The Case of Gregor Mendel as a "Silver Lining Counterfactual"

I’m still bogged down writing about the Fourth Reich, but I thought I would make a passing reference to the latest instance of a journalist using a counterfactual as a “hook” to grab readers’ attention.

In her recent New York Times review of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book, The Gene: An Intimate History, Jennifer Senior writes:

“Thank heavens Gregor Mendel was a lousy priest. Had he shown even the faintest aptitude for oratory or ministering to the poor, he might never have determined the basic laws of heredity. But bumbling he was, and he made a rotten university student to boot; his failures drove him straight to his room, where he bred mice in secret. The experiment scandalized his superiors.”

 “A monk coaxing mice to mate to understand heredity was a little too risqué, even for the Augustinians,” writes Siddhartha Mukherjee in “The Gene: An Intimate History.” So Mendel switched — auspiciously, historically — to pea plants. The abbot in charge, writes the author, acquiesced this time, “giving peas a chance.”

Senior’s reference can be seen as a “silver lining counterfactual,” a “what if?” scenario that allows us to see how the seeds of success can lie latently within failure.  I will keep my eye out for other examples of how important historical figures might never have arrived at their subsequent achievements had they not first endured initial setbacks.


Unknown said…
But it falls into the Great Man trap. If Mendel hadn't done it, someone else probably would have sooner or later.