Reading Mawer’s novel it is impossible to avoid the imperative need to confront the question of eugenics as it awakes, refreshed and renewed by dreams of the possibilities created by advances in genetic science. In no way is it inappropriate to point out too that it gives further urgency to the ‘Two Cultures’ debate. This novel reminds us that debates in science, ethics and religion are, above all else, struggles within individual souls to understand what it is to be human and to make sense of our ever-growing experience and knowledge and what they might mean for us.
It is possible that Simon Burns is one of those politicians whose importance has so far not impressed itself upon you. Insofar as he is known at all it is for a disparaging remark and a joke directed at John Bercow, the Speaker of the Commons, a politician also known, if at all, for very little; the very little being, in his case, his height.
During a debate Burns described Bercow as ‘a stupid, sanctimonious dwarf’ and when Burns’ car bumped into Bercow’s and the Speaker declared himself ‘not happy’ Burns replied, ‘So which one are you?’ A charity, the Walking with Giants Foundation, denounced Burns for what they saw as his insensitivity, and attacked David Cameron for telling journalists the ‘not happy’ story with obvious enjoyment.
In fact, these incidents are much more about Conservative MPs’ dislike of Bercow than they are about any atavistic Tory desire to stamp on persons of restricted growth. Bercow is a Conservative, although it is not difficult to find Tories who will insist that he is one of them in name only; indeed, he only became Speaker because Labour MPs voted for him in huge numbers in order to wind up the Conservatives.
Nonetheless, Bercow’s lack of physical stature is obviously on Simon Burns’ mind and he sees it as a legitimate topic for insults and humour. Don’t we all, in one way or another? ‘Are you mad?’ ‘You must be blind.’ ‘Tory bastard.’ ‘Intellectual pygmy.’ Labelling Israeli Jews ‘Nazis’. One way or another, human beings are adept at finding the most sensitive part of each other’s emotional anatomy and squeezing just hard enough to bring tears to the eyes. The point being, of course, that the insults cited – other than the Nazi slur aimed at Jewish Israelis – almost certainly cause far more collateral damage to the people whose condition is the substance of the abuse than to the actual target, not least because the conditions implicitly mocked and despised are not anybody’s fault.
I was once criticised for referring to Jesus “healing” deaf people as part of an RE lesson on the gospel miracle stories; apparently (some?) deaf people object to their condition being likened to an illness. Personally, I can’t help feeling that setting someone free to listen to Mahler’s symphonies, if they want to, and so widen and deepen their experience of life, is a priceless gift. At least they should have the choice. While deafness might not lead to such lack of imagination – not to mention human solidarity – political correctness certainly does.
In some ways, it is deeply appropriate to the theme of this essay, if not a little ironic in other respects, that Simon Burns is a health minister. What is it to be ‘healthy’? Just ‘not ill’? And if we know before she is born that someone is going to be ‘unhealthy’ what, if anything, do we do about it? How do we preserve the dignity of autistic people, for example, while placing their very existence in question by debating the rights and wrongs of genetic screening and whether an abortion should be allowed in the case of ‘gross abnormality’? As genetics advances, the questions surrounding legislation for and regulation of the consequent industries in genetic diagnosis and manipulation become more pressing and more complex and these questions are at the heart of Mawer’s novel.
So how well does Mawer handle his material? How effectively does he blend the two cultures in ‘Mendel’s Dwarf’ as he seeks to cast light on the issues confronting a humanity increasingly able to shape its genetic destiny, and to enable the reader to enter imaginatively the experience of living and grappling with them?
Simon Burns might describe the first of Mawer’s main characters, Benedict Lambert, as a bitter, cynical, twisted dwarf. He is, in fact, an achondroplastic dwarf who comments mordantly at times, satirically at others and quite matter of factly at others, on his condition, the reaction of others to his condition and his work. He is a geneticist and an expert on the work of Gregor Mendel and he is searching for the parts of the human genome responsible for his and others’ dwarfism.
The other main character is the enigmatic Father Gregor Mendel himself. His story and that of his painstaking work on the heredity of peas is told partly by Benedict Lambert and partly by imaginatively reconstructed scenes from Mendel’s life. He lurks in the shadows of the story throughout.
