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.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Issue 76 of Christian History, "The Christian Face of the Scientific Revolution" has more on the "fathers" mentioned above. Sample articles are available online.
The site also has a section on leading Christians who see genetics as a positive enterprise—including Dr. Francis Collins, leading gene researcher and director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, NIH.
For a fascinating tour of the St. Thomas Abbey and Gregor Mendel's life and work, see the website for the Abbey's "Mendel Museum of Genetics."
Mendel's original paper and much more on the origins of classical genetics are available at Mendelweb.org.
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous editions include:
I'm Dreaming of a Victorian Christmas | An ageless story reminds us of the values the Victorians can still teach us. (Dec. 23, 2002)
No Humbug | A Christmas Carol remains the quintessential holiday story, but why? (Dec. 20, 2002)
'Tell Billy Graham the Jesus People Love Him.' | How evangelism's senior statesman helped the hippies "tune in, turn on to God." (Dec. 13, 2002)
Advent—Close Encounters of a Liturgical Kind | 'Tis the season when even the free-ranging revivalist pulls up a chair to the table of historic liturgy. (Dec. 6, 2002)
Dig that Billy Graham Cat! | How the grand old man of evangelism helped create Christian youth culture in the zoot-suit era. (Nov. 22, 2002)
From Swamped Creatures to Separated Brethren | Non-Catholics' spiritual status improved dramatically from Unam Sanctam to Vatican II, but where are we now? (Nov. 15, 2002)
An 'Ordinary Saint' in Wartime | William Wilberforce saw two long charitable campaigns through, even in war's distracting shadow. (Nov. 8, 2002)
Just War, Just Nation? | World War II preacher points America back to the nation's soul. (Nov. 1, 2002)
No Sex (Before Marriage), Please … We're Christian | Miss America preaches a 2000-year-old message. (Oct. 25, 2002)
The King Is Coming, Eventually | What if you announced the rapture, but God didn't show up? (Oct. 18, 2002)
Timeline of the Spirit-Gifted | Before Moody, Finney, Edwards, and Mather came a long line of Catholic and Orthodox believers reputed to enjoy "the promise of the Father." (Oct. 11, 2002)
Do Non-Charismatics 'Do' Holy Spirit Baptism? | Ask D. L. Moody, Charles G. Finney, Jonathan Edwards, or Cotton Mather. (Oct. 4, 2002)
Standing Alone for Unity | The attempt to bring European Christians together forced one reformer, Caspar Schwenckfeld, straight to the fringe. (Sept. 20, 2002)
9/11, History, and the True Story | Wartime authors J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis help put 9/11 in perspective. (Sept. 13, 2002)
Evangelicalism's Decades of Fire | New historical survey highlights twentieth-century evangelicalism's impassioned middle decades. (Sept. 6, 2002)
A Protestant Bishop Speaks Out on the Stakes of Public Education | Why concerned parents should read the 17th-century Moravian educational reformer Jan Amos Comenius. (Aug. 30, 2002)
Spurgeon on Jabez | What history's most prolific preacher said, in 1871, about the Prayer of Jabez (Aug. 23, 2002)
History in a Flash | A new CD-ROM offers quick access to the facts of church history, plus interactive quizzes. (Aug. 16, 2002)
How the Early Church Saw Heaven | The first Christians had very specific ideas about who they would meet in the afterlife (Aug. 9, 2002)
Divvying up the Most Sacred Place | Emotions have historically run high as Christians have staked their claims to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Aug. 2, 2002)
Previous Christianity Today articles on cloning and bioethics include:
'Only Cellular Life'? | Christians, leaders, and bioethics watchdogs react to the announcement that human embryos have been cloned. (Nov. 29, 2001)
The New Tyranny | Biotechnology threatens to turn humanity into raw material. (Oct. 5, 2001)
Gen-Etiquette | Scientists may be mapping the genome, but it will be up to us to determine where the map will lead. (Oct. 4, 2001)
Manipulating the Linguistic Code | Religious language falling into the hands of scientists can be a fearful thing. (Oct. 4, 2001)
Times Fifty | Can a clone be an individual? A short story. (Oct. 2, 2001)
The Genome Doctor | The director of the National Human Genome Research Institute answers questions about the morality of his work. (Oct. 1, 2001)
Wanna Buy a Bioethicist? (Editorial) | Some corporations have discovered that bioethics makes good public relations. (Sept. 28, 2001)
Two Cheers | President Bush's stem-cell decision is better than the fatal cure many sought. (August 10, 2001)
House Backs Human Cloning Ban | Scientists say they'll go ahead anyway. (August 27, 2001)
Embryos Split Prolifers | Bush decision pleases some, keeps door open for disputed research. (August 27, 2001)
House of Lords Legalizes Human Embryo Cloning | Religious leaders' protests go unheeded by lawmakers. (Feb. 2, 2001)
Britain Debates Cloning of Human Embryos | Scientists want steady stream of stem cells for "therapeutic" purposes. (Nov. 22, 2000)
Tissue of Lies? | Latest stem-cell research shows no urgent need to destroy human embryos for the cause of science. (Sept. 28, 2000)
Beyond the Impasse to What? | Stem-cell research may not need human embryos after all. But why are we researching in the first place? (Aug. 18, 2000)
Thus Spoke Superman | Troubling language frames the stem-cell debate. (June 13, 2000)
New Stem-Cell Research Guidelines Criticized | NIH guidelines skirt ethical issues about embryo destruction, charge bioethicists. (Feb. 7, 2000)
Human Embryo Research Resisted (August 9, 1999)
Editorial: The Biotech Temptation (July 12, 1999)
Embryo Research Contested (May 24, 1999)