The Christian DNA of Modern Genetics
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 crop raising he had inherited from his farmer father. But he had come to the right place. St. Thomas was a vibrant center of science and culture. Its friars taught and researched in philosophy, mathematics, mineralogy, and botany. The library housed many scientific works. And a mineralogical collection, botanical garden, and herbarium provided ideal laboratories for Mendel's lifelong research, which included not only his famous experiments on garden peas but also work in bee-culture, astronomy, and geology.
This was no sterile, secular research facility, of course. Throughout his life at St. Thomas, which included ordination to the priesthood in 1847 and election as the monastery's abbot in 1868 (he was clearly well-loved, receiving all but one vote—presumably his own), Mendel engaged in the disciplines not only of the laboratory but also of the life of faith. The monks made no separation between the two lives, and when Gregor, who worked as a teacher, failed a qualifying state exam for teacher certification in 1849, his abbot, realizing the young man had been self-taught, sent him to the University of Vienna. Mendel spent 1851-1853 there, learning the methodological knowledge and research techniques that laid the groundwork for his breakthrough discovery.
That discovery, encapsulated in Mendel's landmark 1865 paper "Experiments on Plant Hybrids," has been called "a supreme example of scientific experimentation and profound penetration of data" and quite simply "one of the triumphs of the human mind." Though it was initially ignored, it became by the early 1900s the foundation of the new science of genetics. Mendel's pea-plant experiments, which took the monk eight intensive years to complete, have received more scholarly and classroom attention than any others in biology.
What, exactly, did Mendel's work contribute to science?
The brilliant monk's interest in how attributes in natural organisms are passed from parent to offspring was nothing new in the world. Ever since humans began domesticating animals and planting and harvesting crops, many thousands of years ago, this has been a matter of lively concern. But Mendel was the first to concentrate on one trait at a time and to describe the propagation of traits in mathematical terms. He cross-pollinated, for example, tall (TT) and dwarf (dd) pea plants. The first generation of hybrids consisted entirely of tall plants, because the dominant gene was present in all cases. However, the second generation, carrying both the dominant (T) and recessive (d) gene, yielded only 3 out of 4 tall plants (TT, Td, dT), with 1 out of 4 plants emerging as a physical dwarf (dd).
The legacy of this work includes not only subsequent advances in plant and animal hybridization, but the whole vast, complicated, fascinating, and potentially life-changing field of genetics. Like the Christian fathers of modern anatomy (Andreas Vesalius, 1514-1564), astronomy (Galileo Galilei, 1564-1642), medicine (William Harvey, 1578-1630), chemistry (Robert Boyle, 1627-1691), microbiology (Antony van Leeuwenhoek, 1632-1723), and mechanistic physics (Isaac Newton, 1642-1727) who preceded him, Mendel subjected God's creation to close scrutiny, seeking the good of humankind through scientific research. (His concern for social improvement is reflected in a small way in his birth-village, Hyncice, whose fire station he originally equipped with a donation of 3,000 guilders.) And in that goal, he succeeded— "beyond all that he could ask or imagine"— though it was decades after his death before the true value of his work was recognized.
Gregor Mendel would no doubt be horrified by the manipulative uses to which some modern, ethically challenged technicians wish to put the knowledge he unlocked. But he would not back down from our right and duty to pursue, through science, morally responsible ways of fulfilling the Genesis command to "subdue the earth." Like those other Christian "scientific fathers," Mendel found in science a worthy Christian vocation.
Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine.
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