The great chromosome fiasco
First posted on homepage: 16 April 2012 (GMT+10)
Re-posted on homepage: 4 August 2021 (GMT+10)
Theophilus Shickel Painter (1889–1969) was an American zoologist famous for his work on chromosomes. He became the distinguished Professor of Zoology at the University of Texas, and was its president during most of WW2 and until 1952.
By way of aside, during his presidency of the University he was named as official defendant in the landmark civil rights case Sweatt vs Painter. That legal stepping stone towards full integration of US education came about because one Hermon Sweatt had been denied admission to the University of Texas due to his race.1
Well before that, though, Painter was renowned for having given the world the official number of chromosomes in each human cell. In 1921 he first used sperm cells to make the count under the microscope. Sperm cells and egg cells each contribute half the number, so this would presumably make it easier to count what was, using the methods of that time, a fairly tangled appearance. He arrived at the figure of 24, and is recorded as having said, “I feel confident that this is correct”. Repeats of his experiment by others gave the same count, so the total number of chromosomes, it was decided, must be 2 x 24, i.e. 48.
Of course, the real number is actually 23 pairs, i.e. 46, not 48. But so powerful was the ‘authority’ of the distinguished Theophilus Painter, that this number was unchallenged for more than 30 years. According to BBC commentator Robert Matthews, “For years biochemists refused to believe humans possess 23 pairs of chromosomes”.2 Why? “Because it contradicted the claims” of this “influential American zoologist”. So, “many ignored the evidence of their own eyes rather than challenge the great man”.2
It was only in 1956 that the process of breaking this spell really commenced in earnest. This was due to the publication of a paper by two researchers (Joe Hin Tijo and Albert Levan, in the Scandinavian journal Hereditas) who had used a different technique on body cells, rather than sex cells.
Matthews indicates in another publication that the problem was not so much that Painter had blundered, but that “scientists had preferred to bow to authority rather than believe the evidence of their own eyes. Checking photographs of chromosomes reprinted in textbooks, researchers later found that 23 pairs were clearly shown—and yet captions under the photographs declared the figure to be 24.”3
Chromosome number is about operational science, the repeatable, observable facts about the world and how it works. Evolution, on the other hand, is about historical science, where the facts are not at issue—it’s all about interpretation. Evolution/long ages has become the ruling paradigm, a framework of thought that is taken for granted and is used as the foundation for how all other data is then interpreted. Scientists are continually confronted with not just one ‘Painter’, but scores of ‘authority figures’ proclaiming this framework as ‘fact’.
So, seeing what happened in the Painter debacle over such a straightforward thing as chromosome number, it should be no surprise to see so many scientists slavishly following the evolutionary line—regardless of the evidence.
References and notes
- The state of Texas used legal manoeuvres to drag the case on for long enough for it to establish its own law school for blacks only. This school’s existence was then used by a state court as the basis for ruling that UT’s refusal did not infringe Sweatt’s constitutional rights to equal treatment. The US Supreme Court reversed this and ordered the university to admit Sweatt. Return to text.
- Issue 214 of www.bbcfocusmagazine.com, April 2010, p. 24. Return to text.
- Matthews, R., “The bizarre case of the chromosome that never was”, www.fortunecity.com/emachines/e11/86/cromsome.htm, accessed 11 August 2010. Return to text.