Gregor Mendel: No Darwinian

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Abstract

Gregor Mendel is perhaps one of the most well-known scientists in history. He has been lionized as the “Father of genetics” and a man so far ahead of his time that, though his work was lost for well over thirty years, it was rediscovered and became the foundation of modern genetics. He is also one of the few scientists whose views on biblical creation are fought over vigorously in secular journals. While the secularists argue fiercely over Mendel’s position on evolution, one thing is abundantly clear from reading his work: Mendel was no Darwinian.

Gregor Mendel was born July 20 or 22 (sources disagree), 1822, in Heinzendorf, a small village in the Austrian Empire. Today the village is located in the Czech Republic.1 Mendel’s family were poor farmers. Worse, young Johann, for such was his birth name, could expect to spend about half of his adult life as a farmer toiling on his feudal lord’s farms, not his own, thanks to a policy known as the robota.2

The way out of a peasant’s life for Mendel was education, but education costs money.

Young Johann wanted nothing to do with a farmer’s life, but his options were limited: his family was extremely poor. His father undoubtedly expected Mendel to take over the family farm, especially since both Mendel’s siblings were female. The way out of a peasant’s life for Mendel was education, but education costs money. Still, because he showed such promise, at the urging of the parish priest, his father allowed an eleven-year-old Mendel to attend a Gymnasium3 in a nearby town. That the cost was extremely prohibitive is evident by the fact Mendel was on half rations for the entirety of his time there.4

While Mendel excelled at school, other factors were at work. In either late 1838 or early 1839, Mendel’s father was gravely injured working for his landlord. This caused Mendel to give up his studies and go home, ostensibly to assist with the farm. But Mendel just was not cut out for a farmer’s life. Under the combined pressure of his inability to obtain the education he craved, and the need to help with the farm, Mendel suffered what probably was a nervous breakdown. It would be the first of several such episodes. He was confined to his bed. The only thing that got him out of bed was the ability to return and finish his studies.5

After graduating from Gymnasium, Mendel moved to the Philosophical Institute, a two-year prep for university. Again, he suffered a breakdown and went home, this time for a full year. Undoubtedly his injured father weighed heavily on his mind, along with the expectation that he take over the farm. Fortunately for Mendel, his brother-in-law was willing to buy the family farm. As part of the sale, Mendel received some funds to help with his education. Further, his younger sister gave up her dowry obtained through the sale to help Mendel continue his schooling. Mendel never forgot his sister’s generosity, and later helped educate her sons.6

There was, however, a door open to him that would give him access to the education he craved: the church.

Even with his sister’s funds, and despite his stellar academic performance, there was no way left for Mendel to complete his education on his own. The money was not there. There was, however, a door open to him that would give him access to the education he craved: the church. In Catholic Austria, the church wielded outsized influence. Many young men who desired education but could not afford it would join a monastic order to obtain education. Thus, at the suggestion of one of his teachers, Mendel joined a monastic order in 1843.7 Upon joining, he took the name Gregor, by which he is known to history.

The religious community Gregor Mendel joined was uniquely suited to his tastes. The friars there were less priests and more scholars. There were well-known musicians, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians, with the Abbot of the community giving the friars time to indulge their tastes in studies.8 The Abbot himself was reputed to have asked a poignant, nearly prescient question about sheep breeding in 1837: “[W]hat is inherited and how?”9 In part from the Abbot and in part from teachers at University, Mendel would gain the inspiration for his famous experiment.

Mendel the Scientist

Mendel’s primary responsibility with the monastic order was instruction in the public schools. There was a problem, however. Mendel had not passed the required teacher’s exam and was thus relegated to the role of a substitute teacher. He famously failed this exam not once but twice, with the second failure occurring in the spring of 1856, when he walked out of the exam after just one question. Exactly why Mendel walked out of the exam has never been completely determined. However, one of the examiners was a well-known botanist of the day. Mendel had already taken over the garden of the order and was always a man unwilling to compromise when he knew he was right. It has been speculated that the botanist and Mendel quarreled over a concept of heredity, and that Mendel began his experiments with peas as a result.10 Whether this is true may never be known. Most of Mendel’s papers were burned after his death, which is undoubtedly a contributing factor in the squabbling over his legacy. Nevertheless it accords well with what we know of Mendel’s personality.

