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The Abbot and the Peas

  • ANTHONY ESOLEN

How foolish and ungrateful is the notion that the Catholic Church has been opposed to science!


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mendel Gregor Mendel
1822-1884

Consider the scientific work of two men.  One of them has all the advantages of wide travel, over many decades.  He's sailed aboard British ships visiting places isolated from the rest of the world, like the Galapagos Islands. He's logged thousands of pages of his observations of their plants and animals. He has been in conversation with the chief geologists of the time, some of whom have anticipated him in his theories. He even has a popularizer, a materialist and would-be philosopher who tags his theories with the name "evolution."  That name has stuck, even though the scientist himself rarely used it, and though its inner metaphor, that of unfolding hidden potentialities, is at odds with the aimlessness he attributes to biological history. This muddled term will provide the context in which people will think, and seldom clearly, about all things, including culture, art, race, and politics. When it causes them to scorn the past — the land of cave-dwellers — and to deny the essences of things — since nothing remains constant — it is a poison pill for the intellect.

That scientist, Charles Darwin, once wrote that he had no use for poetry.  That spiritual organ had dried up within him, along with his sense for the eternal.  He wrote The Origin of Species, though he really denied that species as such exist; only a flux of states of being, subject to continuous tiny changes. 

I'm not going to dispute the greatness of Darwin's achievement.  But at that same time there was another biologist at work on heredity, who was dissatisfied with the Englishman's theories regarding it.  He didn't have the advantage of travel over the world, or the trumpet of the press.  He had to work with the plants he had available where he was, or with strains of bees that he had sent for from other lands.  He was unknown during his lifetime, but he didn't care, saying that his time would come.  He had use for poetry, music, and prayer many times a day.  He had to, because he was the long-time abbot of the Augustinian monastery of Saint Thomas, in the city we know as Brno, in the Czech Republic.  His name was Gregor Mendel, the father of modem genetics. 

Peas in a pod?


Father Mendel did his groundbreaking work with pea plants.  He noticed that some of the plants were tall, and some were dwarfs.  Some had round seeds, some had wrinkled seeds.  Some had yellow seeds, some had green seeds.  Over the course of seven years, before his duties as abbot severely curtailed his work, he bred and cross-bred pea plants, twenty-nine thousand of them, logging the traits of each, carefully breeding and cross-breeding, and noting the results.  Think of the painstaking work! And without the romance of the sea, without the encouragement of professional recognition. 

What did Father Mendel discover?  What would you get if you bred a pure tall strain with a pure dwarf strain?  What do you think?  Darwin believed that the traits would average out, and so we might say that the parents "disappear" into the children.  The next generation of pea plants would be neither tall nor dwarf, but in between.  Evolution would be a process whereby the past is lost for ever.  We know now that there are respects in which a kind of averaging occurs, but that's because of the simultaneous effects of several genes — the word arises from Mendel's research — that individually do not average out.  In other words, the parents do not disappear. 

All of the plants in the second generation were tall. 

"Good for the pea plants!" you may say.  The tall pea plant can now raise his proud head above the mere dwarf, which will gradually die out, so that a strain of master pea plants will take over the Kingdom of Legumes.  But that didn't happen either. 

When Father Mendel self-fertilized those tall plants, something baffling occurred.  Some of the plants in the second generation were tall, and some were dwarfs. 

"Half and half!" you may say.  But no, you'd be wrong about that, too.  The tall plants outnumbered the dwarfs by three to one. 

"Ah, then the tall plants will win out eventually!" you may say.  "Three to one now, four to one tomorrow!" But no, that wasn't so either.  Those dwarf pea plants were not going anywhere

Suppose you're wondering which tie to wear to the ice cream social.  One is strawberry, and one is pistachio.  The strawberry tie is your usual one, but pretty Fraulein Frieda favors pistachio.  So you're leaning toward pistachio, but you're still not sure.  You decide to flip a coin.  Heads, it's pistachio.  Tails, it's strawberry.  It comes up tails.  You decide to flip it again.  "This time," you say, "whatever it is, it is." 

