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The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel, the Father of Genetics.

The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel, the Father of Genetics by Robin Marantz Henig, 292 pages, Mariner Books, $14.00

For all who vaguely recall learning (and then forgetting) the Aa and Bb crosses of Gregor Mendel's peas in high-school biology class, there is news. The history of genetics is back, but in a much livelier format--a veritable soap opera of intrigue, jealousy, triumph and disappointment as told by Robin Marantz Henig in her book, The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel.

Henig's cast of real-life characters includes Mendel himself, born Johann Mendel in 1822, a Moravian farmer's son with a good intellect who did not want to be a farmer and who, as a teenager, would strangely take to his bed for months at a time. There is also Charles Darwin, the creator of evolution theory, who might have understood inheritance better had he ever read the scientific paper Gregor Mendel sent him. And there are several scientists: the Dutchman Hugo De Vries, the German Karl Correns, and the Englishman William Bateson, each of whom might have been more famous had they not all been scooped a generation earlier by Mendel's discovery of the basic laws of genetics.

Through his painstaking cross-breeding of peas over seven years in the 1850s, Mendel discovered the existence of dominant and recessive traits. Understanding exactly what Mendel might have been thinking in his experiments with peas is, however, one of the difficulties of writing about the famous scientist-monk. Mendel's successor as abbot of the monastery in the city of Brno (now in the Czech Republic) made things harder by burning most of his predecessor's records so that biographers must rely on educated hunches as to how much Mendel understood about what he had discovered. It is clear, though, that Mendel knew he had uncovered one of nature's most intriguing secrets. Yet surprisingly, the man who is now acknowledged rightly as the "father of genetics" never heard the terms "genetics" or "gene" in his lifetime. The two words were coined separately long after his death and, interestingly, have separate origins.

A modest, brilliant man dedicated to advancing science (who did terribly on academic tests), Gregor Mendel is the obvious and sympathetic hero of the tale. The antiheroes to some extent are the scientists of his day who heard his lectures or received his papers in the mail but who failed to, or did not want to, grasp their significance or the mathematics Mendel applied to them. The tragedy of Mendel is that he may have died believing he was wrong, when his astounding accomplishment was that he was exactly right.

A strange footnote to Mendel's story and that of the early 20th century scientists who revived his lost discoveries is mentioned only in passing in this book. In 1950, the Czechoslovakian army took down the statue of Gregor Mendel that was erected in his honor in 1910. Mendel and the whole theory of genetic inheritance fell afoul of the pseudoscientific theories of Trofim Lysenko, the minister of Soviet agriculture who had gained the backing of the scientifically naive Soviet bureaucracy. Under Lysenko, many legitimate scientists had to renounce genetic theory or be sent to the gulag. Lysenkoism reigned for decades and made a mess of Soviet agronomy until it was finally disproven.

The whole bizarre episode of the hijacking of a scientific elite shows what can happen when government interferes with the workings of legitimate scientific research. For those who want to read the whole story, it is told in the classic book The Lysenko Affair by Northwestern University professor of history David Joravsky.
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Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2006
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