With full-time teaching not available to him, Mendel turned much of his time to experiments, having long been interested in hybridization experiments. For a time, he had been breeding mice in his room in an attempt to track the transmission of coat color, but the local Catholic bishop, to whom Mendel’s order was loosely subjected, strongly objected. Mendel was forced to move to plants, a move that may well have been providential, given the multiplicity of coat color options now known to be available in mice.11 It was around 1854 that Mendel conceived his experiments with genus Pisum. For two years, Mendel tested varieties of peas to make sure they bred true. At the end of the two years of testing, he selected seven varieties that bred true for use in what would become perhaps the most significant genetic experiment of all time.

This love of numbers manifests clearly in the lengthy paper Mendel wrote presenting his work in 1865. It is awash with ratios, numbers, and statistics, all of which are almost completely absent from the scientific papers and books of their time.

Mendel had imbibed statistics during his tenure as a student at the University of Vienna, between his failed efforts at obtaining his teaching license. This love of numbers manifests clearly in the lengthy paper Mendel wrote presenting his work in 1865. It is awash with ratios, numbers, and statistics, all of which are almost completely absent from the scientific papers and books of their time. For example, Charles Darwin, though an avid pigeon breeder, gave no such list of experimental outcomes in Origin of Species.

When Mendel published his paper, entitled “Experiments in Plant Hybridization,” no one understood just how far ahead of his time he was. While the title referred to hybridization, it is important to understand that Mendel was actually looking primarily not at hybrids but at how heredity worked. One problem was that when he started his work in 1856, the word heredity, in the sense that something was passed from parent to offspring, did not exist. The word, while it existed, was not even used to mean parent to offspring transmission until 1863 by an English author that Mendel likely did not read until after his paper was published if ever.12 That Mendel is talking about heredity is clear from the following quote from his paper:

The object of the experiment was to observe these variations in the case of each pair of differentiating characters, and to deduce the law according to which they appear in successive generations.13

Note the use of the phrase “successive generations.” Mendel is talking about how traits are passed from parent to offspring. Later in his forty-four page paper, he discusses the influence of pollen and egg cells in forming the developing plants, making it clear he knew that he was investigating inheritance from plant parents to plant offspring. Some evolutionists have realized this as well, pointing out that Mendel knew he was working with and formulating laws of heredity.14

In his experiment, Mendel used common pea plants from genus Pisum. Exactly what species he used was unclear to Mendel himself. He speculated that he may have used as many as four different ones in his experiments. The important point to him was not the exact taxonomic identity of the plants in question, but their ability to breed.15

As part of his experiments, Mendel discovered two very important facets of genetics that we still teach today in basics genetics classes: dominant and recessive traits. Mendel coined the terms and they remain in use to this day.16 He also started the tradition of using capital and small letters to represent the two types of traits. The terms dominant and recessive explain why some traits are hidden in the parents but appear in the offspring. Dominant traits always appear and usually obscure recessive ones. However, if the parent gets one recessive from each parent, then they will express the recessive trait.

Mendel made some other incredibly significant discoveries. He realized that both pollen and egg contributed equally to the offspring, and that the union of the two gametes was random. However, in a large enough population that Mendel, due to his obsession with being thorough, had grown, the numbers would work out to predictable ratios. Mendel, due to his statistical passion, worked out these ratios as 3:1 for a single trait cross in which both parents had a dominant and recessive trait. We still use these ratios today. Yet when Mendel read his paper to the Natural History Society of Brünn, no one grasped the significance of what he was saying.17 Mendel was thinking in the 1900s and reading his paper to an audience of 1865 scientists.

