Gregor Mendel- Lessons on Politics and Science

Science is a valuable endeavor for humans. It is through these efforts to understand how nature works that we fulfil our curiosity, contemplate our place in the universe, improve the health of humans, and otherwise affect our environments. Of course, when scientific discoveries are used to create technological “solutions,” things get far more complicated.

In recent years, we have seen that science is not the fact-driven endeavor our textbooks proclaim it to be. Scientists are humans with their own biases and values, and when scientists accept roles in political structures, their work becomes even further biased.

In the 2022 Gregor Mendel: His Life and Legacy, Daniel Fairbanks demonstrates this politicization of science is nothing new. We learn just how secular Mendel and the others in his community were. Its members were teachers, scientists, and school leaders. Their secular work was accepted by some religious leaders, but not others. Decisions were made to close the friary and sends it members to other communities, but that recommendation was never implemented.

After publishing his work on peas, Mendel became the abbot. He continued tending his gardens and bees and gathering data, but it was not published. He was also responsible for managing the affairs of the monastery, and those duties fund him at odds with local tax laws, and extended dispute with local officials.

Fairbanks also tells the story of the physical location of the monastery. In the 20th century, it has seen wars. It has been governed by communist and democratic systems. Many artifacts of Mendel’s work were lost in the various chaotic events in the region during the 20th century.

We also read about the efforts in the Soviet Union to ignore Mendel’s science under Lysenko. Fairbanks reminded me that Lysenko was not removed from his governmental role in until 1965. While that may seem ancient history to some, it is the recent past—to those of us born in that year—and when we consider the history of science and the history of our institutions.

Fairbank’s book is a wonderful read. We learn just how inadequate the version of Mendel’s work and its rediscovery that is presented in textbooks is. We learn about the strange contingencies of science. (It seems Darwin and Mendel came very close to meeting—both personally and scientifically. Mendel traveled close to Down House but did not read a translation of Origins until the next year. Darwin read papers and books I which Mendel’s work was a footnote, but there is no evidence he read Mendel’s original paper reporting is discoveries.

We also learn about the political factors that affect science. When we realize these are real, we will be able to better understand them and minimize their influences on what questions are asked what answers are deemed acceptable. Of course, it becomes clear after looking at the history of science, that nature proceeds as notice proceeds. When humans decide to impose their will on science, it does not turn out well.