Biology in Human Affairs

By Walter V. Bingham; Hugh S. Cumming et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter VI
HEREDITY

by EDWARD M. EAST

DESCRIPTIONS of the properties of various chemical compounds are found in Egyptian papyri; the science of chemistry is no older than the American commonwealth. Exact knowledge of the composition of substances and of the transformations which they undergo was quite impossible before the atomic hypothesis was established by the experimental demonstration of the Law of Definite and Multiple Proportions. With the conception of the molecule as the unit of matter identifiable in mass and of the atom as the elementary unit, precise information concerning the reaction of substances under known conditions was attainable, though no one has ever seen either molecule or atom. A similar statement may be made about heredity. Doubtless some of our paleolithic ancestors noticed whom the new baby resembled, and formulated theories to explain the situation. At all events, the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians must have known something about inheritance, for they left graphic records showing highly improved breeds of domestic animals and of cultivated plants. Yet the sum total of previous experience up to the middle of the nineteenth century had yielded no more penetrating solution of the mystery than the adage "Like produces like," a proverb which, like many another, is not true. There is something radically wrong with such a statement as an expression of natural law, in view of the knowledge that two snow-white rabbits may produce litter after

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