Archive for the ‘1860s’ Category

The following is based on part 12 of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series on the history of science and invention, “The Ascent of Man” (1973). This one is about genetics:

Gregor Mendel was a farm boy who became monk. He joined the Augustinian order in Brno, the second largest city in what is now the Czech Republic. They sent him to the university of Vienna to get a teaching degree. The university said he “lacks insight and the requisite clarity of knowledge” and failed him in 1853.

A few years later he began to do experiments on pea plants. People assumed that if you cross a tall pea plant with a short one you get pea plants of middling height. Instead of assuming Mendel tried it: he found that you get nothing but tall pea plants! And if in turn you cross those tall pea plants you get 75% tall pea plants and 25% short ones.

Why? Mendel said it was because each plant gets a height particle – what we now call a gene – from each parent. In the first generation of his experiment, each plant had a tall gene and a short gene, so all of them were tall. But in the second generation one fourth received two short genes and so they were short.

He had discovered the gene, one of the greatest discoveries in the history of science. It sank like a rock. Mendel was a nobody: the important science journals in France and Britain did not print it. In 1866 he had it printed in a Brno science journal and there it sat unknown to the top people in science till 1900.

The next big discovery was printed in Nature in 1953, so it was known instantly worldwide: DNA and how it works. DNA is what genes are made of. James Watson and Francis Crick beat out Linus Pauling in discovering how it works.

DNA is a double molecule, each half the mirror image of the other half. When the molecule splits in two, each half can create its missing half. But there is more: it is a long molecule that contains smaller molecules called bases: adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine. These become in effect the four letters – A, G, C and T – of the language that genes are written in, containing the instructions of how to build everything in the body.

But genes and DNA are not enough to account for life as we know it. You also need:

  1. Sex, which mixes genes in new ways. Till sex came along life did not progress beyond the level of pond scum.
  2. Human sexual selection, which speeds it up even faster: humans, compared to other animals, put far more thought into choosing who they have children with. They also have taboos against incest which prevents a few older males from getting all the females and lowering the rate at which genes mix.

As John Donne said:

Love’s mysteries in souls do grow
But yet the body is his book.

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Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) turns 200 years old today! (So does Darwin.) Lincoln was the 16th American president, being president during the civil war of the 1860s when free states fought against slave states. Lincoln freed the slaves and won the war but he did not live long enough to win the peace: shortly after the war he was shot dead.

He is the man you currently see on the American penny and the five dollar bill. He is half the reason Black History Month falls in February (the other half is Frederick Douglass).

When he became president he had had only two years of Washington experience – less than Obama. In the late 1840s Lincoln had been a one-term Congressman from Illinois. He failed to win the Senate seat in 1858.

During the civil war the press did not think he knew what he was doing. Many expected the war to be short, a matter of weeks or months, but instead it went on for four terrible years, brother fighting brother, more Americans dying than in any other war. Much of it was fought not far from the city of Washington itself.

And even when Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, his most famous speech, no one thought much of it at the time.

The Lincoln we know was not alive in Lincoln’s day. It grew up in the years that followed his death. It is only in looking back that he seems so great.

His great strength was the courage to do what was right for the country no matter what the cost in blood or war or a bad name for himself: Keeping men as slaves was wrong, so he must free them. The country must not be divided or it will fall, so he must fight to make it whole.

That made him hated by many in his own time, but it made him a hero to future days.

He was tall and ugly and often sad but he was a good speaker whose wit could make people laugh.

He had less than a year of schooling but growing up he loved to read: the Bible, Aesop, “Robinson Crusoe”, “Pilgrim’s Progress”, Weems’s “Life of Washington”, Shakespeare and Robert Burns.

Lincoln freed the slaves but he was still more racist than most Americans are today. Here is what he said at the beginning of the Fourth Lincoln-Douglas Debate in 1858:

I will say then that I am not, nor even have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause] – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.

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