PROLOGUE Spring 1900
The blue locomotive of the Great Eastern Railway streaked through the countryside of Cambridgeshire. To a farmer nearby, the train’s cars was a rumble of teak and steel plowing through his fields, where seedlings of barley, wheat, and oats etched their own green tracks in the springtime loam. It was early May in 1900, and the earth, like the new century itself, pulsed with possibilities.
Among the train’s passengers was William Bateson, a don at St. John’s College, Cambridge. Bateson, who was a zoologist, was stoop- shouldered and large. His tweed vest strained at the buttons, his handlebar mustache gleamed – only his droopy eyes saved him from looking self-satisfied or smug. He had just turned forty, and was one of Britain’s chief combatants in the controversy over evolution and the theory of natural selection, still the source of strident debate more than forty years after Charles Darwin first proposed it.
When Bateson boarded in Cambridge, he had no idea that in the next sixty minutes he would read a paper that would change the course not only of his own career, but of mankind’s understanding of its place in the great cacophony of nature.
Out the windows of Bateson’s velvet-and-leather compartment were mazes of hedgerows to the left, a pretty little river to the right. A tan stucco pub, looming beyond a hillock just past Harlowtown, marked roughly the halfway point on the familiar trip from Cambridge to London. But, according to the legend that has persisted for a full century, Bateson spent most of that train ride immersed in an old article from a small journal out of Austria. He was not gazing idly at the scenery.
The article, written by an obscure Moravian monk named Gregor Mendel, described the elegant botanical experiments Mendel conducted in a modest monastery garden in the old Hapsburg empire of Austria. Mendel had painstakingly crossed and back-crossed pollen and egg cells from the common pea plant to reach a better understanding of inheritance. After working on peas and other plant species for seven long years, he recorded and analyzed his findings in a two-part lecture delivered in 1865. That lecture was published as a forty-four-page journal article – and then was all but ignored for the rest of Mendel’s life.
What brought Bateson to that journal article on the morning of May 8, 1900 was the work of three other scientists, one of them the subject of his lecture that very afternoon. All three had cited Mendel’s forgotten paper almost simultaneously in their own separate publications. Uncannily, like a field of oat stalks that somehow know to erupt in unison, all three articles had appeared within two months of each other, during the same strange spring of 1900.
As he read, Bateson realized that what he was trying to do in his own experiments was almost precisely what Mendel had already done thirty- five years before. He was both shocked and elated. As his wife put it, using a metaphor that prettily evoked Mendel's garden, it was as though, "with a very long line to hoe, one suddenly finds a great part of it already done by someone else. One is unexpectedly free to get on with other jobs."
By the time the Great Eastern Railway train pulled into Liverpool Street Station, Bateson knew he would have to rewrite the paper he was about to deliver. As he pushed through the crowd in search of a carriage to Buckingham Gate, he re-thought the afternoon’s lecture to the Royal Horticultural Society on the topic of "problems of heredity as a subject for horticultural investigation." He had planned to focus on the work of Hugo De Vries, the great Dutch botanist whose new "mutation theory" could account for the large-scale variations that Bateson believed were necessary to propel Darwin’s natural selection, the underlying mechanism of evolution. But now Bateson was suddenly more interested in describing the work of this unknown monk, whose findings resonated so beautifully across the span of thirty- five years and the eight hundred miles separating London from the hilly recesses of southern Moravia.
Settling into a carriage, absent-mindedly fingering his vest to be sure it was still buttoned – his wife accused him of being so indifferent to his attire that he would wear gardening clothes to town, and town clothes in the garden – Bateson began to mull over his opening lines. How should he introduce this forgotten genius to the English-speaking world?
In a drafty space in Drill Hall situated along the curving street known as Buckingham Gate, Bateson gave the lecture that for the rest of his life would demarcate a turning point in his evolution as a scientist. "An exact deterrmination of the laws of heredity will probably work more change in man’s outlook of the world, and in his power over nature, than any other advance in natural knowllllledge that can be foreseen," he began. "There is no doubt whatever that these laws can be determined."
Bateson spoke for more than an hour. Whatever the exact words he used that afternoon – all we have now is a text printed two years later, no doubt edited and amended to include more references to Mendel – we can surmise, based on a report published that week in the RHS’s official journal, Gardeners’ Chronicle, that there was not much discussion. But the die was cast, either on May 8 or shortly thereafter. William Bateson had aligned himself irrevocably with the legacy of Gregor Mendel.
Within a few more years, Bateson saw how far the sweep of Mendel’s contribution extended. He made a pilgrimage to Brünn, the town where Mendel lived and worked; had Mendel’s paper translated into English; coined the word genetics; and became the chief apostle of a new scientific discipline that represented the very apotheosis of the twentieth century. He became embroiled in a scientific controversy that pitted him against some of the greatest biologists of his day, including one who had been his best friend when they were both undergraduates at Cambridge. Indeed, the controversy would become so bitter and so personal that, when this former best friend died unexpectedly in 1906, some accused Bateson of killing him.
So much about gardening feels like a metaphor. Take weeding. The ubiquity of the weeds, their thorny tenacity, the hardiness of their buried roots -- all seem to symbolize the pitfalls of life itself, the temptation of settling for the superficial fix when we know that deep-seated problems will just re-erupt later, or elsewhere, in other and hardier forms. It makes sense, then, to look to the garden for metaphors regarding who we are, who our ancestors were, and where we and our descendents are headed.
Part of the allure of Mendel as a hero of modern science is that we can picture him puttering in his garden, seeking answers to universal questions in his crops of peas. To some extent, Mendel’s story is primarily the story of a gardener, patiently tending his plants, collecting them, counting them, working out his ratios and calmly, clearly explaining an amazing finding – and then waiting for someone to understand what he was talking about. It is the story of a gentle revolutionary who was born a generation too soon.
The myth that has grown around Gregor Mendel mirrors our contemporary understanding of scientific progress, discovery, and the nature of genius. It casts him as a tragic figure whose brilliance was unappreciated in his own lifetime. The legend is a familiar one – think of the creative geniuses who died unrewarded, from Melville to van Gogh – and it resonates reassuringly for those of us who also feel our brilliance goes unno...