Mendelism: Monk-eying Around With Evolution

This blog entry is part of an ongoing series.
You can best understand the material below by reading it in full context,
starting with the first entry of the series, No Room in the Inn.

 I first remember hearing of Gregor Mendel some time when I was in grade school in the 1950s. I see they still print children’s books about him.


All I remember is knowing he was from somewhere in Europe a long time ago (until recently I didn’t even remember clearly which century), he was a monk, and he did scientific experiments growing pea plants. I guess I knew his experiments had something to do with “inherited traits.”

I think I sort of pictured this very, very religious man who had chosen to live in a monastery and dedicate his life to Jesus. And while living in the monastery he had a lot of time on his hands, so he worked in the monastery garden, where he raised, among other things, pea plants. And by noticing how the pea plants propagated, he came to understand something about how living things inherit certain qualities, like eye color in people.

Well, that’s sort of a “fictional history” version of Mendel.

mendelBorn into a poor farming family in 1822, in the Czech Republic, it doesn’t appear from most biographies about Gregor Mendel that his primary interest was in religion, but in science. He was very bright, but schooling was expensive at the time, and only by family sacrifice did he get his basic education. From what I have read, he doesn’t seem to have become a monk primarily to follow some “spiritual calling” …

During his childhood, Mendel worked as a gardener and studied beekeeping. Later, as a young man, he attended gymnasium [secondary school] in Opava. He had to take four months off during his gymnasium studies due to illness. From 1840 to 1843, he studied practical and theoretical philosophy and physics at the University of Olomouc Faculty of Philosophy, taking another year off because of illness. [This “illness” seems to have actually been “depression.”] He also struggled financially to pay for his studies and [his younger sister] Theresia gave him her dowry. Later he helped support her three sons, two of whom became doctors. He became a friar because it enabled him to obtain an education without having to pay for it himself. [Wiki]

He was also painfully shy, so the lifestyle of a monk was no doubt agreeable to his personality, relieving him of the “issues” of secular life such as finding and wooing a wife! He much preferred solitary research and experimentation.

[In 1843]… against the wishes of his father, who expected him to take over the family farm, Mendel began studying to be a monk: He joined the Augustinian order at the St. Thomas Monastery in Brno, and was given the name Gregor. At that time, the monastery was a cultural center for the region, and Mendel was immediately exposed to the research and teaching of its members, and also gained access to the monastery’s extensive library and experimental facilities.

Here he is in 1848 with his fellow monks at St. Thomas.

1848After completing his training as a monk, he was assigned for a time to work as a chaplain in the local community at a hospital. But he was not suited to dealing regularly with the emotional drain of working with suffering people. It led to another bout of crippling depression. So…

In 1849… Mendel was sent to fill a temporary teaching position in Znaim. However, he failed a teaching-certification exam the following year, and in 1851, he was sent to the University of Vienna, at the monastery’s expense, to continue his studies in the sciences. While there, Mendel studied mathematics and physics under Christian Doppler, after whom the Doppler effect of wave frequency is named; he studied botany under Franz Unger, who had begun using a microscope in his studies, and who was a proponent of a pre-Darwinian version of evolutionary theory.

In 1853, upon completing his studies at the University of Vienna, Mendel returned to the monastery in Brno and was given a teaching position at a secondary school, where he would stay for more than a decade. It was during this time that he began the experiments for which he is best known. []

Yes, those famous experiments with breeding and cross-breeding peas. Actually, I’ve read that what he really wanted to experiment with was cross-breeding mice.

miceBut his superior at the monastery evidently thought it would be scandalous for him to be studying sexual behavior of animals, and nixed that line of study! So he turned to the pea plants for which he became so famous. (But the fame didn’t come during his lifetime. Actually, almost no one paid any attention to his experiments and his writings about them until almost forty years after their completion, and almost twenty years after his death…but more on that later.)

Since Mendel’s conclusions were eventually used to bolster the theory of evolution, you might think that was his original research intent. But Darwin didn’t publish his On the Origin of Species book until 1859. So obviously Mendel knew nothing about Darwin’s theory when he began his experiments. He was just fascinated by how various characteristics of plants and animals were inherited from their parents, and wanted to see if he could determine just how this process worked.