One of the novel’s major themes is that the past is always with us. For one thing, Lambert is distantly related to the monk-scientist (3% of his genes to be precise). Father Gregor both illuminates and haunts Lambert’s world because his brilliant insights into the workings of heredity and its mathematical characteristics opened up great advances in our understanding of evolution and the contribution of our genes to our make-up, and, therefore, make possible both Ben’s successful career and the central dilemma of Mawer’s plot, with which Dr. Benedict Lambert himself must grapple: which set of embryos to select for implantation in the womb of Mrs. Jean (get it?) Miller? The ones known to be free of the achondroplasia-causing mutation? The ones known to have it? Or leave it to chance and just send a randomly-selected batch over for the operation?
The mother-to-be (in a joke too far, she lives on Galton Avenue, a reference to Francis Galton, the founder of British eugenics and relative of Charles Darwin) has made it clear that she wishes her children to be ‘normal’ (the discomfort evoked by that word in this context with this dwarf narrator is acute). Ben knows this. He is also aware that such choices represent a kind of categorical imperative even if most people would deny subscribing to it (perhaps such denial is made easier if you have not actually had to make such decisions): people like him should not exist.
Of course, this idea has been with us in more or less systematic form for some time. Mawer makes the point by challenging the reader to identify the origins of three passages about eugenics, one from ‘Mein Kampf’, one from an American eugenicist and one from a British exponent of eugenics. It is very hard to tell them apart. Cross-breeding, of a kind.
The Nazis were quite open about their view of the matter, an openness based on their conviction that the genes and the biological inheritance are all. The Jew dies, convert to Christianity or not.
In a lecture on Mendel and on his own researches into the mechanisms by which his condition is inherited, Lambert uses the Nazis and eugenics as a way of reproaching the ‘normal’ with their hypocrisy; they assert that they are not horrified by him but would prefer not to have a child like him themselves. In some ways he prefers the Nazi attitude to what he sees as the hole-in-the-corner evasions, prurience and occasional spite of our own society all of which are brought sharply to life by Mawer. Yet the bitter irony is that his own scientific work raises the question of whether and how a free society can dictate to parents what sort of children they should have, which, given our growing knowledge, is what a ban on genetic selection would amount to.
After all, those who deny Mendelian heredity and its relevance to understanding human characteristics have proved no less brutal in their absolutist intolerance than the Nazis; something Mawer makes clear, even including a list of Soviet geneticists and biologists shot, imprisoned and exiled for not endorsing the fake science underpinning the theory of inheritable acquired characteristics espoused by Stalin’s favourite geneticist, Trofim Lysenko. The monk, on the other hand, was scrupulous in his devotion to truth.
That list of scientists martyred for their faith that the pursuit of truth was more honourable than perverting it to curry favour with a tyrant is just one small example of the stylistic flexibility that characterises ‘Mendel’s Dwarf’. At times didactic – there is a lot of science to get through and it’s rendered very digestible (including scholarly footnotes) without insulting the reader’s intelligence; at others, enraged commentary – especially when judging the views on inherited intelligence of people like Cyril Burt and Charles Murray, the writing expands to include vividly realised scenes from Ben’s life and that of Gregor Mendel. In an important sub-plot Mendel explains what he is doing to a Frau Rotwang, who is more interested in him than the peas; he in turn is tempted. Mawer elegantly handles the transition from Mendel’s explanations of the apparently blind and amoral processes of nature to evoking the blend of desire and guilt evoked in him and his visitor by such uniquely human concerns as fidelity, promise-keeping and the sanctity of marriage as they contemplate sex with each other in the privacy of their thoughts. In the passages about Ben Lambert and those about Mendel, the science is skilfully woven into the action both in the obvious sense that without it there would be no story, and also in the vivid definitions given to the ways in which people live, think and feel at the most intimate level.
What is not clear, because it cannot be so, is the difference Mendel’s discoveries made to his faith. Mendel himself never, so far as is known, set out any theological conclusions arising from his work. Ben Lambert is convinced, perhaps because he wants to be, that Mendel lost his faith. For example, he cites a letter (a real one) written by Mendel shortly before he died to a former student who had become a meteorology professor, in which Father Gregor says farewell and invokes upon his student ‘all the blessings of the meteorological deities’. Ben comments:
You see? There at the end, that wry joke – no invocation of the God of the Christians; just the meteorological deities.
