Isn't it a bit odd to say that genes belong to or are a part of a "pool"? A pool is normally a body of water, e.g. a swimming pool

Wikipedia explains

The gene pool is the set of all genes, or genetic information, in any population, usually of a particular species. This also proves to be the basic level at which evolution occurs. [...] A large gene pool indicates extensive genetic diversity, which is associated with robust populations that can survive bouts of intense selection

Merriam-Webster defines it as

biology: all of the genes in a particular group of people or animals

Full Definition of GENE POOL
the collection of genes in an interbreeding population that includes each gene at a certain frequency in relation to its alleles : the genetic information of a population of interbreeding organisms e.g.the human gene pool

First Known Use: 1946

I know we have the term carpool, and we can say "to pool our resources" but why was the term pool specifically chosen/used in gene pool? Is it metaphorical?


A pool can be a single mass of liquid, a reservoir of water; a number of people who share the same profession, a typing pool; people who share a car, or, travel as passengers for part of the journey, carpooling. The terms gene banks, sperm and egg banks express the concept of preservation and a place where one can have easy access, but we never mention sperm pool, egg pool or bone marrow pool and yet each individual sperm, egg, bone marrow and human gene is unique unto itself.

  • Who coined the term gene pool and why was pool specifically chosen (if there was a reason).
  • 9
    The use of "pool" for "gene pool" sounds reasonable to me, since one of the definitions of pool is: noun 1 a supply of vehicles or goods available for use when needed: the oldest vehicle in the motor pool. And so, a supply of genes -- that is, a pool of genes -- as is meant by the term "gene pool" seems unremarkable to me (AmE speaker). I suppose, one could research the papers of the earlier researchers to see why they eventually settled on that term, and to see what the competing terms were, if one really wanted to, I guess, . . . :)
    – F.E.
    Sep 30, 2014 at 8:28
  • "Pool" is an appropriate analogy but can be ambiguous. "Pool" implies a benefit derived from participants' contributions to the pool. It is also a large vessel of water used for swimming.
    – user3847
    Sep 30, 2014 at 8:51
  • 2
    "Pool" is a fairly common term for a shared resource. "Secretarial Pool" and "pool of talent" are other examples. I don't think it's any deeper than that. Sep 30, 2014 at 10:34
  • Motor pool, secretarial pool, pool our resources, "did you join the office football pool?", pooling securities (i.e. the credit default swaps of collateralized debt obligations that led to financial meltdown)... Sep 30, 2014 at 17:36

4 Answers 4


According to http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pool, the word "pool" meaning a body of water and the word "pool" meaning an aggregation are different words with different etymologies. Wiktionary agrees: http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/pool#Etymology_1 and http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/pool#Etymology_2.

The second etymology explains that the word comes from:

French poule ("collective stakes in a game") (The OED suggests that this may be a transferred use of poule (“hen”), which has been explained anecdotally as deriving from an old informal betting game in France - 'jeu de poule' - Game of Chicken (or Hen, literally) in which poule became synonymous with the combined money pot claimed by the winner)

I suspect that the gambling analogy came about because of the random manner in which genes are passed from parent to offspring in sexual reproduction. Collectively, a species has some repertoire of genes to which all parents contribute, and from which all offspring take.

  • 1
    I'll bet $20 the scientists weren't aware of the French game! Still, gambling pools as ultimate source is plausible (and more likely a football pool than a hockey pool). Just for the halibut, checked the Bard for anything suggestive. Try this: opensourceshakespeare.org/search/… Like most Shakespeare you gotta turn it upside down & stare at it 17 times to catch its sense, but basically there's a big pool of world sunshine, and England sure doesn't get a fair share of it! =] Sep 30, 2014 at 9:59
  • 1
    "gambling analogy"? What are you talking about? what analogy? "pool" just means "group" or "collection". For example, someone recently mentioned to me about their "pool" of available babysitters (so, there are 5 teenage girls in the local high school who are that "pool".) What "analogy" are you talking about?
    – Fattie
    Sep 30, 2014 at 13:05
  • This is a good description of the word origin and, especially, its distinct independence from the meaning for swimming pool. Sep 30, 2014 at 15:07
  • People don't need to speak French to want to pool their resources, which is likely the same etymology as the gene pool and the gambling pool.
    – Scott
    Oct 1, 2014 at 4:22
  • FYI I pasted that in to google and got "Dobzhansky"
    – Fattie
    Oct 1, 2014 at 9:01

I think that the expression refers to the genetic heritage that gene pools carry with them which is responsible for our present and future development. An essential resource for human life.

Gene pool:( from www.biology-online.org)

(population genetics)

  • The total number of genes of every individual in an interbreeding Population

    • Gene pool gives an idea of the number of genes, the variety of genes and the type of genes existing in a population. It can be used to help determine gene frequencies or the ratio between different types of genes in a population.
  • Word origin: gene: from G genea, generation, race + pool: Middle English, from Old English pōl.

Pool: (from TFD)

  • Any combination of resources which serves a common purpose.

  • A grouping of resources for the common advantage of the participants: a pool of implements for the use of all the workers on the estate; forming a pool of our talents.

Pool: (from Etymonline)

  • Meaning "collective stakes" in betting first recorded 1869; sense of "common reservoir of resources" is from 1917.

An alternative metaphorical meaning of pool in this context (in the sense of pool of liquid) is suggested by Richard Dawkins in The Ancestor's Tale:

  • "The very idea of a gene pool has no meaning if there is no sex. 'Gene Pool' is a persuasive metaphor because the genes of a sexual population are being continually mixed and diffused, as if in a liquid. Bring in the time dimension, and the pool becomes a river, flowing through geological time..."

