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From Anomaly to Unification: Tracy Sonneborn and the Species Problem in Protozoa, 1954-1957

Judy Johns Schloegel
Journal of the History of Biology
Vol. 32, No. 1 (Spring, 1999), pp. 93-132
Published by: Springer
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4331510
Page Count: 40
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From Anomaly to Unification: Tracy Sonneborn and the Species Problem in Protozoa, 1954-1957
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Abstract

This article examines the critique of the biological species concept advanced by protozoan geneticist Tracy Sonneborn at the 1955 AAAS symposium on "the species problem," published subsequently in 1957. Although Sonneborn was a strong proponent of a population genetical conception of species, he became critical of the biological species concept for its failure to incorporate asexual and obligatory inbreeding organisms. It is argued that Sonneborn's intimate knowledge of the ciliate protozoan Paramecium aurelia species complex brought him into conflict with a growing pressure in the biological sciences to emphasize universal principles of life. Faced with the need to defend the value of P. aurelia as an investigative tool, Sonneborn argued that the sharp break in nature between sexual and asexual organisms posited by proponents of the biological species concept was not an existential feature of the living world, but rather the misleading consequence of an operational definition of species based only upon sexual organisms. Drawing upon his knowledge of the immense variability of P. aurelia, he proposed instead a continuum of breeding systems from obligatory outbreeding to asexual organisms, and a more broadly unifying definition of species that incorporated asexual as well as sexual organisms. Paradoxically, the push for unification that then characterized the evolutionary synthesis served to debar critical consideration of Sonneborn's more unificatory alternative, and his underlying contention that biological anomaly could serve as an important source of conceptual unification.

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