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Robin Marantz Henig


The lost and found genius of Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Although everyone knows that Gregor Mendel was the founder of the science of genetics, Henig's case is that much of what we believe about him is based on misapprehension and legend. A myth grew up about Mendel as a result of bitter arguments that took place in the early twentieth century, when Mendel's work was rediscovered and its importance for Darwinism was recognized. Her aim is to set the record straight.

The first and longer part of the book provides a biography of Mendel. He comes across as a man of outstanding intellect and scientific abililty, who undoubtedly had a genuine understanding of the significance of his work. However, his importance was not recognized in his own lifetime; he is recorded as saying: "My time will come." Regrettably, all his personal papers were burnt after his death and our knowledge of his work rests entirely on the two-part paper he published in 1866.

The second part of the book looks at the rediscovery of Mendel. The dominant figure here is William Bateson, whose thinking was revolutionized when he read Mendel's paper in 1902 and realized its importance for Darwinism. He thereupon became Mendel's champion against the "biometricians", who thought that Bateson's enthusiasm was misplaced, though the differences seem to have been as much personal as scientific. The issue was fought over with considerable emotion, not to say bitterness, on both sides.

The book is well researched, which makes it difficult to explain some surprising lapses. Henig describes Thomas Henry Huxley as a member of one of the most illustrious families in England. In fact, Huxley's father was a fairly impoverished teacher of mathematics and Huxley himself had only two years' formal schooling. She also believes that Galileo refused to renounce his heliocentric beliefs in front of the Inquisition. On the contrary, Galileo, when shown the instruments of torture, wisely recanted. Mistakes of this kind lessen one's confidence in her other statements. And I wish she had not twice used "fortuitous" to mean "fortunate".

These criticisms aside, Henig tells Mendel's story in a readable fashion, with plenty of details about the main actors, who come across as three-dimensional characters. She also offers a judicious discussion of the scientific importance of Mendel's work.

In a disturbing epilogue Henig reveals that her interest in genetics is not merely academic. She tells us that her father died of a progressive inherited disease (presumably Huntington's disease) carried by a dominant gene. She has chosen not to be tested for the gene but her daughter does want the test. If it is positive, it will mean that Henig carries the gene too. As she remarks, modern genetics can tell us more about ourselves than we may want to know.

30 January 2006

%T The Monk in the Garden
%S The lost and found genius of Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics
%A Henig, Robin Marantz
%I Houghton Mifflin Company
%C Boston and New York
%D 2000
%G ISBN 0-618-12741-0
%P 292 pp
%K biography
%O paperback edition

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