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If canonization as a saint were—as some observers fuzzily imagine—a sort of Rotarian medal for service to humankind, the nineteenth-century monk-scientist Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) would have gained the honor long ago.

Of course, these days, not everyone may be so happy about placing a halo over the man who shows up in school science texts as the father of modern genetics. Recently, a few bad apples have been threatening to spoil the whole harvest of genetic science with wild claims about human cloning's potential benefits. If we bought the theories of some biological determinists, we would need only to get our hands on Saint Gregor's relics—just a cheek cell or two would do—and we could create a whole army of scientific geniuses.

Never mind that each member of a pair of genetically identical twins seems quite capable of striking out in a wholly unique life direction. Apparently nobody has told such twins (nor for that matter, the cultists currently ponying up thousands for genetic immortality) that one's soul is supposed to reside in one's DNA, end of sentence.

The uniqueness of the human soul, though it will continue to frustrate the genetic utopians, gives history and biography their allure: we linger in wonder over the story of a nineteenth-century Augustinian monk who set humanity on the path to mapping the human genome.

For some, the wonder may be that a monk contributed anything at all to science. Don't people in monasteries spend all their time praying, singing, and fighting off dirty thoughts? Not so the friars of the St. Thomas Monastery in Brno, the Czech Republic. When Gregor entered that monastery in 1843, a frail, private only child, he had only a minimal education to back up the deep interest in the biology of ...

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December 2002

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