How Wright was wrong: When is it genetic drift?

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgScience is often said to work in three easy steps: (1) observe something interesting, (2) formulate a hypothesis for why that something is interesting in the way it is, and (3) collect more observations to see if they also support that hypothesis. Wash, rinse, repeat, and you eventually get from Newton to Einstein, from Aristotle to Darwin.

Sewall Wright, pioneer of population genetics. (Wikimedia Commons)

Except, of course, it’s never that straightforward. Sometimes scientists come up with a hypothesis without a clear-cut example to support it, and then go looking that example. Sometimes observations that support a hypothesis turn out not to, if you look closer. And—here’s the funny thing—this can even happen with hypotheses that are, in the end, pretty much correct.

In the spirit of this month’s Giants Shoulders blog carnival, which focuses on “fools, failures, and frauds” in the history of science, I’m going to recount a case in which one of the greatest biologists of the Twentieth Century was fooled by a small desert flower. Sewall Wright was no fool or failure, and he certainly didn’t commit fraud, but he does seem to have been totally wrong about his favorite example of a particular population genetic process, one he discovered. That process, isolation by distance, is widely documented in natural populations today—but it also doesn’t seem to have worked the way Wright thought it did for Linanthus parryae.

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