Chapter 5 – Principles of Inheritance and Variation

Have you ever wondered why an elephant always gives birth only to a baby elephant and not some other animal? Or why a mango seed forms only a mango plant and not any other plant? Given that they do, are the offspring identical to their parents? Or do they show differences in some of their characteristics? Have you ever wondered why siblings sometimes look so similar to each other? Or sometimes even so different? These and several related questions are dealt with, scientifically, in a branch of biology known as Genetics.

This subject deals with the inheritance, as well as the variation of characters from parents to offspring. Inheritance is the process by which characters are passed on from parent to progeny; it is the basis of heredity. Variation is the degree by which progeny differ from their parents. Humans knew from as early as 8000-1000 B.C. that one of the causes of variation was hidden in sexual reproduction.

They exploited the variations that were naturally present in the wild populations of plants and animals to selectively breed and select for organisms that possessed desirable characters.

For example, through artificial selection and domestication from ancestral wild cows, we have well-known Indian breeds, e.g., Sahiwal cows in Punjab. We must, however, recognise that though our ancestors knew about the inheritance of characters and variation, they had very little idea about the scientific basis of these phenomena.

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