Gregor Mendel (1822)
It was on this date, July 22, 1822, that Moravian monk and amateur botanist Gregor Johann Mendel was born in Heinzendorf (now Hynčice), a tiny village in Austrian Silesia, which was then under Hapsburg rule. A peasant with a passion for learning, owing to the poverty of his family, Mendel noviced at the Abbey of St. Thomas at what is now Brno, Czech Republic, in 1843, and was ordained in 1847. He entered the Augustinian Monastery in Brno, which allowed Mendel to study mathematics and science at the University of Vienna. He taught for several years, but eventually gave that up to become abbot of his monastery.
It was in the monastic garden that Mendel made the first experiments in cross-breeding pea plants, combining botany with his mathematical knowledge to produce predictions about dominant and recessive traits. He published the founding theories of genetics before genes were ever discovered, and his researches would have jump-started the science of genetics had not his 1866 paper, Experiments in Plant Hybridization, passed into oblivion because it was published only in the backwater of Brno, and had no champion, like Darwin his Huxley. Difficulty in getting his theory noticed was due also to a lack of mathematical literacy in the field of botany. Mendel's theories were rediscovered posthumously in 1900 by Hugo de Vries (1848-1935) in Holland, Carl Correns (1864-1933) in Germany, and Erich Tschermak von Seysenegg (1871-1962) in Austria – and by courtesy his name is given to Mendel's Laws of Inheritance.
Popular writers, such as the website St. Francis Online, say Freethinkers forget to mention, among scientists, "Christians whose faith supported them in their scientific endeavors, like Blaise Pascal, Louis Pasteur and Gregor Mendel."* This is a truly bizarre criticism: Pascal was seriously ill all of his life and the work on which we judge his religious beliefs was published only after his death, with modifications to make him appear orthodox. Pasteur was a Rationalist all his life.
As for Gregor Mendel, this so-called "devoted monk,"** and "great Catholic scientist" is not even claimed by the (new) Catholic Encyclopedia. His biographer, Hugo Iltis, was a relative, and in the German original of his 1924 Life of Mendel he gives evidence that Mendel was seriously anti-Christian in his youth and remained skeptical all his life. Mendel wrote an aggressively Rationalist poem, speaking of "the gloomy powers of superstition which now oppress the world," two years before entering the monastery.
And how did he end up in a monastery? Iltis shows that Mendel became a monk only to get leisure to study. He shirked his priestly duties whenever he could, and remained a skeptic (that is, a Deist). Failing eyesight and his duties as abbot distracted Mendel from his researches – so much the worse for science. Even after he became abbot, however, he read and annotated Darwin's Origin of Species and accepted evolution, something no orthodox Catholic was allowed to do at the time. Mendel's researches supplanted the dominance of Darwin's idea that evolution occurred by random mutation, complementing it with the theory of inheritance of dominant characteristics.
It is one of the ironies of science history that Darwin was never aware of Mendel's discoveries – which would have provided a much-needed "missing link" of support for evolutionary theory!
* St. Francis Bookshop Online (Catholic)
** Bible Believers.Net (Fundamentalist Protestant)
Comment on my Rant
On Mon, 15 Sep 2003, I received the following e-mail in response to my commentary:
Thank you for the interesting essay. I would like to point out that Gregor Mendel is, in fact, claimed proudly in the Catholic Encyclopedia from about 1917: [link here] although interestingly, it says he pursued his research because he was "dissatisfied with Darwinian views." (Darwin is not granted an entry; he was vocally against the Church during his life, after all.) I don't see why you wouldn't consider Mendel a "Christian scientist"; at least, his work and lifestyle were subsidized by the Church. The "superstition" he mentions in his poem could have easily referred to medical science at the time, not just Christian practices. Since the Church has since done away with much superstition--at least Catholics now believe undoubtedly in evolution and genetics, since the Bible is meant as a moral truth more than a historical truth--so his being anti-superstition seems not to attack in any way the more fundamental heart of Christianity which is following of the teachings of Christ.
Also, I do not understand your statement: Mendel's researches overturned Darwin's idea that evolution occurred by random mutation, supplanting that with his own theory of inheritance of dominant characteristics. In my view, Mendel's work was complementary to Darwin's, since Mendel was describing the default situation of heredity, where there are no evolutionary pressures and no selective advantage to one trait over another. And Darwin described a different situation, in which nevertheless the trait of the successful animal is passed on with the ratios Mendel figured out, just that only the strongest survived to reproduce and the outcome as far as population genetics is not strictly Mendelian over a longer time span.
biology graduate student
It's always a pleasure to correspond with a lapsed Catholic!
I am aware that the Catholic Encyclopedia claims Gregor Mendel. So do most apologists who don't look too closely into what he actually believed, as opposed to where he worked. As far I can determine, the abbey was just a job for Mendel. His church may have (in some sense) supported him in his work, but not his faith.
However, I would never consider Mendel a Christian scientist in the sense you seem to suggest. The Catholic Church may have employed him, but it was indifferent to his studies; otherwise, his conclusions would not have languished for decades. The church certainly had the money to publish and promote him while he was alive and obscure, but they seem content to claim him now that he's dead and famous.
There is no Christian science, just as there is no Muslim mathematics or Jewish geography — religion is irrelevant to empirical disciplines. As for the "the gloomy powers of superstition which now oppress the world" Mendel mentions in his poem, I can't see how you come to the idea that he may have been referring to nineteenth century medical science. As rudimentary as it was, medicine in Mendel's time was still finding its footing in the study of this world, not the next.
You are correct that Darwin and Mendel held complementary ideas of evolutionary mechanics. What I wrote was a rhetorical overstatement which I have now toned down, as I would rather not anyone misunderstand.
The world can use more scientists like you, so I wish you well in your studies. Thank you for your useful comments!
Hitchens says, "I'm an atheist. I'm not neutral about religion, I'm hostile to it. I think it is a positively bad idea, not just a false one. And I mean not just organized religion, but religious belief itself."