Mendel’s Legacy

His scientific papers were mostly ignored until 1900 when they were simultaneously “rediscovered” by three rival scientists.

Mendel was elected Abbot of the monastic order he was a part of in 1868. The new roles of this position stripped him of much of his experimental time. It also led to a lengthy conflict with the local authorities over taxes that only ended with Mendel’s death on January 6, 1884. This dispute with the local authorities may have influenced his successor’s decision to burn his papers. His scientific papers were mostly ignored until 1900 when they were simultaneously “rediscovered” by three rival scientists, each of whom despised the others and each of whom had been working on similar projects. The rediscovery led to a strong effort to promote Mendel, driven in particular by a feud among Englishmen in the budding field of “genetics.” Or so the story goes. It turns out, while the bare facts of the common Mendel story are true, the narrative spun around those facts is not.

The man who promoted Mendel with a zeal bordering on religious was an English geneticist named William Bateson. He provided the first published translation of Mendel’s paper into English and incessantly promoted Mendel and Mendelian genetics in which traits were passed uniquely to offspring, not blended. To understand why, it is important to understand the context.

By the early 1900s, most of the scientific establishment had accepted Darwinism. However, there was strong debate over how traits were inherited. Darwin had proposed a form of inheritance that favored a blended approach. He called his hypothesis “pangenesis,” viewing inheritance as the result of budding and buds being passed to the offspring.18 Many followed Darwin, down to his theory on inheritance, despite several experiments demonstrating that pangenesis was false.

Bateson was of a different school of thought. He ascribed to an early theory of jumps, or saltations. He believed that large mutations could occur very quickly, creating whole new species and types, followed by long periods of stasis. For this to work, however, blending inheritance could not occur. Blending would prevent the establishment of new traits quickly. Thus when Bateson discovered Mendel, and his non-blended inheritance, he became an avid disciple.

In order to further his goals, Bateson spun Mendel’s paper as being anti-Darwinian at least in part.19 But was Bateson merely trying to further the narrative he preferred? The consensus opinion among Darwinists is yes. It has been argued that Mendel conditionally accepted Darwin’s ideas, though he believed Darwin’s ideas of inheritance were wrong, and only kept silent because he feared angering the church.20

Conversely, a minority of Darwinists have argued vigorously that Mendel was a special creationist who held to a species fixity position and thus rejected Darwin. Starting with Fisher in the 1930s, numerous Darwinists have accused Mendel of doctoring his data. In Fisher’s case, he argued that the ratios Mendel found were too perfect to have been achieved randomly.21 Other evolutionists have piled on, accusing Mendel not only of having manipulated his data but also of not having done some of the experiments he claimed to have done.22

They knew he had been working on this project for years. There was no reason to challenge his dates, nor should there be in the present, except to serve the Darwinian agenda.

There are a couple of problems with accusing Mendel of fabricating his data, or not doing his experiments. Evolutionists have re-examined Fisher’s claim that Mendel’s data was too good to be true and found that, while Mendel’s data might have a bias, this is likely due to Mendel only reporting the data from some of his experiments, which Mendel admitted to doing in the paper.23 Further, Mendel read his paper to a live audience before it was published. Among the audience were fellow monks and other people who knew Mendel well. In his paper, Mendel wrote: “This experiment was practically confined to a small plant group, and is now, after eight years’ pursuit, concluded in all essentials.”24 Mendel delivered the paper in early 1865, meaning he had likely completed the experiment in the fall of 1863: it took him some time to write out his lengthy paper. That means he started it in 1856 according to his presented timeline. If those essential facts had been untrue, there were people in the room who could have quite easily called him on his falsehood. No one did. They knew he had been working on this project for years. There was no reason to challenge his dates, nor should there be in the present, except to serve the Darwinian agenda.

Mendel: Darwinist or Creationist?

