In a review of Brilliant Blunders, a new book that chronicles famous mistakes in scientific history, Freeman Dyson revisits a critical period for the theory of evolution. He turns his attention to Gregor Mendel, the Austrian monk whose theory of inheritance would have made a powerful complement to Darwin’s groundbreaking ideas, had Darwin known about it:
Mendel … published his laws of heredity, with a full account of the experiments on which the laws were based, in 1866, seven years after Darwin had published The Origin of Species. Mendel was familiar with Darwin’s ideas and was well aware that his own discoveries would give powerful support to Darwin’s theory of natural selection as the cause of evolution. Mendelian inheritance by random variation would provide the raw material for Darwinian selection to work on.
Mendel had to make a fateful choice. If he chose to call Darwin’s attention to his work, Darwin would have understood its importance, and Mendel would inevitably have become involved in the acrimonious public disputes that were raging all over Europe about Darwin’s ideas. If Mendel chose to remain silent, he could continue to pursue his true vocation, to serve his God as a monk and later as abbot of his monastery. … [H]e had to choose between worldly fame and divine service. Being the man he was, he chose divine service. Unfortunately, his God played a cruel joke on him, giving him divine gifts as a scientist and mediocre talents as an abbot. He abandoned the chance to be a world-famous scientist and became an unsuccessful religious administrator.
Darwin’s blindness and Mendel’s reticence combined to delay the progress of science by thirty years. But thirty years is a short time in the history of science. In the end, after both men were dead and their personal shortcomings forgotten, their partial visions of the truth came together to create the modern theory of evolution.