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10 Questions for A. W. F. Edwards

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanAugust 28, 2006 9:19 PM


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Last week I pointed you to 10 questions for Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, and hinted that there is another 10 Qs for another student of R.A. Fisher. Well, that time has come, today David B. posted his 10 questions for A.W.F. Edwards. I want to follow up last week's theme in regards to population substructure, because A.W.F. Edwards has been the most prominent recent expositer of why phylogeny, clustering of populations, is still possible though we are a genetically young and homogenous species. We asked A.W.F. Edwards on his motivations for writing Lewontin's Fallacy, and I think you'll find the answer interesting (below the fold). I also believe that the this 10 questions is special because Dr. Edwards responded with multiple "mini-essays," he even attempted a new elucidation of the Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection. 4. Your recent article on 'Lewontin's Fallacy' criticises the claim that human geographical races have no biological meaning. As the article itself points out, it could have been written at any time in the last 30 years. So why did it take so long - and have you had any reactions from Lewontin or his supporters? I can only speak for myself as to why it took me so long. Others closer to the field will have to explain why the penny did not drop earlier, but the principal cause must be the huge gap in communication that exists between anthropology, especially social anthropology, on the one hand, and the humdrum world of population and statistical genetics on the other. When someone like Lewontin bridges the gap, bearing from genetics a message which the other side wants to hear, it spreads fast - on that side. But there was no feedback. Others might have noticed Lewontins 1972 paper but I had stopped working in human and population genetics in 1968 on moving to Cambridge because I could not get any support (so I settled down to writing books instead). In the 1990s I began to pick up the message about only 15% of human genetic variation being between, as opposed to within, populations with its non-sequitur that classification was nigh impossible, and started asking my population-genetics colleagues where it came from. Most had not heard of it, and those that had did not know its source. I regret now that in my paper I did not acknowledge the influence of my brother John, Professor of Genetics in Oxford, because he was independently worrying over the question, inventing the phrase 'the death of phylogeny' which spurred me on. Eventually the argument turned up unchallenged in Nature and the New Scientist and I was able to locate its origin. I only started writing about it after lunch one day in Caius during which I had tried to explain the fallacy across the table to a chemist, a physicist, a physiologist and an experimental psychologist - all Fellows of the Royal Society - and found myself faltering. I like to write to clear my mind. Then I met Adam Wilkins, the editor of BioEssays, and he urged me to work my notes up into a paper. I have had no adverse reaction to it at all, but plenty of plaudits from geneticists, many of whom told me that they too had been perplexed. Perhaps the communication gap is still too large, or just possibly the point has been taken. After all, Fisher made it in 1925 in Statistical Methods which was written for biologists so it is hardly new.

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