Daily Archives: 20 July 2014

July 20, 1822 (a Saturday)

The earliest known photograph of Gregor Mendel.

On this date, Gregor Johann Mendel was born (the day he was baptized, July 22nd, is often given erroneously as his birthday). He performed a series of beautifully designed experiments on pea plants over a period of seven years, from 1856 to 1863, to discover the principles of heredity. His studies were the first to focus on the numerical relationships among traits appearing in the progeny of hybrids; and his interpretation, clear and concise, was based on material hereditary elements that undergo segregation and independent assortment.

Mendel delivered two lectures on the results of his experiments at the meetings of the Society of Natural Sciences in Brünn, Austria on February 8th and March 8th in 1865. He turned these lectures into a (long) paper, published in the 1866 issue of the Proceedings of the Society, but it received little notice. Mendel apparently even sent one of his scientific papers to Darwin, but Darwin never bothered to read it. Mendel abandoned his experiments in the 1860s after he was appointed abbot of his monastery and his time was taken up in administrative duties.

The importance of Mendel’s work was not recognized until about thirty years after the publication of his seminal paper, when Hugo de Vries in 1900 in Holland, William Bateson in 1902 in Great Britain, Franz Correns in 1900 in Germany, and Erich Tschermak in 1901 in Austria were all to acknowledge Mendel’s legacy, and hail him as the true “father” of classical genetics.

Curiously, proponents of Intelligent Design (ID) theory have attempted to appropriate Mendel. Steve Fuller openly declares that ID theorists “would do well to reclaim the likes of Newton, Linnaeus, and Mendel as their own” (2007, p 7). Fuller claims that Mendel was no evolutionist, but a “special creationist with a grasp of probability theory”. For Fuller, the Mendelian rules of heredity are laws designed by God, that define “the range of traits that God deemed permissible in a given species”.

The only occasion that Mendel expressed himself directly on the subject of evolution was in an examination paper he sat in 1850. Discussing the origin of plant and animal forms, in the context of the formation of the earth, he wrote:

As soon as the earth in the course of time had achieved the necessary capability for the formation and maintenance of organic life, plants and animals of the lowest sorts first appeared.

[In time, organic life] developed more and more abundantly; the oldest forms disappeared in part, to make space for new, more perfect ones.

[This is] at the present time the generally accepted view of the emergence and development of the earth (Orel 1984, pp 237-8).

This is far from any “creationism” (even “special creationism”).

When he wrote this, he had been a monk for seven years. He finished his studies at the University of Vienna three years later, in 1853; began his Pisum experiments in earnest in 1856; and did not deliver his talk on those experiments until 1865. Of course, his ideas may have changed in time—and in any case, the views expressed in an examination may not always reflect the writer’s real opinion; but in the absence of any other statement by Mendel on the origin of species, this would appear to undermine any notion that he was a “special creationist.”

References:

  • Fisher, R.A. “Has Mendel’s work been rediscovered?Annals of Science, v. 1: 115-137 (1936)
  • Fuller, Steve (2007). Science vs. Religion? (Cambridge: Polity Press).
  • Orel, Vitěslav (ed.) (1984). ‘Mendels Hausarbeit in Naturgeschichte von 1850’. In: Folia Mendeliana 18 (Special edition).
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July 20, 1804 (a Friday)

Sir Richard Owen, photo by Herbert Rose Barraud.

On this date, English anatomist, taxonomist, and paleontologist Richard Owen was born. He studied briefly at Edinburgh (1824), then at a private London anatomy school. Owen established a reputation as a great anatomist with his Memoir on the Pearly Nautilus (1832). He gave us many of the terms still used today in anatomy and evolutionary biology, such as “homology” which he famously defined in 1843 as “the same organ in different animals under every variety of form and function.”

In an article published in the Proceedings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in April, 1842, Owen formally named a new group of extinct reptiles, including Iguanodon, Megalosaurus and Hylaeosaurus, as the “Dinosauria” — that is, the dinosaurs (from the Greek “deinos” meaning fearfully great and “sauros” meaning lizard). Owen named and described the following dinosaurs: Anthodon (1876), Bothriospondylus (1875), Cardiodon (1841), Cetiosaurus (1841, although Owen incorrectly thought that it was a kind of crocodile and not a dinosaur), Chondrosteosaurus (1876), Cimoliornis (1846), Cladeidon (1841), Coloborhynchus (1874), Dacentrurus (1875), Dinodocus (1884), Echinodon (1861), Massospondylus (1854), Nuthetes (1854), Polacanthus (1867), and Scelidosaurus (1859).

Richard Owen died on December 18, 1892.

July 20, 1925 (a Monday)

William Jennings Bryan (seated at left) being questioned by Clarence Darrow (standing at right).

On this date in the Scopes Monkey Trial, assistant defense attorney Arthur Hays rose to summon one more witness – William Jennings Bryan – as an expert on the Bible. Malone, another attorney on the defense team, whispered to John Scopes, “Hell is going to pop now.” Calling Bryan was a highly unusual move, but Bryan agreed with some enthusiasm, stipulating only that he should have a chance to interrogate the defense lawyers. During his examination, Bryan stated his reason for testifying: “These gentlemen…did not come here to try this case. They came here to try revealed religion. I am here to defend it and they can ask me any question they please.” Judge Raulston, concerned that the crowd massing to watch this clash of legal titans would prove injurious to the courthouse, ordered that the trial reconvene on the adjacent lawn.

Darrow examined Bryan for almost two hours, all but ignoring the specific case against Scopes while doing his best to undermine a literalist interpretation of the Bible. After initially contending that “everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there,” Bryan conceded that the words of the Bible should not always be taken literally. “[S]ome of the Bible is given illustratively,” he observed. “For instance: `Ye are the salt of the earth.’ I would not insist that man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God’s people.” Although Bryan believed the story of a big fish swallowing Jonah, Joshua making the sun stand still, and other miracles, he conceded that the six days of creation, as described in Genesis, were not literally twenty-four hour days but were probably periods of time lasting many years.

Fundamentalists in the audience listened with increasing discomfort as their champion questioned Biblical “truths,” and Bryan slowly came to realize that he had stepped into a trap. At one point, the frustrated Bryan said, “I do not think about things I don’t think about.” Darrow asked, “Do you think about the things you do think about?” Bryan responded, to the derisive laughter of spectators, “Well, sometimes.” It was an embarrassing and bleak moment in what had been Bryan’s brilliant career.