As evidence for apostasy, it’s a bit thin. After all, Mendel was faithful to his vocation as a monk and priest and it is far from a contradiction to say that that vocation could include the pursuit of scientific truth. If Ben (Mawer?) is right, then Mendel spent a celibate life (sorry to spoil the sub-plot) acting out a lie. Why? To have access to a garden in which he could single-mindedly pursue a truth for which he received precious little recognition in his lifetime (and not much since, compared to Darwin)? One could argue that it does not really add up. On the basis of some surviving sermon notes, one biographer observes, ‘They give the impression that Mendel was a down-to-earth priest rather than a man of theological erudition and sophistication’. (1) Moreover, he ended up as Abbott of his monastery, surely recognition of his stature as a man of faith.
Possibly. Faith is a more complicated business than some people realise and it often coexists with all sorts of doubts and worldly considerations (in Mendel’s case a desire to escape from the poverty of his childhood). Perhaps his beliefs were of the vague, half-formed sort that you often find in societies which take certain ideas for granted and his real love was for science, a calling someone from his background would be unlikely to enter via the conventional routes. In turn, his monastic life would mean that he was insulated from the ambitions and received wisdom of the scientific establishment of his day and so was an aid to independence of mind. Providential, one might say.
Then again, perhaps he took the view that the implications of his discoveries would only become clear with time and that, given the complexity of the issues, humility required silence on his part. There are his vows to consider; his life demonstrates that fidelity to a course of action, once chosen, was very important to him. Or perhaps he took the view, similar to that expressed by Milton in his sonnet ‘On His Blindness’, that if there is a meaning to life’s suffering and its apparent randomness then it will become clear through God’s grace and in God’s good time. In the meantime there is the promise of salvation and the transfiguration of creation prefigured in Jesus Christ and the work undertaken in one’s own field of endeavour, however limited, to be going on with: ‘They also serve who only stand and wait’. There would be no need to make a particular point of expressing such thoughts; for a monk-priest they are the essential givens of life.
Shorn of such consolations, if such they be, Benedict Lambert, who has experienced what seems to him to be a very raw deal at the hands of humanity and whatever deities there might be, understandably takes a more jaundiced view of the prevailing arrangements in the cosmos, more Gloucester in ‘King Lear’ than John Milton or Julian of Norwich (‘All shall be well.’):
As flies to wanton boys, are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport.
He is not helped, either, by his mother’s attempts to comfort him (and herself) by constantly repeating that it’s what’s inside that matters. Even as a child he can see that other people do not, in fact, take that view and, when giving his groundbreaking lectures, he cannot hide from himself the suspicion that there is more than a touch of the freak-show crowd about the audience’s interest in him.
In an authorial aside, Mawer tells us that the image he uses to describe the lecture audience – a ‘hanging garden’ – comes from a poem he particularly likes by Aldous Huxley. A Google search reveals it to be ‘The Theatre of Varieties’ published in the 1920 issue of the poetry magazine Wheels (accessed online at the ‘Modernist Magazines Project’, 31st December 2010). The title is obviously allusive. The content – an extended evocation of a music hall audience’s craving for escapist ecstasy, their desire to be taken in – echoes the excitement and sense of anticipation of the audience who flock to hear Ben talk about eugenics and his own discoveries, and that of the burghers of Brunn (now Brno) who expected to be entertained by Gregor Mendel’s account of his researches but who were first bewildered and then irritated by his dry delivery and demonstrations of the mathematical rigour of the process of heredity. Other entertainments – circus dwarf troupes and freak shows – also appear in ‘Mendel’s Dwarf’. The pleasure afforded by displaying ‘freaks’ lies, at least partly, in the reassurance that we, the spectators, are ‘normal’. The problem for Mendel’s respectable fellow-citizens is that he expects them to work as hard at understanding heredity as he did; with none of the reassuring feeling of mastering the material that Mawer describes them as deriving from the maths-free works of Darwin (in general, Darwin emerges from this novel much diminished by contrast with the Augustinian friar). For Ben, the problem is that his audiences do not see the moral and existential seriousness of his and others’ discoveries, hence his decision to lecture on eugenics. Much more diverting to be fed the kind of science coverage so common in much of our media; one minute a miracle cure, the next the thrill of being frightened to death by some hyped-up pseudo-scientific scare.