As for an early usage of the terms 'gene pool' according to the following source:

  • Theodosius Dobzhansky was a prominent geneticist and evolutionary biologist, and a central figure in the field of evolutionary biology. ( from Wikipedia)
  • In 1937, he published one of the major works of the modern evolutionary synthesis, the synthesis of evolutionary biology with genetics, entitled Genetics and the Origin of Species, which amongst other things, defined evolution as "a change in the frequency of an allele within a gene pool". Dobzhansky's work was instrumental in spreading the idea that it is through mutations in genes that natural selection takes place.
  • You're confusing, IMO, the noun with the intent of the verb example. Some pools may be created deliberately with collaborative intent, but that isn't intrinsic to all pools. You could more accurately say that all human life is an accidental by-product of natural selection operating on a gene pool.
    – Useless
    Sep 30, 2014 at 16:30
  • 1
    It is all very clear IMO. A gene pool is a collection of genes aggregated by nature. The term 'pool' fits this context.
    – user66974
    Sep 30, 2014 at 19:45
  • "genetic heritage ... essential resource for human life.". I took this, along with the TFD quote, to be suggesting some kind of intentional collaboration. That has nothing to do with gene pools.
    – Useless
    Sep 30, 2014 at 21:21
  • I like the Dawkin's quote, it explains how gene pool can be seen as metaphorical. I wish you'd include it
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 30, 2014 at 22:22
  • Hi Mari I just noticed your reference to Dawkins. (That book is very boring BTW unlike his others!) Exactly as you say he is there humorously / metaphorically-whatever using "pool" as "swimming pool" (and it "becomes a river!")
    – Fattie
    Oct 1, 2014 at 9:37

A "pool" just means a collection of things.

It simply comes form the french "poule" which just means like "collection", "box with money in it", "the money in the middle when gambling"

The only use of the word "pool" in English is for things like that .. a "pool" of programmers (you have ten programmers, available for work), a "pool" or horses (you have ten of them, available for work), a "pool" of money in various situations, etc.

So, it's discrete different things, where you can choose one of them to use.

As I mentioned above, someone recently mentioned to me their "pool" of available babysitters (so, there are 5 teenage girls in the local high school who are that "pool".)

Incredibly someone just mentioned: they search a carpenter in the town. There is only "a pool of five or six carpenters ..." available in the town.

You often talk about the "pool" of available husbands (or wives) in a given town, and so on.

Another one, looking over at the programming SO site, you often hear a "pool of techniques" to choose from, so, how do you do a swipe or whatever in iOS, there's a "pool" of approaches you can use there, different engineering approaches.

Note that a couple people have mentioned "car-pool". As I understand it, a car-pool is when you have a pool of cars, say ten cars, and you can use one or the other. That would be because "pool" means "collection of things".

BTW M-L, you seem to speak English almost perfectly, I'm totally surprised you have not used/heard this very common word? (I am a Native English Speaker, although very drunk.)

(If future readers are thinking of the word "pool" - like swimming pool - that is utterly unrelated.)

TO save anyone googling "who coined 'gene pool'" ...

"It is worth noting that Dobzhansky's early allegiance was with Filipchenko, not with Serebrovskii.6 Yet it was Serebrovskii who originally coined the term 'gene fund' ('genofond', Serebrovskii 1926) and Serebrovskii's use of that term that appears to have led Dobzhansky, by a long and ironic pathway, to coin the English term 'gene pool' in 1950 (Dobzhansky 1950; Adams 1979)."

From the paper:

"DOBZHANSKY ON EVOLUTIONARY DYNAMICS: Some Questions about Dobzhansky's Russian Background Richard M. Burian Department of Philosophy Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Blacksburg, VA 24061-0126 December, 1990 Submission Draft. Published in M. Adams (ed.), The Evolution of Theodosius Dobzhansky. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994, pp. 129-140." ... "Internet URL" .. try .. this long one

  • (Just for the record -- when I typed "Mari-Lou" it deleted the "Mari-" !!)
    – Fattie
    Sep 30, 2014 at 13:06
  • I've heard of gene pool, it just seemed an odd expression. Why not the word; set, collection, batch, or agglomeration? And I mention carpool in my question too, which shows I am aware of pool and how it is used.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 30, 2014 at 15:26
  • 1
    pool seems to be particularly used when you mean: there's a set of stuff, sitting there usable where you can use some subset of the stuff. "batch" say would just be some particular selection (for example, "use the batch 716, 779 and 176"): it does not mean "all of those waiting around available". similarly collection, set, or agglomeration do not mean "all those sitting around available" (they just mean collection, set, or agglomeration). Note the many examples in my answer. set, collection, batch, agglomeration do not explain "pool" for these examples.
    – Fattie
    Sep 30, 2014 at 15:34
  • (as the definition says, "Any combination of resources which serves a common purpose." that is more specific than set, collection etc.)
    – Fattie
    Sep 30, 2014 at 15:36
  • 1
    "Car pool" is something different, and now that I think about it is kind of weird. It may have originally meant that a group of people made shared use of a generalized pool of cars, but now often it means a group of people using one car.
    – mattdm
    Sep 30, 2014 at 16:42

According to Wikipedia carpooling originated in WWII, and with a 1946 date for gene-pool, the possible source is suggestive. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carpool ...and hey, we all know the genetic shenanigans that go on in the back seats of cars! =]

  • I've edited my question asking for the originator of said term.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 1, 2014 at 8:58

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