While the Darwinists have argued over which camp Mendel belongs in, they have not been able to demonstrate firmly either position. This is due to the fact that most Darwinists have no understanding of what a creationist position on speciation entails. Many believe, like the atheist Jerry Coyne, that creationists think all species were created in their present form by God.25 They hold this mistaken belief, as Dr. Nathaniel Jeanson points out , largely because of ignorance. They are forbidden from learning about creation science throughout their education from kindergarten all the way through their PhD. When they do learn of creation science, it often comes through professing Christians who believe in an old earth/universe, and some of them deliberately misrepresent what creation science teaches. Only in extremely rare cases are they well educated enough on creation science to admit, as Ernst Mayr did in the 1960s, that “It (speciation) is compatible with the story of creation in the book of Genesis.26 (parenthetical added)”.

Because evolutionists have woven a strawman of creation science, they cannot properly determine whether Mendel was a creationist because he makes statements that sound both Darwinian and biblical. He freely admits to hybridizing multiple species of pea during his experiment, along with multiple species of beans.29 This would seem to argue that Mendel did not embrace the typical Darwinian strawman of a creationist accepting species fixity.

However, Mendel also made statements that sound very much like creationists. “No one will seriously maintain that in the open country the development of plants is ruled by other laws than in the garden bed. Here, as there, changes of type must take place if the conditions of life be altered, and the species possesses the capacity of fitting itself to its new environment. It is willingly granted that by cultivation the origination of new varieties is favored, and that by man’s labor many varieties are acquired which, under natural conditions, would be lost; but nothing justifies the assumption that the tendency to formation of varieties is so extraordinarily increased that the species28 speedily lose all stability, and their offspring diverge into an endless series of extremely variable forms. Were the change in the conditions the sole cause of variability we might expect that those cultivated plants which are grown for centuries under almost identical conditions would again attain constancy.29

Note what Mendel is trying to get across in the admittedly long quote. He argues that plants can adapt to changing environmental conditions, but the variation available is limited. He clarifies later in the paper that he believes hybrids can give rise to new species in the modern sense.30 Mendel closed his paper by arguing against someone who accepted species fixity. “Gärtner, by the results of these transformation experiments, was led to oppose the opinion of those naturalists who dispute the stability of plant species and believe in a continuous evolution of vegetation. He perceives in the complete transformation of one species into another an indubitable proof that species are fixed with limits beyond which they cannot change. Although this opinion cannot be unconditionally accepted we find on the other hand in Gärtner’s experiments a noteworthy confirmation of that supposition regarding variability of cultivated plants which has already been expressed.”31

Again, note what Mendel is saying. Species fixity does not exist, but the results of Gärtner back up Mendel’s statements on plant variability. “Nothing justifies the assumption that the tendency to formation of varieties is so extraordinarily increased that the species speedily lose all stability, and their offspring diverge into an endless series of extremely variable forms.” Mendel understood that there was variability within the types, but there were also limits to what variation could be produced. Mendel was so far ahead of his time that mainstream science still hasn’t caught up with him!

Because Darwinists by and large have a straw man of what creationists believe, they struggle to place Mendel. One, who comes very close to the truth, wrote, “Contrary to accepted opinion, Mendel stated clearly that he accepted the general fixity of species but acknowledged a limited number of cases in which new species had arisen through the development of constant hybrid forms.”32 As we’ve shown above, Mendel did not accept species fixity. He wrote that species could change and demonstrated it by breeding separate species together. But because this evolutionist, like most others, has not bothered to understand what creation scientists believe, he can’t quite put the pieces together and realize that Mendel held to a position much like we at Answers in Genesis do.

While Gregor Mendel may not have been openly religious in his science writings, the position he held on Darwinism very closely mirrors a modern creationist position. His ideas about heredity, while not all entirely accurate, were well ahead of their time when he published them, and were much more accurate than any other competing theory. While his views certainly were not perfect, when it came to biology, Mendel’s keen insight and revolutionary genius led him to a proper understanding of variation and speciation and make him worthy of his many accolades.

