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On Tenderness: What Genetics Godfather Gregor Mendel Teaches Us about the Heart of Science

“There is tenderness in the chemist measuring and re-measuring salts in the hood; in the mathematician kneading his equations to understand the shape of the cosmos; in the marine biologist learning to talk to dolphins…”

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013 (public library), edited by the pioneering cancer physician and researcher Siddhartha Mukherjee — who penned the Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer — collects precisely what it promises, with contributions from such celebrated minds as Alan Lightman, who explores our place in the universe, David Deutsch, who ponders the quantum horizons, Oliver Sacks, who takes us to the mind-bending world of hallucinations, Robert Sapolsky, who considers what comes after humanity, and Gareth Cook, who challenges our assumptions about autism. Still, it’s worth noting that of the anthology’s twenty-seven essays, five are by women — where are Rebecca Skloot, Maria Konnikova, and Maggie Koerth-Baker , among countless other women who write about science with unparalleled rigor and eloquence? (Perhaps fretting over the obvious omission of Mary Roach, grand dame of popular science, can be put at rest, since she did edit the 2011 edition of the anthology.)

Gender imbalance aside, however, the essays are undeniably exquisite. But among the most poignant is in fact the foreword by Mukherjee, in which he adds to history’s finest definitions of science a beautiful and counterintuitive reflection on what lies at the heart of science. A masterful storyteller, he draws us into a personal anecdote, then catapults us into a larger meditation on what the peculiar life of genetics godfather Gregor Mendel reveals about the driving force of true science:

In the summer of 2012, I traveled to Brno, in the Czech Republic, to visit the monastery of Gregor Mendel. I knew the barest details of Mendel’s life — enough to generate an anatomical sketch but not much more. Originally from a farming family in Moravia, he had joined the Augustinian monastery in Brno in the 1830s. In 1864, working with peas in the garden of his monastery, he stumbled on arguably the most seminal discovery of modern biology: that hereditary information is transmitted from one generation to the next in the form of discrete particles of information — “genes.”

As a geneticist himself, Mukherjee was inordinately excited about his pilgrimage. But he was unprepared for his brush with that classic Eastern European bureaucracy, the kind so vexing it might just engender violence: Once he made his way to Mendel’s monastery, he realized that the abbey, tended by an auburn-haired Czech woman, was closed that day and he had to fill out an application, in duplicate, in order to enter it and look for Mendel’s coveted notebooks and set foot in the room where the great geneticist made his historic pea hybrids tabulations. This was exasperating information, given he was only in town for a night. The absurdity of the situation only swelled when the woman informed him it was to her the application ought to be made. Mukherjee recounts:

I scrutinized her face. If there was even the faintest glimmer of irony, I had missed it. Well, two could play this game, I thought.

“In that case, I am applying to you now,” I said. “I hereby present my application to visit Gregor Mendel’s monastery.” I restrained myself from executing a small bow.

The woman considered the impasse carefully. A moment of understanding passed between us, like a tiny, malevolent bolt of electricity. She looked defeated.

“No photographs, okay?” she said. She pulled out a large key from under her desk and escorted me in.

And so Mukherjee entered the holy premises of scientific history — but only to find damp walls, austere one-room cells, and a modest library of about 200 leather-bound books — none on botany or even any aspect of biology — with a reading chair beside them. Mendel’s own room was befitting, with only a small bed and a chair in the corner. Mukherjee found himself hopelessly underwhelmed — having traveled 3,000 miles to the birthplace of genetics in search of “something magical,” of “an insight into the soul of the man who had revolutionized biology,” he felt a growing sense of disappointment. He felt duped, even, in that familiar way we all have of being angry at no one in particular for the unfortunate turn of events that crushed our optimistic expectation. Once his anger cooled, though, he reflected on the apt meta-message of the experience:

Perhaps the custodians of Mendel’s legacy had — if unwittingly — achieved a rather accurate re-creation, or even a reenactment, of his life in the abbey. The rule-boundedness, the deference to authority, the moral disapproval at the smallest transgressions of discipline — that ever-so-slight shrug at my unfiled application — were all symptomatic; had Mendel himself been asked to curate a monument to his own stifling times, he could not have chosen a more seasoned actor to play its guardian.

