The Correspondence of Charles Darwin Volume I: 1821–1836
Past Masters: Mendel
Past Masters: Lamarck
Neuronal Man: The Biology of Mind
The catalog of Harvard’s Widener Library lists 184 books about Charles Darwin, his life and work (not counting 172 volumes of self-produced letters, autobiography, and scientific opera). On the subject of Gregor Mendel, there are only seventeen. The same disproportion is reflected in the books I have before me. Darwin is represented by a 702-page collection of letters all written before the age of twenty-seven, and a 449-page biography and subsequent history of the idea of evolution written by a professional biographer with no special expertise in the subject. When I contemplate yet another book about Darwin and Darwinism, I feel a bond of sympathy with the philistine Duke of Gloucester, whose reaction to a second volume of The Decline and Fall was, “Another damned, thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr. Gibbon?” For Mendel on the other hand, the services of Vitezslav Orel, a great authority who has spent more than twenty-five years in historical research on the subject, have been obtained to produce a mere one hundred pages as part of a series of lives of the intellectual saints running from Aquinas to Wyclif.
As a population geneticist professionally concerned with Mendel’s mechanism for the inheritance of variation and with Darwin’s theory of evolution by selection of that variation, I have long found the vast disproportion in interest between the two to be paradoxical. While several explanations come to mind, none seems sufficient.
First, it might be argued that Darwin’s popularity on the intellectual market is a classic case of consumer sovereignty. People are greatly concerned with the place of human beings in the universe, so the materialist theory of evolution continues to agitate and fascinate all concerned. After all, the first printing of On the Origin of Species was immediately sold out, and interest has hardly died out since, as evidenced by the legal and journalistic trials still in progress in America. But the preoccupation of the literate middle classes and the fundamentalist masses with human uniqueness cannot explain the behavior of biologists, historians, and philosophers. While the hundredth anniversary, in 1959, of the publication of Origin of Species and the centenary, three years ago, of Darwin’s death were the occasions for large numbers of international symposiums and their attendant publications, the 1965 centennial of Mendel’s paper was lightly commemorated except in Czechoslovakia, and the centenary last year of his death went completely unnoticed by the institutions of science. The Journal of the History of Biology would have to close its editorial offices if it were not constantly supplied with more and yet more about Darwin, but the Folia Mendeliana, almost a one-man industry of Dr. Orel’s, appears only annually and is hard to find. In recent years, philosophers of science have abandoned physics for the richer and more complex domain of biology which, God knows, needs their help, but they have almost all taken Darwinism as…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.