his conception of the hereditary particles, the pangenes, in a fundamental way. The second is de Vries' use of the notion of ‘hereditary force'. The third revolves around de Vries' typological species concept, which has been the source of much confusion in the literature. I shall conclude that de Vries did succeed in incorporating ‘Mendelism' into his wider views on heredity and evolution, and that he did manage to handle his evidence in a consistent way. Yet I shall also conclude that Mendelism, in de Vries' interpretation, had nothing to do with ‘normal' heredity and was mainly a laboratory phenomenon.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Institute for the History of Science, Utrecht University, Nieuwegracht 187, 3512 LM, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Publication date: 01 May 1994

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