New York Times Book Review
27 August 2000
The Prince of Peas ______________________________________________________________
It took decades for scientists to appreciate what Gregor Mendel had accomplished. ______________________________________________________________
By JOE CAIN
THE MONK IN THE GARDEN: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel, the Father of Genetics. By Robin Marantz Henig. 292 pp. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $24.
The life of Gregor Johann Mendel is a classic tale of redemption. In simple, elegant experiments, this monk and schoolteacher discovered the basic laws of genetics. But Mendel died in obscurity in 1884, his achievement unrecognized. Had the wider world of science known his discovery when he published it, it would have solved the mystery of how inheritance works, and it could have corrected a problem that nearly sank Darwin's evolutionary theory. In 1900, botanists rediscovered Mendel's work, and genetics has been grateful ever since. The path was winding, but, as Robin Marantz Henig says in this biography, it led to his being ''the father of genetics.''
Mendel came from a farming family in what was then Moravia, now in the Czech Republic, and entered an Augustinian monastery in the city of Brno. He became a science teacher after study at the University of Vienna. For many years he grew carefully selected strains of peas in the monastery garden, seeking to understand how features are inherited by later generations from their predecessors. He kept systematic records for a decade, focusing on the simplest features he could find and crossing hybrid forms in every way he could imagine. The inheritance patterns he described have become the heart of every introductory course in biology.
He followed practices of other plant breeders, but added statistical techniques to identify patterns in the masses of data he collected. He reported that features are passed from one generation to the next without being blended or diluted, that a dominant feature can mask a recessive one and that each feature's pattern of inheritance is independent from that of other features. Among his peas, yellow ones were dominant and green ones recessive, tall ones dominant over dwarfs. Mendel found that both kinds of trait passed from parent to offspring, and in the third generation they appeared in a ratio of three dominants to each recessive: three yellows to one green. When recessive features reappeared, they showed no signs of blending -- as if they had reverted to their original.
Mendel's key discovery concerned parents that failed to always produce offspring with their own dominant features. His statistics indicated that some of his yellow peas were hybrid forms, with the recessive green feature latent but able to reappear in later generations. He did not explain what was happening inside these hybrids, though he knew he had made an important discovery. The precision and simplicity of his reports enabled later botanists to build reliable models for inheritance and predict changes in organisms through many generations (sometimes to great profit).
In 1865, Mendel summarized his work at a meeting of the local natural history society and published a long report in the society's journal. He sent copies to a few dozen scientists across Europe, but his work went unnoticed. Disappointed, he moved on to other projects. In 1868, he became head of his monastery, after which his scientific work more or less ended.
Henig's biography draws largely on reliable published sources, but outside Mendel's scientific papers she has little to work from. An otherwise thin project is flavored by vivid accounts of location and atmosphere. On the singular facts of Mendel's life, ''The Monk in the Garden'' makes easy reading. But as a larger effort to represent Mendel to 21st-century readers, it is deficient. Henig, the author of half a dozen books on science, does little to anchor Mendel in his times or training. She fails to consider the influence contemporary biology and horticulture had on him. For example, the pea experiments were part of larger arguments against the origin of new species through hybridization, but Henig does not make this clear. She also misses the controversial nature of his view that hybrids are remade with each generation. Henig's accounts of reproduction theory, classification and Darwinism are superficial and sometimes detached from historical reality. Her suggestion that Mendel was a genius fails, too. He followed methods he was taught without adding to them and without leaving any sign of serious introspection. He gave us no new grand theory. He was a good experimenter, not a genius.
Most frustrating is Henig's use of modern science to describe Mendel's conclusions. She employs all the techniques a biographer can to keep us from seeing Mendel the way his contemporaries would have, and she never presents us with a view of the world he would have recognized. He never sought universal ''laws'' of inheritance, and the modern language of genes and traits is far from how he understood his peas. Henig is not the first writer to fall into this trap of attributing to Mendel ideas developed 50 years later. Thus, while she offers a readable account of Mendel's day-to-day progress, as if we watched him on a monitor, she does not provide a useful account of what he was thinking and why.
''The Monk in the Garden'' is two books in one. A generation after his death, Mendel was rediscovered, and Henig's second project is to describe the creation of ''Mendelism.'' As she ably recounts, four European botanists claimed to have rediscovered either Mendel's papers or his essential conclusions; they then applied those ideas in the widest possible contexts. Historians have long argued over how best to apportion credit among them. Henig's sympathies rest with William Bateson, a Briton who more than anyone reinvented the study of inheritance as grounded in Mendel's work. He translated Mendel's paper on peas, defended his ideas against rival approaches and made Mendel a hero. Henig's account of the rediscoverers is more successful than her biography of the master. She paints vivid images of them and shows why it was important for Bateson to have Mendel on his side.
But her historical transition is faulty. The idea of rediscovery suggests locating buried treasure, but histories of ideas are never so simple. Forty years had passed since Mendel's experiments, and the study of inheritance had changed radically in the interim. When Bateson and his competitors read Mendel, they were selective. His underlying assumptions about biology were abandoned as antiquated. Conclusions no longer thought to be true or relevant were stripped, and new ideas were imported. Mendel's language and terminology were changed to suit modern thinking. This was no simple discovery of buried treasure. It was appropriation of the past for purposes of the present. The rediscoverers took what was useful to them and rejected the rest, not caring a twig for Mendel himself. The claim of rediscovery was a trick meant to suggest disciplines of truth when in fact partisans were arguing for their own stands. Henig completely misses the point that Mendel and Mendelism were different projects. This is a lost opportunity to explore the general question of how traditions are begun and how myths of ''fatherhood'' are born.
After Mendelism secured its beachhead, the new science of genetics expanded rapidly and in many directions. Henig's brief history of this expansion is scattered and confusing, and it fails to prompt us to a consideration of the consequences of committing a science so strongly to a Mendelian view of the world. What is more important, Mendelism's single most important idea -- the unit character -- goes unmentioned. Mendel focused on simple features that were easy to isolate: pea color and shape, plant height and so forth. The Mendelians went further, representing all organisms -- including humans -- as divisible masses of simple biological atoms called ''traits.'' Some traits were physical: height, eye color, ear shape and such. Other traits were mental: intelligence, creativity, bravery, musical ability, idiocy. Mendelians offered rules and patterns for inheritance. Eugenicists pressed on, suggesting ways to sort these units in human groups by scientific breeding, sterilization and worse.
Mendelism's simplicity lives on. Today we search for gay genes, fat genes, genes for manic depression and genes for everything else, using the same Mendelian image of inheriting simple unit characters. Thinking about the Mendelian influence on our own ideas, we might ask: Why do we package qualities so ambiguous and multi-faceted as I.Q. or sexuality into compact unit characters? What drives our desire to decompose our complex, integrated wholes into sums of idealized and simple biological atoms? Why have we so unassumingly linked our very natures to the colors of Mendel's peas? Mendel might have been innocently simplifying a complex world. But Mendelism has much to answer for. Here hangs a great tale, untold so far in the history of genetics and of modern notions about heredity. Its absence may be the most notable aspect of Henig's book. ______________________________________________________________
Joe Cain is a lecturer in history and the philosophy of biology at University College, London.
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