The dominant theory of inheritance at the time was that, when individuals with two different opposing characteristics mated, the offspring would be a “blend” of the quality of that characteristic…a tall person marries a short person—the offspring would be medium height. Mendel intuitively knew this theory was flawed, but wasn’t sure what to replace it with.

So he spent seven years or so cross-breeding thousands of pea plants, and meticulously documenting the details of the resulting plants. I remember reading in particular that he crossed plants that yielded “smooth” peas with ones that had “wrinkled” peas to see what would happen after multiple generations. I found out recently that it wasn’t just the smooth and wrinkled he worked with, though. He chose seven different characteristics to track, as seen in this chart.


And after cross-breeding various mixtures of peas, 28,000 times or so, he came to his famous conclusions about sexual reproduction. He recognized that some sort of “hereditary units” (he called them “factors,” we use the term “genes” now) were responsible for the transmission of the various characteristics. Each factor could have two different versions. In Mendel’s pea plants, for example, one produced purple flowers, one produced white flowers. This factor, or gene, was made up of two parts, now called “alleles.” For each characteristic of a plant, a new plant inherits two alleles, one from each parent.

When a parent plant creates a “gamete”…an egg or sperm…the parent’s gene for a specific characteristic “splits” and only one allele goes into each egg or sperm. When the egg and sperm from two parent plants unite, the allele contributed by each make a new pair, and this pair determines which version of the characteristic will be seen in the new plant.

Mendel also concluded that for the two types of alleles, one was typically “dominant,” one was “recessive.” In the case of flower color, the allele for purple was “dominant” over the allele for white. In other words, if a pure purple flower pea plant and a pure white flower pea plant “mated,” ALL of the offspring of that first generation would be purple, because all of the offspring would have genes that consisted of an allele for purple and one for white. The allele for white was “recessive,” so in every pair made by these two plants, the purple parent plant’s allele would dominate and you’d get all new plants that would have purple flowers.

But where it really got interesting was when Mendel would then take EACH of those new plants, “self-fertilize” it by using its own pollen, and see what happened. Each plant would have had genes consisting of an allele for purpleness and an allele for whiteness. When ITS genes separated to make gametes, some would have a purple allele, some would have a white allele. So among its offspring, when eggs and sperm came together, some offspring would get two purple alleles, and have purple flowers. Some would get one purple and one white allele, and have purple flowers—because the purple was dominant. But once in a while, some offspring would get two WHITE alleles. And they would end up with white flowers.

How often was “once in a while”? After his 28,000 experiments, Mendel concluded that, with a large enough “sample,” for every four plants produced in that second generation, three would be purple, one would be white. You can see a representation of that in this chart:


And after 28,000 experiments, Mendel concluded that this frequency worked out for all of the seven characteristics. Mate a pure “smooth pea” plant to a pure “wrinkled pea” plant, and the first generation would all have smooth peas. (He concluded from this that “smoothness” was a dominant characteristic.) Self-fertilize those first generation plants, and the result would be that for every three plants with smooth peas, there would be one plant with wrinkled peas. Mate a pure yellow pea plant with a pure green pea plant, and the first generation would all be yellow, because yellow was the dominant characteristic. Self-fertilize those first generation plants, and the result would be that for every three plants with yellow peas you’d get a plant with green peas.

And you could combine the characteristics in various ways and eventually predict how that would work out. Here’s a chart that shows what happens if you first mate a pure smooth yellow pea plant with a pure wrinkled green pea plant. Each characteristic follows the 3/1 pattern.

yellowgreen chart

Out of all of this, Mendel developed several “laws” that he proposed governed the inheritance of certain characteristics (although he had no way to conclude whether these laws applied to a few, some, or all other crossbreeding of plants and animals.) You can read the details about these laws here: Mendelian Inheritance.

But…what on earth does any of this have to do with the topic of this blog series—Eugenics?? What key part did Mendel’s experiments and conclusions play in the rise of what is now often referred to as “scientific racism”?

