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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 46.1 (2003) 142-145
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The Monk in the Garden. By Robin M. Henig. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. Pp. 292. $25.
Funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, author Robin Henig has enthusiastically journeyed from country to country, library to library, and scholar to scholar in her search for source material for this biography of Gregor Mendel. The result is 260 pages of highly readable, lively, at times almost racy text, which takes us through her search for the genius of Mendel. Where lay that genius? What claim has he to such attention? Answering these questions results in a book that is a cross between a biography and a short history of genetics to 1910.
Henig's theme is the myth of the hero: Mendel as the father of genetics. Henig argues that Mendel was no hero in his day: while glory has been heaped upon him retrospectively, in reality this obscure Moravian monk was but a "plodding genius." Yet through his plodding, Henig tells us, his genius emerged (p. 173). The truth behind the "Mendel myth," she claims, lies somewhere between the extremes of the revisionists who cut Mendel down to size and the admirers who put him on a pedestal.
When Mendelian heredity was rediscovered, Mendel was a convenient prior authority to cite to circumvent priority disputes. For example, the British zoologist William Bateson aggrandized Mendel as the unacknowledged genius whose work, like his own, was not accepted. But the power of the Mendelian [End Page 142] theory was only recognized in the second decade of the 20th century, when Thomas Hunt Morgan synthesized the Mendelian theory with the new knowledge of the life cycle of the chromosomes. Mendel became a larger-than-life figure, Henig declares, because he turned out to be right—in other words, the subsequent history of the science of genetics has validated his claims.
Henig's approach to her subject is a retrospective one that involves judging events in the light of knowledge unavailable in Mendel's day, within the framework of an assumed conflict between science and religion, and from an Anglocentric perspective. This interpretative framework creates some problems.
First, in the context of his own time, Mendel's study of the genus Hieracium was entirely appropriate. If hybridization is understood to be the cause of species multiplication, then the logical genera to study in pursuit of the origin of species would be just those polymorphic forms found in the wild and looking like intermediates between other species. Experimental studies to produce just such forms would validate the application of the results of experimental hybridization to natural species in the wild. Varied forms of the genus Hieracium abounded in Moravia, and reports of natural hybrids were made to the local Society for the Study of Natural Science. This context for his work was very clearly spelled out by Mendel in his paper. As for his results, it was not what we know as apomixis that caused a problem for Mendel, but those Hieracium hybrids (F1 generation) that—unlike Pisum—were not identical for a given cross that perplexed him.
Second, although Henig does describe the liberal, pro-science attitude of many members of the Brünn Monastery, and contrasts it with that of the zealous Bishop Schaffgotsch, we do not get a clear sense of how an advocate of transformism could also be a theist. Even the devoutly Lutheran Carl Linnaeus came to favor the view that most of the organic diversity in nature has been produced by hybridization. Henig does not mention this. Her biography would benefit from a clear distinction between religious belief and religious institutions and their dogmas, and between the public image of a major figure like Linnaeus and more subtle renditions.
The Anglocentrism of Henig's approach creates some problems of exclusion and emphasis. For example, Henig describes the famous debates between Huxley and Wilberforce in a chapter given to Darwinian evolution, but we learn little about the transformist views of the German Naturphilosoph tradition to which Mendel's...