What have you done?  There are four possibilities, if you flip the coin twice.  You can have heads and heads, heads and tails, tails and heads, and tails and tails.  Only in the last case will you wear the strawberry tie.  In the other three cases, you'll wear the pistachio tie — with the "strawberry" hidden, so to speak, in two of those cases, in those tails that you've allowed to be overruled by the heads. 

An oversimplification, but there you have it.  Father Mendel theorized that each plant carried two markers for the opposed traits, one from each of its parents.  We call those markers genes.  One of the genes dominates over the other, so when you have a gene for brown eyes and one for blue eyes, your eyes will be brown, not blue, and not some muddy color in between.  But the "recessive" gene, the one that is not dominant, survives. 

Suppose you and your wife have brown eyes, but each of you had a parent with blue eyes.  That means that each of you carries a hidden gene for blue eyes — for the strawberry tie.  If you have sixteen children — and God bless you if you do! — some of them may have eyes like the sky; four will be the most likely number. 

A man of tenacity

It all seems so dear, now.  But that's what great discoveries do: they open our eyes.  Everyone knew, before Isaac Newton, that apples fell from trees and that the planets revolved about either the earth or the sun.  But it was Newton who proposed that the apple and the planet were doing the same sort of thing.  Everyone knew, before John Dalton, that if you combined one substance (say, sulfur) with another (say, lye), you might get something that was very different from either one.  But it was Dalton who saw that certain discrete atoms were combining with others in specific proportions.  Mendel's discovery was on that tremendous order. 

What can motivate a man to do the work he did?  Consider that he had no university laboratory, no large fund to draw from, and no cadre of research assistants.  He did publish his results in the local scientific journal in 1866, but his work was ignored until fifteen years after he had died. 

We might find a clue in the battle he fought against the secularizing government of the Austrian empire.  Every hundred years or so, it seems, men surge up in hatred of religious houses — of anything that suggests that there's something more important in life than "progress" in the pursuit of pleasure, glory, wealth, whatever.  So it was in the time of Father Mendel.  The government had slapped a special tax on religious institutions, one that other institutions did not have to pay.  Father Mendel refused to truckle to the injustice.  One by one, abbeys that had stood with him gave in.  Only Mendel held out to the end, fighting.  The government could come and seize goods by force; he would not sign. 

We can imagine the feelings of the abbot when he prayed the psalm with the rest of his monks, Yea, my own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted up his heel against me (cf. Ps 41:9). Or when, in his later years, alone in his courageous stand, suffering from the kidney ailment that would end his life, his work submerged in obscurity, he could recover a ray of cheer, when he prayed before Mass, I will go in unto the altar of God, of God, who gives joy to my youth (cf. Ps 43:4).  He looked to the hills, whence came his help: our help that is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth. 

A burr in the coat

How foolish and ungrateful is the notion that the Catholic Church has been opposed to science!  It isn't just that the history of science is filled with men of God, such as Gregor Mendel.  Its that the Church, following Scripture, had long taught that God had made the world in measure, weight, and number, an intelligible world, a world of wonders that declare the glory of God; and the man of faith can look closely at that world and praise God in doing so.  But one misstep — Galileo ordered to propose his thoughts as a theory (which it was) rather than as established fact (which it certainly was not) — is enough for the calumny.  It's like what happens when a shaggy and careless dog rambles through the briars.  He picks up a burr in his coat, and by the time he trots back home for dinner, his fur has matted it all around in a great stubborn lump.  At that point you can't pick it out.  Even a comb or a brush won't work.  There's nothing for it but to get out the scissors and cut the fur. 

Remember Father Mendel, dear readers, the next time you meet that shaggy dog.

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Acknowledgement

Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church has changed the world: The Abbot and the Peas." Magnificat (August, 2015): 206-211.

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is the author of Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity, Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian Life, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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