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Geneticist Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig on Darwinism and Gregor Mendel’s “Sleeping Beauty”

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Gregor Mendel

Gregor Mendel is, of course, the father of the science of genetics. In a new peer-reviewed paper, “Mendel’s Paper on the Laws of Heredity (1866): Solving the Enigma of the Most Famous ‘Sleeping Beauty’ in Science,” geneticist Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig asks why Mendel’s theory of heredity, developed in the 19th century, was initially rejected or ignored by many other scientists. Writing in the journal eLS, Dr. Lönnig concludes that it’s because at that time, the scientific community was completely enamored with Darwinian evolution and unwilling to consider ideas that did not fit with Darwin’s models of evolution and inheritance.

Darwinism cast a shadow over the study of heredity. As Lönnig puts it:

His [Mendel’s] analysis, discernment and exposition of the laws of heredity as well as his views on evolution diametrically defied and contradicted the ideas and convictions of Darwin and his followers.… [T]he basic reason for the neglect of the laws of heredity was essentially this: To imply something like a static definition of the species by constant hereditary elements right into a momentous process vigorously favouring the Darwinian revolution (continuous evolution by natural selection without any teleology intimately combined with the inheritance of acquired characteristics, to underscore the latter, often forgotten point once more) was met — although usually silently — with skepticism, deliberate ignorance and strong opposition.

In other words, if you implied as Mendel did that species were static, you were doing that at a time when science “vigorously” favored Darwinism. That is why Mendel’s ideas met with skepticism and opposition. More:

And there is no doubt concerning Darwin’s overwhelming victory in the battle for the scientific minds in the nineteenth century, so much so that Mendel’s performance before the Natural History Society of Brünn was even met with “scornful laughter”….

Lönnig quotes Italian biologist Giuseppe Sermonti who concurs with this explanation: “What really happened was that Mendel ruled out almost all the forces that Darwin had invoked to explain evolution.”

Mendel’s theory of inheritance produces “all-or-nothing traits.” Lönnig explains that this conflicted with Darwin’s ideas about gradual evolution:

[P]erhaps even more important, Mendel’s discoveries cast doubt on another definitely decisive and essential part of Darwin’s theory: continuous evolution, for which Darwin had postulated “infinitesimally small inherited variations,” “steps not greater than those separating fine varieties” and “insensibly fine steps,” “for natural selection can act only by taking advantage of slight successive variations; she can never take a leap, but must advance by the shortest and slowest steps.”

According to Lönnig, “[I]n Mendel’s view, endless evolution was neither probable for cultivated plants nor for species in the wild.”

What does the phrase “sleeping beauty” refer to in Lönnig’s title? In a science context, it means an idea or publication that lies dormant for decades, “asleep,” until being rediscovered and winning deserved acclaim and acceptance. From an article on this fascinating subject:

The most famous case of a “sleeping beauty” was that of Gregor Mendel’s seminal study on plant genetics that received widespread recognition 31 years after its publication. “Sleeping beauties” led to Nobel prizes (Herman Staudinger, Nobel in Chemistry 1953; Peyton Rous, Nobel in Chemistry 1966). They usually reflect premature discoveries that the scientific community was not ready to recognize when published. Some suppose that this has to do with most scientists’ tendency to adhere to their established paradigms.

The paradigm in this case was Darwin’s theory. In impeding the emergence of genetics, Darwinian evolution was a science stopper, and not for the first time.

Image: “Sleeping Beauty,” by Viktor Vasnetsov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.