Friday, March 13, 2009

Gregor Mendel

At the risk of being even more long-winded than yesterday, I will start with a rather oblique quote from GKC, but which I think as Fr. Jaki points out in the chapter "Critic of Evolutionism" in his Chesterton a Seer of Science reveals the true intellectual power and attention to detail GKC had, for all that he was not a scientist:
I cannot find, in the fullest report I have yet seen of Sir Arthur Keith's address on Darwinism, any particular reference to the famous theory of Darwin. The brilliant anthropologist seems to have devoted himself to discussing whether men were evolved from apes; or (more exactly perhaps) whether it was from apes that they were evolved, if they were evolved. Here, surely, the distinguished Darwinian is actually stooping to the stalest joke against Darwin. This may be Mr. Punch's view of Darwin; or Mr. Dan Leno's view of Darwin. It might be Mr. Podsnap's view of Darwin, or Mr. Chadband's view of Darwin; but it certainly was not Darwin's view of Darwin. Darwin was not satisfied with saying, as Mr. Podsnap might have said, that to the eye of an honest Englishman an Italian organ-grinder and his monkey looked very much alike. He did not confine himself to saying, as Mr. Chadband might have done, that as "we cannot fly because we are calculated to walk," so we have only ceased to have tails because we have ceased to live in trees. Whatever we may think of Darwin's theory, we can all think rather better than this of Darwin's mind. His idea was at least more philosophical and interesting than a mere question of how near men are to monkeys. His idea, his individual and special idea, was that there was a universal method of alteration and adaptation, applying not specially to men and monkeys, but to everything else. But Sir Arthur Keith seems to have talked rather as if other evolutionists had been saying that men were descended from elephants or emus or crocodiles, but that nothing should make ashamed of his dear old relative the chimpanzee.

It seems to me a curious narrowing of the real controversy about Natural Selection. It is rather as if he had lectured on the Mendelian theory of heredity, and had passed the whole time in comparing himself with a pea. It is true that the actual Abbot Mendel originally tested his theory by experimenting with peas in the little garden of the monastery; just as the actual naturalist Darwin did, no doubt, make a great many notes about monkeys. But what he was thinking about was his theory and not the particular things which illustrated it; and it was the whole point of the theory that any other things would have illustrated it just as well. All this business of a man resembling a monkey is in one sense a truism and in the other sense a complete untruth. If I am asked whether my face and form do in fact remind the spectator more of a monkey or of a sweet-pea, I am compelled to turn away with sorrow and reluctance from the sweet-pea. But that was not the way in which Darwin was thinking about monkeys or Mendel about peas.
[GKC ILN Sept 10 1927 CW34:374-6]
Perhaps this will be taken wrongly - let me give just one other little statement from GKC:
An agonising effort to be fair to the subtleties of the evolutionary controversy, in addressing the students of Notre Dame, Indiana, in a series on "Victorian Literature," of which no record remained except that one student wrote in the middle of his blank notebook, "Darwin did a lot of harm." I am not at all certain that he was wrong; but it was something of a simplification of my reasons for being agnostic about the agnostic deductions, in the debates about Lamarck and Mendel.
[GKC Autobiography CW16:300]
People are always bringing up Darwin whenever one begins to talk about science in the same diocese as religion - or talk about religion in the same n-space as science. (The other name they always bring up is Galileo - and we shall hear about him soon.) But when one brings up Darwin, one must also bring up Mendel.

Born in Austrian Silesia in 1822, Johann Mendel took the name Gregor when he entered the Augustinian order. He was ordained in 1847, taught until 1851 when he was sent for two years of study in math, physics, and natural sciences, after which he returned to his abbey and taught there. In 1868 he was elected abbot; the demands of his office caused him to cease his scientific work. He died in 1884. Though he pubished his work, it was in a relatively unimportant publication and it did not become widely known until 1899. (There's more to the matter, but I'll leave it at that.)

It through was his work on peas that he derived what are called Mendel's Laws, which specify how certain characteristics are passed down from parents to offspring - these are now called "dominant" and "recessive" traits. Note that not all traits are governed by this law! Some exhibit "incomplete (partial) dominance" or "no dominance (sometimes known as codominance). One example is the snapdragon: a cross between white and red gives pink offspring, but his rule still applies. [See e.g. Lewin, Genes 5-7] Somewhere I learned that it was due to his training in physics that he acquired the mathematical skills and discipline to track the large amounts of data - the statistics of yellow and green, smooth and wrinkled, and so on - and thereby have the confidence to formulate equations which could estimate the results.

The Catholic Encyclopedia states that he began experiments as a novice... I cannot give a reference but somewhere I recall learning that Mendel originally wanted to work with something else - I seem to recall that it was a flower - but his abbot would not give permission, and said it must be peas. I further recall that there was some oddity about whatever he wanted to work with that would have made his work much harder, if not impossible - maybe it was snapdragons - it made an impression on me, about God's rewards for obedience, much like GKC said in his play "The Surprise":
Obedience. The most thrilling word in the world; a very thunderclap of a word. Why do all these fools fancy that the soul is only free when it disagrees with the common command? Even the mobs who rise to burn and destroy owe all their grandeur and terror, and a sort of authority, not to their anger but to their agreement. Why should mere disagreement make us feel free? I know you are fond of dancing; do you want to dance to a different tune from your partner's? You are a fine horsewoman; do you want to think of walking northward all by yourself, when you and your horse are going southward together? ... do you suppose that nuns are unhappy? I never see them pass, silent and hooded, through their quiet cloisters but I have a vision: a vast vision of Amazons, wilder than any heathen Valkyrs, riders rushing into battle; a charge of chivalry going all one way, and every rider as free as Joan of Arc; galloping, galloping to God. That is the real vision of Obedience.
[GKC "The Surprise" CW11:313-4]
I shall conclude wit one little fragment from Fr. Jaki... is not moral duplicity, Victorian or other, which is my target, but the pseudo-scientific underpinning which was found by Victorians in Darwin's Origin of Species. That underpinning was Darwin's assertion, which often turned up in the Origin, that by relying on the word "chance" he did not mean the absence of cause. Clearly, he should have continually spoken of a cause or causes of mutation, which, of course, were unknown to him, although Mendel had already pointed them out in 1867.
[Jaki, "Beyond Science" in The Limits of a Limitless Science 95]

Yes, it would be of interest to explore the larger matters all this suggests - Mendel and Darwin - but all that is deferred to a future exploration.

See here for more.


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