THE ABBOT AND THE PEAS, BY Anthony Esolen
Farther Mendel did his groundbreaking work with pea plants. He noticed that some of the plants were tall, and some were dwarfs. Some had round seeds, some had wrinkled seeds. Some had yellow seeds, some had green seeds. Over the course of seven years, before his duties as abbot severely curtailed his work, he bread and cross-bred pea plants, twenty-nine thousand of them, logging the traits of each, carefully breeding and cross-breeding, and noting the results. Think of the painstaking work! And without the encouragement of professional recognition.
What did Father Mendel discover? What would you get if you bred a pure tall strain with a pure dwarf strain? What do you think? Darwin believed that the traits would average out and so we might say that the parents “disappear” into the children. The next generation of pea plants would be neither tall nor dwarf, but in between. Evolution would be a process whereby the past is lost for ever. We know now that there are respects in which a kind of averaging occurs, but that’s because of the simultaneous effects of several genes–the word arises from Mendel’s research–that individually do not average out. In other words, the parents do not disappear. All of the plants in the second generation were tall. ………………..
When Father Mendel self-fertilized those tall plants, something baffling occurred. Some of the plants in the second generation were tall, and some were dwarfs……………………………
—————-Father Mendel theorized that each plant carried two markers for the opposed traits, one from each of its parents. We call those markers genes. One of the genes dominates over the other, so when you have a gene for brown eyes and one for blue eyes, your eyes will be brown, not blue, and not some muddy color in between. But the “recessive” gene, the one that is not dominant, survives.
Suppose you and your wife have brown eyes, but each of you had a parent with blue eyes. That means that each of you carries a hidden gene for blue eyes–for the strawberry tie. If you have sixteen children-and God bless you if you do! some of them may have eyes like the sky; four will be the most like number.
It seems so clear, now. But that’s what great discoveries do: they open our eyes.—-
What can motivate a man to do the work he did? Consider that he had no university laboratory, no large fund to draw from, and no cadre of research assistants. He did publish his results in the local scientific journal in 1866, but his work was ignored until fifteen years after he had died.
How foolish and ungrateful is the notion that the Catholic Church has been opposed to science! It isn’t just that the history of science is filled with men of God, such as Gregor Mendel. It’s that the Church, following Scripture, had long taught that God had made the world in measure, weight, and number, an intelligible world, a world of wonders that declare the glory of God; and the man of faith can look closely at that world and praise God in doing so.