Mendel’s forty-odd-year stint at the Brno abbey was, indeed, deeply constrained by rules, habits, and limits. He began his experiments on inheritance by breeding field mice but was asked to discontinue them because forcing mice to mate was considered too risqué for a monk. He failed his training exams in science —notably in geology and biology — because he was unable to classify rocks and mammals using the elaborate traditional systems of classification. A sympathetic superior, Abbot Napp, allowed him to continue his experiments on peas in his garden plot, but Mendel was held to the abbey’s strict routines and demands. In one of the few letters that survive, a stern note from his watchers instructs him to remember to wear his cap to church services. Mendel, for his part, was all too eager to comply. Far from a boundary-breaking, rule-bending enfant terrible, he was disciplined, deferential, and dull.

How on earth, then, did this man, in this place, unlock the secret of genes?

At this point, Charles Bukowski might chime in with his sarcastic admonition about the ideal conditions of creativity, but Mukherjee continues:

Newton had his cometary intellect; Einstein was born a rebel and bred to defy convention; Feynman was the comic genius of physics, exposing his discipline’s vanities like a jester in a court of fools. But Gregor Mendel? The founder of modern biology seems, in contrast, to have been born without contrast — a man of habits plodding his way among men in habits.

William James, on the other hand, would have gladly commended rather than condemned habit as a force of creativity. But Mukherjee steers his way to a different kind of solution to the seeming puzzle, one that captures with equal parts poetry and pride the essence of science:

At least part of the answer, I think, takes us back to the monastery — to that minuscule rectangle of land by the refectory; to the walled garden; to the indelible image of a monk in wire-rimmed glasses tending plants—stooping, with paintbrush and forceps, to transfer the orange dust of pollen from the stamen of one flower to the pistil of the next. “It requires indeed some courage to undertake a labor of such far-reaching extent,” Mendel wrote in his 1865 paper, describing an eight-year experiment on cross-fertilization that ultimately revealed the existence of genes. But “courage,” I would argue, is the wrong word here. More than “courage,” there is something else evident in that work — a quality that I can only describe as “tenderness.”

It is a word not typically used to describe science or scientists. It shares roots, of course, with “tending” — a farmer’s or gardener’s activity — but also with “tension,” the stretching of a pea tendril to incline it toward sunlight or train it on an arbor. It describes a certain intimacy between humans and nature — a nourishment that must happen before investigation can happen, the delicacy of labor that must be performed before the delicacy of its fruits can be harvested.

It’s interesting, too, that George R. R. Martin has used a similar metaphor to describe the two kinds of writers, architects and gardeners. It’s precisely this gift for “gardening,” argues Mukherjee, that lent the godfather of genetics his great strength:

Mendel was, first and foremost, a gardener; his science began with tending. His genius was certainly not fueled by deep knowledge of the conventions of biology (thankfully, he failed that exam). Rather, it was his instinctual knowledge of the garden, coupled with an incisive power of observation, that brought him to question the nature of inheritance and thereby discover genes. The act of tending — the laborious cross-pollination of seedlings, the meticulous tabulation of the colors of cotyledons and the markings of wrinkles on seeds — soon led him to findings that could not be explained by the traditional understanding of inheritance. Heredity, Mendel realized, could be explained only by the passage of discrete pieces of information from parents to offspring. There had to be atoms of information — particles of inheritance — moving from one generation to the next. Tending generated tension — until the old fulcrum of biology was snapped in two.

Mendel’s legacy, of course, is history — not only in science, but in every aspect of culture. Without it, for instance, Richard Dawkins would’ve never coined the concept of a “meme,” which he originally explained with an analogy to Mendel’s discovery: “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain.”

Mukherjee reflects on the broader role of tenderness in science and its function as our last bulwark against the dehumanizing capacities of technology, an antidote to this age of exponentially glorified science-industrial complex of big data, factory-like labs, and disembodied algorithms:

When I witness science in action, I see this tenderness in abundance. … Look closely among scientists, and you find this quality everywhere. There is tenderness in the chemist measuring and re-measuring salts in the hood; in the mathematician kneading his equations to understand the shape of the cosmos; in the marine biologist learning to talk to dolphins. . . . In age of increasingly mechanized production, the genesis of scientific knowledge remains an unyieldingly, obstreperously hand-hewn process. It is among the most human of our activities. Far from being subsumed by the dehumanizing effects of technology, science remains our last stand against it.

And so it is with this criterion in mind — tenderness — that Mukherjee selected the essays in the collection, meditations that reveal not only how science actually happens but also who or what propels its immutable humanity. Complement The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013 with this collection of 2012’s finest science writing online, then revisit the best science books of the past year.

Published October 22, 2013




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