As mentioned earlier, Mendel’s experiments were done in the 1850s and 60s, and gathered little interest in scientific circles at the time. In fact, he eventually gave up his agricultural experimentation when he was made abbot of his monastery, and spent the rest of his life dealing with people rather than peas. During part of that time he ended up with a reputation for being contentious with local authorities over issues affecting the monastery. Things got so nasty that after Mendel’s death in 1884, to wipe the slate clean, his successor tossed away all Mendel’s personal correspondence and records…including most of the records of his experiments! And he slipped into historical oblivion.

But not ALL of his records had been destroyed. He had written a detailed paper explaining his experiments and conclusions. And in 1865 he had delivered two detailed lectures from that paper at meetings of the Natural History Society of Brno in Moravia. The text of that paper had been published by the Society in 1866 in their official scientific journal. And it was thus available in some permanent collections of scientific research from then on. You can read the whole thing on the Internet now at:

Mendel’s Paper

Thus it was that in 1900 Mendel’s research and his “laws” were thrust into the public arena. Three other agricultural scientists who had been doing similar experiments and coming to similar conclusions stumbled across his earlier work. They each wrote their own papers, eventually giving credit to Mendel as the original “discoverer” of the principles that they had confirmed with their own research.

Nowadays, TV networks, newspaper science columnists, and Internet newsfeeds add screaming titles to stories about this kind of ground-breaking research. Such as in 1996 when Dolly the Sheep (see pic below) became the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell from a donor animal.

time dollyIt wasn’t all that different around the turn of the last century. New inventions and discoveries had been coming fast and furious for many decades by that point…the telephone, electric light, phonograph, motion pictures—and the 1895 discovery of X-rays…and the public was primed to believe that scientific progress was going to be able to solve all problems and bring about a Utopia. Publications about science were not just for scientists any more…as you can see from these 1900 magazines.

pop sci2pop sci 1900There were many writers geared to “popularizing” scientific information and spreading it via newspapers and magazines. Public lectures on a variety of topics, including science, found a wide audience too, in these days before radio and TV. And World’s Fairs, such as the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904 were heavily dominated by scientific displays and attractions to dazzle the fair-goers, on topics as widely diverse as anthropology and astronomy.

Yes, scientific discovery was on the mind of the average man and woman on the street regularly in 1900.

And thus it was that very quickly the reclusive Czech monk became a household name! But not because most people cared about the characteristics of pea plants.

The British physician Archibald Garrod showed that Mendel’s laws applied equally well to human metabolic traits. Examples of dominant (brachydactyly [unusually small fingers and toes] and congenital cataracts) and recessive disorders (alkaptonuria [a metabolic disorder] and albinism) were identified in humans.

To help the lay public understand the Mendelian basis of human heredity, eugenicists frequently used eye color as an example. In 1907, Charles and Gertrude Davenport published their finding that human eye color was inherited just like pea color; genes for dark eyes were dominant over genes for light eyes. It is still the most frequently used example of human heredity, even though scientists now believe eye color determination is more complex. Instead of a single pair of genes determining eye color, two or three sets of genes are thought to be involved.

The unexpected complexity of something as trivial as eye color gives one an idea how wrongheaded eugenicists were when they used simple Mendelian laws to explain human behaviors such as pauperism, mental retardation, psychosis, vagrancy, alcoholism and criminality. [Source]

Yep. Eugenicists jumped on the Medelian Laws and twisted them to their own use. They had been hoping for more “evidence” of the “dangers” of allowing humans to breed indiscriminately. They were determined to stop the mixing of “superior blood” (people with supposedly pure white, Northern European pedigree) with “inferior blood” (every other type of person, but particularly those of non-white races, or even those “Caucasians” who were from Southern or Eastern Europe.) Many were even uncomfortable with anyone with physical defects, and hoped to totally eliminate such folks from the population. Few eugenists would admit that they were just plain, downright bigots, despising those unlike themselves. They sought to give the appearance of a sound scientific foundation under their personal prejudices. Did all of them realize this? Of course not—some were no doubt sincerely self-deceived about their own motives.

