Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Mendel At 200

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, History of Science, Nature of Science

Ed Hessler

On July 22 was celebrated the 200th birthday * of the Augustinian friar, Gregor Mendel, whose careful work with pea plants, described the basic principles of inheritance.

"The true legacy of Gregory Mendel: careful, rigorous and humble science" is the title of an editorial in the British science journal Nature, describing his research. It is short but here are a few points it makes.

--While his notes, interim observations and working methods were burned following his death, recent historical material has made clear that  "that Mendel was a careful scientist; cautious, patient and committed to data. These qualities allowed him to make discoveries that have stood the test of time."

--Mendel's paper "‘Experiments on plant hybrids’,  presented to the Natural History Society of Brno (now in the Czech Republic) in 1865" is described as "a model for research communication. It describes, in accessible language, how Mendel established controls and protected the integrity of his experiments (such as taking steps to reduce the risk of wind-blown or insect pollination). He is generous in crediting others’ work on the subject. The final part of the manuscript includes a discussion of caveats and potential sources of error."

-- "Mendel’s name was wrongly and irresponsibly appropriated to give weight to eugenics, the scientifically inaccurate idea that humans can be improved through selective breeding. Just a few decades after his death in 1884, his work began to be discussed and cited by scientists advocating theories of racial superiority." 

--Today we know "that genes are not destiny, four words that bear repeating loudly and frequently" (my bold).

--"It is worth pausing for just a moment to celebrate his absolute commitment to careful observation, rigour in analysis and humility in interpreting the results."

If you are interested in a thorough technical review, the science and the history, of Mendel's work, I refer you to  "How Did Mendel Arrive At His Discoveries?" It includes all the scientific and historical details to present.

* The editorial footnote reports on a scholarly debate on Mendel's date of birth, July 22 or July 20. The latter is the date of the official anniversary but his family celebrated it on July 22, the date the editors of Nature editors also chose to mark the occasion.


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