Ben resents his condition and other people’s reactions to it. Yet he seems also to recognise that it is vital to his identity; if he were ‘normal’ he would be a different person. He is as he is, dwarfism and all. He concludes that ‘there can be no other’. It would seem to follow, although this is not spelt out, that any attempt to ‘correct’ the genome to eliminate dwarfism is not merely a matter of preventing the reappearance of a particular configuration of physical characteristics, but is also the elimination of particular selves – and to imply that Ben Lambert the person is, embodied self that he is, an existential blot on the human landscape, not just a bundle of specific future health needs for the NHS to cope with. Mother is wrong; the self cannot be separated from the body; who we are is shaped, in part, by what we are. This is not to concede any ground to the Nazis; theirs, after all, was a zero sum view of life. No crass, utilitarian cost-benefit analysis can ever quantify the precise ratio of loss to gain in any advance not least because the person I am or the person I love is unlikely to have been quite the same person without our quotas of genetic quirks and oddities.
That said, it’s obvious that human beings will continue to do their best to improve each other’s chances in life. A good way of doing that, our species’ history should teach us, is to overcome the obstacles that nature puts in our way by improving it and shaping it to our requirements. The losses will be real but the gains immeasurably greater and it is, perhaps, on this point that the main arguments about the nature and scale of genetic interventions, if any, should turn. Taken seriously, as they should be, the responsibilities ensuing upon our knowledge are dizzying. As Dr. Lambert says: ‘You’re already confronting nature from the awesome viewpoint of God’. Hyperbole (God views each life and each moment in the context of the whole cosmos, past, present and future), but we take his point; responsibility for just one life always seems like more than enough to be getting on with to anybody not in love with power for its own sake.
The reality of longing, grief, loss and hope in Mawer’s characters compels us to take these responsibilities seriously; one of literature’s many revelatory roles is to set scientific discovery and the consequent ethical debates in the context of the lives where their outcomes will be realised and experienced intimately. ‘Mendel’s Dwarf’ is evidence, if it were needed, that the Two Cultures cannot do without each other and are inescapably bound up together – or should be, in any society that wishes to remain civilised. We see them coupling fruitfully in the lives of those most associated with this novel: Mawer himself is a biology teacher as well as a novelist and Father Gregor Mendel took enough time out from his experiments and his responsibilities as Abbott to notice that Leos Janacek would make a good choirmaster for his Abbey (Janacek played at Mendel’s funeral).
It is the utterly personal significance of the sort of work done by Ben Lambert which is why the cry of ‘Playing God’ goes up in controversies over genetics and the biosciences. It’s an odd argument, especially, in my view, when it comes from my fellow-believers in the Judeo-Christian tradition of theism. According to Genesis we were created in His image. That being the case, it is not surprising that much Jewish theology talks of human beings as co-creators with God in the task of restoring a fractured and fallen world, and Christian thinking casts us in the role of stewards of creation, hardly a passive role. Even less surprising is it, therefore, to find that we are equipped to make discoveries like those of Mendel and Lambert and expected to handle the consequences. Whoever said life would get easier the more we found out about it was clearly deluded.
Nor, I suggest, should ‘handle the consequences’ mean shuffling off the responsibility onto politicians like Messrs Burns and Bercow (or Clegg or Burnham or Miliband). The moral of the history lessons in ‘Mendel’s Dwarf’ is that the option of leaving the issues to state power and a supposedly neat and tidy law is not a good one. Thomas Jefferson perhaps found the only way forward:
I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise them with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion.
(Quoted in Matt Ridley, ‘Genome’, Ted Smart, 2000)
By which I think we should take him to mean a full and vigorous debate informed by human empathy and entered into by all the interested parties in civil society. ‘Mendel’s Dwarf’ should be on the reading list. It might help to correct the injustice we do to Abbott Gregor Mendel’s memory by not recognising how much we owe him; an invaluable inheritance even if one needing great care.
Thou wast as one who, travelling, bears by night
A lantern at his back, which cannot leaven
His darkness, yet he gives his followers light.
(Dante, ‘Purgatory’, XXII, lines 67-69, Penguin Classics 1974)
John Bercow is 5’ 6’’; Simon Burns is every inch a career junior minister.
(1) Corcos, A.F. and Monaghan, F.V. (eds): ‘Gregor Mendel’s Experiments on Plant Hybrids, A Guided Study’; Rutgers University Press 1993 (accessed online on 30th December 2010).