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Footnotes

  1. Simon Mawer, Gregor Mendel: Planting the Seeds of Genetics (Harry N. Abrams: New York, 2006), 17.
  2. Mawer, Gregor Mendel, 20.
  3. A Gymnasium is what would be thought of today as a college preparatory school.
  4. Bolton Davidheiser “Gregor Mendel” in A Symposium of Creation, ed. Donald W. Patten, (Grand Rapids; Baker Book House, 1975), 112.
  5. Robin Marantz Henig, The Monk in the Garden (Boston; Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 20.
  6. Mawer, Gregor Mendel, 25.
  7. Henig, The Monk, 21.
  8. Mawer, Gregor Mendel, 30.
  9. Mawer, Gregor Mendel, 51.
  10. Henig, The Monk, 61-62.
  11. Eirikur Steingrimsson, Neal G. Copeland, and Nancy A. Jenkins, “Mouse Coat Mutations: From Fancy Mice to Functional Genomics” Developmental Dynamics 235, no. 9 (2006): 2401–2411, https://anatomypubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/dvdy.20840.
  12. Online Etymology Dictionary, “Heredity,” accessed July 9, 2020, https://www.etymonline.com/word/heredity.
  13. Gregor Mendel, “Versuche über Plflanzenhybriden,” Verhandlungen des naturforschenden Vereines in Brünn, Bd. IV für das Jahr 1865, Abhandlungen, 3–47, http://www.esp.org/foundations/genetics/classical/gm-65.pdf
  14. Hui Zhang, Wen Chen, and Kun Sun, “Mendelism: New Insights From Gregor Mendel’s Lectures in Brno,” Genetics 207, no. 1 (2017): 1–8, https://www.genetics.org/content/207/1/1
  15. Mendel, “Versuche,” 4.
  16. Mendel, “Versuche,” 7.
  17. Mawer, Gregor Mendel, 15.
  18. Charles Darwin, Animals and Plants Under Domestication, Volume II (London: John Murray, 1968), 358.
  19. William Bateson and Gregor Mendel, Mendel’s Principles of Heredity (Cambridge: University Press, 1913), 329.
  20. Daniel J. Fairbanks, “Mendel and Darwin: untangling a persistent enigma,” Heredity 124 (2020): 263–273, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41437-019-0289-9.
  21. R.A. Fisher, “Has Mendel’s Work Been Rediscovered?” Annals of Science 1 (1936): 115–137, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/13e9/a7f537d955b139a3d3dc033e48e4a53dc8be.pdf.
  22. B.E. Bishop, “Mendel’s Opposition to Evolution and to Darwin,” Journal of Heredity 87 (1996): 205–213, http://somosbacteriasyvirus.com/mendel.pdf.
  23. Daniel J. Fairbanks and Bryce Rytting, “Mendelian Controversies: A Botanical and Historical Review,” American Journal of Botany 88, no. 5 (2001): 737–752, ttps://bsapubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.2307/2657027.
  24. Mendel, “Versuche,” 1865.
  25. Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution is True (Viking: New York, 2009), xviii.
  26. Ernst Mayr, Animal Species and their Evolution (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1965), 429.
  27. Mendel, “Versuche,” 3–4, 27, 28.
  28. Mendel is inconsistent in the use of the word “species”. Sometimes he means species as we know it today, sometimes as a variety of hybrid, and sometimes as a type. Variety can be ruled out given it is used a few words previously. Species in the modern sense can also likely be ruled out as Mendel is talking about wide variation that he admits later in the paper would justify forming a new species in the modern sense. Therefore type or “kind” seems the most appropriate understanding of the word in this context.
  29. Mendel, “Versuche,” 31.
  30. Mendel, “Versuche,” 34.
  31. Mendel, “Versuche,” 39.
  32. L.A. Callender, “Gregor Mendel: An Opponent of Descent with Modification,” History of Science 26(1988), http://articles.adsabs.harvard.edu/full/1988HisSc..26...41C.

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