Figures from History, Redux 1: Gregor Mendel

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This is the first installment in a new series called Figures from History, Redux. I’ll be asking scholars and historians of science, medicine, and technology to provide a voice for long-departed historical figures, so that they too might weigh-in on current issues.

For this installment, I asked Simon Mawer, biologist and author of Mendel’s Dwarf, to speak-up for Gregor Mendel, the beloved lover of peas.

Question: If Gregor Mendel were alive today, do you think he would be part of the early adopter crowd anxious to have a peek at his personal genome sequence? Might he even eschew privacy and put it on the web for others to see and use?

I am certain - as certain as one can be about such things - that Mendel would have been delighted with a whole genome project and the idea of having his own sequenced. It would have appealed to the mathematician in him, and the chess-player. ‘And after all, what do I have to hide?’ he’d have said. And then, on consideration, he would have added, ‘But what will it really show? The cause of my baldness, probably. My overweight - damned overweight! - and poor eyesight, possibly. But my love of plants? My love of nature? My ideas about garden peas? My love of teaching? My sense of humour? Surely none of those! There’s more to man than mere machinery!’

He was a man of meticulous curiosity and a fine mathematician. The thought that you can, in some sense, reduce a living organism to a kind of algebra would have amused him no end, not least because he would have seen that it is not, and indeed cannot be, the whole story. Indeed, how can a sequence of As Gs Cs and Ts in any real sense be one of his garden peas, or one of his beloved fuchsias? What is the code for beauty? However, the medical applications of genome sequencing would have appealed to him although I suspect he would have been cautious. Molecular genetics seems all the time to promise more than it actually yields and he would have been quick to point that out. But he was very much a man of the future and an enthusiast for progress. Obfuscation and ignorance appalled him. So, yes, bring on the sequences, but accept that we are merely opening the hidden door by reading our genes; it is barely possible to see any detail of the garden beyond.

-Simon Mawer

Big thanks to Simon for participating in the inaugural entry of the Redux series!

Simon Mawer’s homepage

See also the Field Museum’s exhibit called:
Gregor Mendel: Planting the Seeds of Genetics