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Was Mendel Darwin’s Missed Opportunity?

Mon, 02/08/2010 - 6:32am
Paul Livingstone

Paul Headshot with Name and TitleThe editors at Wired Magazine have pointed out that today is the anniversary of Gregor Mendel's presentation of a painstakingly produced paper about his breeding experiments on some 28,000 pea plants. It happened to be the classic paper that quietly introduced the world to the basic laws of heredity. These laws would help explain and substantiate the theories of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.

But a missed connection would help guarantee the obscurity of this work for years to come. Mendel, who tended his plants while living as an Augustinian monk in what is now the Czech Republic, lived a very different life than traveler, lecturer, and science celebrity Darwin. But they do have a shocking connection, pointed out by Randy Alfred’s post in Wired: Mendel had actually sent a copy of his first paper to Darwin in 1866, who is believed to have never read the priceless work because the pages had never been cut.

Of course, Darwin could have cracked open the pages during his many bed-ridden hours in these years, read Mendel’s work, which was first presented in 1865, and not gleaned useful information. But that seems hardly possible—Darwin was conducting his own similar research on orchids and climbing plants during the 1860s. And later heredity researchers often found themselves duplicating the work of the monk who died in 1884. His Law of Segregation and Law of Independent Assortment are now standard high school biology class fare.

I believe Darwin may have shelved the work intentionally. By 1865, the theorist, in a state of nearly constant illness, had already received a lifetime’s worth of praise and criticism for his ideas. Many of the jabs stemmed from those who wished to unite theories of natural selection with faith—namely Christian faith. He was in a constant battle with his peers over questions of faith, and later a target of ridicule by the public for his perceived attacks on it.

Darwin may also have assumed Mendel was a potential rival. The competitive Englishman had had his fill of those already. A letter from Alfred Russel Wallace, who concurrently (or maybe previously) pioneered the tenets of natural selection, had several years earlier forced Darwin to publish some of his “Natural Selection” work before he was finished writing it. And we all know the ghost of Wallace would haunt Darwin’s legacy long after his death.

Sensitive to the issue of intellectual property, Darwin may not have wanted to cloud his own individual effort to explain heredity by discovering someone else had all of the answers. Or even some of the answers.

It’s a shame—it would have been a treat to learn what the so-called “father of evolution” thought of the work of the “father of genetics”. And vice versa.

Ironically, of course, Mendel—not often called the father of genetics—was uninterested in fame or accolades. And it would not be the last injustice suffered by Mendel’s work. Embroiled in a dispute over taxes on religious institutions, he abandoned scientific work and his experiments with bees. After his death the succeeding abbott burned all of Mendel’s papers to mark an end to the tax dispute.

He, like Wallace, would have to be rediscovered.

 

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