New World Science
Fig. 1. Old.
When I lived in the States, I visited Monticello, the house Thomas Jefferson built for himself in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Jefferson’s personality is more clearly written into the design of that house than in all his worthy, wordy quotations - go and see it if you get the chance, and don’t miss the plantation tour, which tells a far more complex and balanced story than the one you get inside the house.
One thing that seems a bit weird if you’re European is the reverential tone in which the tour guides say the phrase two hundred years. That’s not all that ancient for a house over here. It’s middle-aged for a pub, young for a university, and barely out of toddler territory for a site of historic interest. A chap on the same tour was Greek, so even less impressed by this piffling timespan. He asked the guide whether excavations at Monticello really counted as archaeology, because “it’s not like it’s old!” There were gasps of horror. My Dutch friend and I giggled rather a lot.
The other day, purely for geeky fun, I was reading History of Astronomy (A Very Short Introduction) and got whacked hard with the other end of the stick. Astronomers were busy in ancient Egypt and the Yin Dynasty and the Islamic Middle Ages. Copernicus could refer to Ptolemy’s observational data from fourteen centuries previously. Suddenly I felt like a stereotypical American tourist at Edinburgh Castle: Gee whiz, Barbara, some of this astronomy is pre-war!
Until Mendel, the best theories of heredity we had were a half-baked muddle of gemmules, throwbacks, use and disuse, and the blending of bloods: the same kind of stage astronomy was at when woad-daubed tribespeople started mucking about with stone circles. And even Monticello is older than Mendel.
Genetics has come a bloody long way in 150 years, but it’s not like it’s old.