Faithful to Science

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Gregor Mendel, Augustian Friar and Scientist

Gregor (Johann) Mendel

There seems to be a bit of a tussle going on over who can lay claim to the work of Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian monk who pioneered the quantitative study of inheritance and thus genetics. Was he a religious man doing good scientific work, an example of the fact that the two not only go together, but the former can promote the latter? Or was he a deist, perhaps a closet atheist, making a pragmatic choice to go along with some irksome religious constraints in order to gain the leisure to practice science without any genuine recognition of the role of prayer, or of the leadership shown by Jesus of Nazareth? For example, in his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins (writing a brief statement on this) chose to say

… Mendel, of course, was a religious man, an Augustinian monk; but that was in the nineteenth century when becoming a monk was the easiest way for the young Mendel to pursue his science. For him, it was the equivalent of a research grant.

This could be read as a positive recognition by Dawkins that some Augustinian monasteries were liberating places and promoters of scholarship and rationality, but it is more likely that he intends us to guess that Mendel was not really interested in the religious aspect of the community he joined. Certainly that is how some commentators paint it. Not knowing how else to make a living, and wanting to do scientific study, Mendel just made what use he could, some say, of the openings available to him.

Before assessing this, let’s note that Mendel’s work was truly impressive. There is a myth about his work that paints him as a shy monk discovering the laws of genetics while pottering about in the monastery garden during his spare time. This is completely false: the scale of the work was huge, and Augustinian monasteries are not holiday camps but regulated places of work. The project was allowed to go ahead because Augustinian monasteries were places of learning with a long-standing interest in agriculture, and in measurement and record-keeping. The Abbott, Napp, was a close associate of F. Diebl, the professor of agriculture at Brno, and the two sat on the committee of the Agricultural Society and of the Pomological and Aenological Association of which Napp was president. Abbott Napp had advocated for a deeper understanding of inheritance before Mendel arrived, and he supported Mendel’s enrollment at the University of Vienna where he learned from Franz Unger, Christian Doppler and Andreas Baumgartner among others. Mendel’s work involved 29,000 crosses between different strains of pea plants. It took eight years, with up to three full-time researchers for some of those years. It was conducted in the monastery’s large glass-house and its five acres of research plots.

glass_house

These experiments required not only skill, care, and attention to detail, but also a sound understanding of what needed to be done to get useful data. Peas were chosen for good reasons, such as that they can self-pollinate, their breeding can be controlled, they grow quickly and have easily identifiable traits with contrasting characters within the species (height, texture of seed, etc.) The large number of crosses was needed to get statistically significant evidence for seven characteristic traits in peas. Two years of work were required to isolate a set of plants that were true-breeding (in modern parlance, having the same genotype for the features under study, not merely a similar appearance or phenotype). Only then could the study of hybridization begin.

Mendel’s scientific achievement was not a solitary effort, but one aided by the full support of the religious community of which he was a part. That community, like many Christian monastic communities, was interested in scholarship and opposed to superstition, and deserves recognition for facilitating careful and objective intellectual work in several fields. However, Mendel deserves credit for his tenacious persistence, his effort to get quantitative results and marshal them with simple algebra, and his careful observation. He published his methods, observations and conclusions in two lengthy papers in 1866 and 1869. Those conclusions included several of the central ideas of the subject now known as genetics, especially the fact that traits are inherited as distinct units from one or the other parent, not an average of both, that they come in pairs, the concept of dominant and recessive traits, and the use of mathematics to express the resulting distributions. This is why he is celebrated as the “father of genetics”. However, the place of publication of the work was not widely known, and the scientific community was, at the time, unreceptive to the ideas. Botanists tended to prefer the idea of blending inheritance, in which traits from each parent are averaged together, and Charles Darwin had other ideas. It was not settled immediately because other experiments were less well organized than Mendel’s, and when traits are determined by a number of genes together it is more difficult to clarify what is going on. Mendel’s work lay largely uncited for 35 years. Eventually Hugo de Vries and Carl Correns independently rediscovered the central ideas. Both acknowledged Mendel’s priority and it is thought probable that Mendel’s work helped de Vries understand his own [Bowler, Peter J. (2003). Evolution: the history of an idea. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-23693-9.]

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Now, as to the question, whether Mendel was a closet deist all along, I cannot claim to know. His scientific letters do not contain any religious flourishes. He exhibited a combination of warmth in his friendships and diligence in his work, while remaining private about his convictions. He was modest and reserved, considerate and kind. Some people see their religious life as one mostly to be enacted in what they do rather than verbalized in writing, and he strikes me as one of those. But it was a substantial part of who he was. When the day came for an election of a new abbot at the monastery, the unanimous choice was Gregor Mendel, and he accepted the role. No doubt he disliked some of the duties. That would not be in the least surprising. But to be a friar held in such esteem in the monastic community, and to accept the role of leading it, seems to me good evidence of his commitment to its essential framework and goals. To claim that he was in fact a deist one would also have to maintain that he lacked a certain basic integrity, but all reports of his character go against that. He was highly regarded by all who knew him, generous-natured and with high intellectual standards, and he devoted much time as abbot to resisting a tax which he saw as an attack on religious liberty by the state. The Brünn Tagesbote concluded a notice of his death with the words: “His death deprives the poor of a benefactor, and mankind at large of a man of the noblest character, one who was a warm friend, a promoter of the natural sciences, and an exemplary priest.”

I agree with John Farrell that it is important not to romanticize priest-scientists as proof of a cozy relationship between science and faith, because there are also examples of ignoble attacks on intellectual freedom by religious authorities. However, Mendel embodied the relationship as the positive whole that it can be, and his intellectual contribution was both enabled and strongly supported by the monastic authorities.

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