Allan Franklin

Painting by D.J. Fairbanks

 Dr. Allan Franklin PhD is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Colorado in the USA whose research specialisation is the history and philosophy of science with a focus on the scientific approach to experimentation.  The first chapter of his book, What Makes a Good Experiment, highlights Mendel’s experiments, and he is the lead of author, with A.W.F. Edwards, Daniel J. Fairbanks, Daniel L. Hartl, and Teddy Seidenfeld as co-authors, of the book Ending the Mendel Fisher-Controversy.

You dedicated the entire first chapter of What Makes a Good Experiment to Mendel’s experiments, and you subtitled this chapter “The Best Experiments Ever Done!”  That is quite a distinction for Mendel, especially considering the many other extraordinary experiments you included in your book.  Most geneticists would agree with this assessment, yet it is even more meaningful coming from a physicist.  Could you share with us your reasoning for honouring Mendel’s experiments in this way?

When I began my research on the Mendel-Fisher controversy, my total knowledge of Mendel’s work had come from a paragraph or two in a high-school biology textbook.  Mendel’s paper was a revelation to me.  His experiments on pea plants not only suggested the laws of segregation and independent assortment, which are the basis of modern genetics, but did so with overwhelming evidence for those laws.  The former law states that variation for contrasting traits is associated with a pair of factors which segregate to individual reproductive cells.  The latter states that two or more of these factor-pairs assort independently to individual reproductive cells.  The experiments also provided evidence that those factors, which we now call genes, come in two types, dominant and recessive.  But Mendel did far more than that.  His paper is a masterpiece of both argument and presentation.  It is a paradigmatic illustration of good science.  I cannot do better than to quote R.A. Fisher, who said, Focke “had overlooked in his chosen field, experimental researches conclusive in their results, faultlessly lucid in presentation, and vital to the understanding not of one problem of current interest, but of many” 1.

The title of Ending the Mendel-Fisher Controversy was originally The Mendel-Fisher Controversy.  Could you explain why you and your co-authors chose to change the title, and the extent to which the book has accomplished its purpose in ending this controversy?

As I recall, the title, The Mendel-Fisher Controversy was the working title for our project.  As my own research progressed it became clear to me, what was already obvious to my co-authors, A.W.F. Edwards, Daniel J. Fairbanks, Daniel L. Hartl, and Teddy Seidenfeld, that we were producing more than a history of the controversy, also presenting both evidence and argument that Mendel had not engaged in fraud.  We also recognised, however, that absent a miraculous discovery of Mendel’s notebooks, which had been destroyed, that we would not end the controversy.  Hence, the title of the book “Ending,” not “The End” because it is an ongoing process.  I have not made a survey of recent literature on the controversy, but I believe that any subsequent work, whether it agrees with us or not, must consider our account.  As the author of one recent paper remarked, “The indispensable guide for study of the controversy is [Ending the Mendel-Fisher Controversy]” 2.

References:

  1. Fisher RA (1936) Has Mendel’s work been rediscovered? Ann Sci 1:115–137
  2. Radick G (2022) Mendel the fraud? a social history of truth in genetics. Stud Hist Philos Sci 93:39–46