The History of Genetics: Antiquity
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The History of Genetics: Antiquity

In early written records, evidence can be found of human awareness of their own heredity. This article discusses the notions developed by some ancient cultures, such as the Greeks.

Proof in Hindu Writing

Early written records that demonstrate a human awareness of their own heredity have been found. As early as 2000 years ago, sacred Hindu writings attribute many of the traits of an individual to the father, whereas the differences between siblings are a result from maternal influences. The same written sources advise readers to avoid potential spouses with undesirable traits, as they might be passed on to one’s children.

Jewish Knowledge

The Jewish book of laws based on oral traditions, the Talmud, presents a rather accurate view of the inheritance of hemophilia. It states that, if a woman bears two sons who die bleeding after circumcision, any additional sons should not be circumcised, nor should the sons of her sister. The sons of her brother, however, should. This shows that the X-linked inheritance pattern of hemophilia was already understood.

The Greeks and Pangenesis

Human reproduction and heredity are topics that were often addressed by the ancient Greek scholars. When the Greek physician Alcmaeon dissected animals and suggested that the brain was not only the primary site of perception, but also the place of origin of semen, this sparked a long philosophical debate about the origin of semen and its role in heredity. Eventually, the concept of pangenesis was developed. This proposes that specific particles carry information of different parts of the body to the reproductive organs, form where they were transferred to the next generation. This notion was very influential and persisted until the late 19th century.

Pangenesis led the Greeks to propose the notion of the inheritance of acquired traits. This means that traits acquired during one’s life are passed on to the next generation. This notion is discredited now, but it was accepted until as late as the early 20th century (think of Lamarck).

Aristotle, the famous philosopher, was quite interested in the principles of heredity. The rejected both previous notions of pangenesis and the inheritance of acquired traits. He pointed out that people sometimes resemble past ancestors more than their parents and that acquired characteristics, such as permanent injuries, are not passed on. He believed that both male and female equally contributed to the offspring and that there was some sort of struggle between the male and female contribution.

The Romans and Their Practical Approach

The ancient Romans added little new knowledge to the concept of heredity, but they did successfully develop techniques of animal and plant breeding. These were mostly based on a trial-and-error concept and little new was added to the concept of heredity for the next 1000 years.

The ancient ideas of pangenesis and the inheritance of acquired characteristics, along with breeding techniques, persisted until the rise of modern science in the 17th and 18th century.

References

  • Maynard Smith, J. (1999) Evolutionary Genetics. Second Edition. Oxford University Press.
  • Pierce, B.A. (2002) Genetics: A Conceptual Approach. First edition. W.H.Freeman Publishing.

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Comments (3)

Very interesting, and well-researched too! We've gone a long way into understanding genetics..and still have a long way to go to fully grasping its mechanisms and power. Great factoid :)

Yes, very interesting

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