And this brings us to the Laws of Mendel as seen through the warped lens of Eugenics. Even though all the actual research into Mendelian inheritance had been done on plants, and some animals, they bombastically promoted the idea that Mendelian Laws applied perfectly to humans…and to ALL possible characteristics that humans had. In other words, not just obvious physical things such as eye color or skull shape. They insisted that qualities such as “pauperism”…yes, being poor…and “shiftlessness”…yes, being lazy…were inherited in Mendelian proportions. And were subject to the concepts of dominance and recessiveness of genes. Qualities that we would now consider strongly affected by both environment and upbringing, they insisted were instead “inborn” and irreversible.

In other words…the poor people such as Poles and Italians and Eastern European Jews crammed into the tenements in New York, or the destitute “Negroes” living in shantytowns at the edges of cities, were not victims of circumstances. And changing their circumstances by better educational options and social welfare programs designed to “uplift” them would do nothing to bring them out of poverty in the long run, because they inherited their poverty on their genes.

The general theory also seemed to be that if a “superior” person married an “inferior” person, the “inferior blood” would ALWAYS “pull down” the descendants. There was no notion that introducing “superior blood” would gradually RAISE the level of the population. So the goal was literally, in the mind of most serious eugenists, to ultimately, literally “do away” with all inferior people through eugenic laws and “racial cleansing” methods.

And yes, this does sound exactly like Nazi Germany, doesn’t it?

Did everyone in the US who was of the so-called “superior” race (essentially White Anglo-Saxon/Northern European Protestants) go along with this theory and these methods in the early decades of the last century? Of course not. But then again, early on the eugenists seldom were open and honest about their goals and methods. And thus they were able to make great inroads into influencing policy-making and popular consensus on many topics by gradually introducing their program. On the surface they most often just talked about “positive” ways to guarantee happy, healthy offspring for families. Such as at the Eugenics Buildings at state and World Fairs, like this one in Kansas in the early 1920s. Notice the chart on the left in front—it shows the Mendelian inheritance laws at work in guinea pigs.

eugenics kansas guinea pigsHere’s a very similar display, just a little snazzier inside a building, from the same time period.


This was a good place to drum the lessons of Mendelian inheritance into the minds of the common man.

theaterThen again, at times the Eugenics Movement dumped all pretenses and got to the nitty-gritty of their message. Such as in this poster from a Eugenics display at the 1926 Philadelphia Sesqui-Centennial Exhibition.



“Born to be a Burden.” Remember that slogan. We’ll see the sentiment again and again. Such as its portrayal in this poster from 1936. What, you say?…Why is the same message in German at this point? …

german poster

We’ll investigate the answer to that in upcoming installments of this series.

For now, the main point to remember is that “Mendelism” came out of obscurity into the scientific spotlight just in time to give the boost the Eugenics Movement needed to its credibility. (The Movement also grabbed onto various concepts from Darwin’s theories too, whenever it was to their advantage.) To end up with the perfect society, America needed to “guide evolution” to eliminate the defectives among us. BUT…Mendelism “proved” that people who “look” and “seem” normal may well have “hidden flaws” in their heredity that can sprout in later generations. So we need to ferret out all those “carriers” too and prevent them from propagating. It’s all SCIENCE, don’tcha know! As seen in these posters displayed at the Kansas Free Fair Eugenics exhibit in the 1920s.

unfit human traitsunfit2


Yes, like Gregor Mendel, the Eugenics folks were really, really obsessed with breeding. And talked all the time about “seeds.”

healthy seed

(Say… that heroically hunky blond guy reminds me of the heroically hunky blond guy in that earlier poster…wonder what’s up with that? )

We are considering at this point in this Eugenics series what I have decided to call the “Five Ms,” five factors that contributed to the amazing growth and spread of Eugenics in the US in between 1900 and the beginning of WW2.

5msThe Five Ms are Mendelism, Moneybags, and Media, along with Masses (huddled…) and Madison (Grant.)

We’ll put another M under the history microscope next time with:

Huddled Masses in the Melting Pot










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