1st Edition

How we Get Mendel Wrong, and Why it Matters Challenging the narrative of Mendelian genetics

By Kostas Kampourakis Copyright 2024
    250 Pages 10 Color & 52 B/W Illustrations
    by CRC Press

    250 Pages 10 Color & 52 B/W Illustrations
    by CRC Press

    250 Pages 10 Color & 52 B/W Illustrations
    by CRC Press

    This book illustrates that the stereotypical representations of Gregor Mendel and his work misrepresent his findings and their historical context. The author sets the historical record straight and provides scientists with a reference guide to the respective scholarship in the early history of genetics. The overarching argument is twofold: on the one hand, that we had better avoid naïve hero-worshipping and understand each historical figure, Mendel in particular, by placing them in the actual sociocultural context in which they lived and worked; on the other hand, that we had better refrain from teaching in schools the naive Mendelian genetics that provided the presumed “scientific” basis for eugenics.

    Key Features

    • Corrects the distorting stereotypical representations of Mendelian genetics and provides an authentic picture of how science is done, focusing on Gregor Mendel and his actual contributions to science
    • Explains how the oversimplifications of Mendelian genetics were exploited by ideologues to provide the presumed “scientific” basis for eugenics
    • Proposes a shift in school education from teaching how the science of genetics is done using model systems to teaching the complexities of development through which heredity is materialized

    Preface: “Gregor Mendel, the first geneticist”. Part I Anachronistic Mendelism. Chapter 1 Mendel was not a geneticist ahead of his time. Chapter 2 Mendel was a brilliant experimentalist of his time. Chapter 3 Speculating about heredity. Chapter 4 The path to genetics. Chapter 5 The reification of the “lonely genius”. Part II Social Mendelism. Chapter 6 Mendel’s great defender. Chapter 7 Chromosomes, “factors” and genes. Chapter 8 “Mendelian” eugenics. Chapter 9 Geneticists’ attitudes towards “Mendelian” eugenics. Chapter 10 Mendelian genetics and the Nazi racial hygiene. Conclusions: Emending the teaching of school genetics.


    Kostas Kampourakis is the author and editor of several books about evolution, genetics, philosophy, and history of science. He teaches biology and science education courses at the University of Geneva. He is the co-editor of Teaching Biology in Schools and What is Scientific Knowledge, both published by Routledge.

    “Gregor Mendel’s bicentenary has rightly made us reassess every aspect of his legacy. Like many I first heard about Mendel at school, but could the way we introduce genetics in formal education constrain rather than encourage thought?  Kostas Kampourakis provides a highly accessible but rigorous guide to how the debates at the birth of genetics foreshadow today’s controversies, and raises many fascinating questions about how the framing of some ultimately simple patterns of germline inheritance may influence how we think about how humankind is and how it could be”  

    – George Davey Smith, Professor of Clinical Epidemiology, Bristol Medical School (PHS), University of Bristol


    “In How We Get Mendel Wrong and Why it Matters, Kampourakis expertly refocuses our attention away from modern genetics as a “great man” project borne from the pea-experiments of one cloistered genius. As he shows, cracking the mysteries of genetics was always a community-wide endeavor, requiring dozens of creative minds working hard for generations. Kampourakis’ research also peels away our prejudice that scientific ideas float free of their socio-political moorings. The genes-as-marbles analogy never accurately described what Mendel was after. But those mistaken assumptions served a whole cadre of unsavory interests from the very beginning—and arguably still do. This carefully crafted, compelling account kicks the scientific legs out from under the myths that have propped up eugenics and scientific racism for generations. For that reason, this book is a must read for anyone who hopes to understand not simply the true story of Mendel and early genetics, but also how science-flavored tales bend policy, education, and political priorities.”

    – Erik L. Peterson, Associate Provost for General Education & Associate Professor of the History of Science & Medicine, The University of Alabama


    “Kostas Kampourakis issues a critical challenge to the life sciences: Is Mendel now doing more harm than good? Where classical 20th century Mendelism posits the division of the genome into discrete elements that we now call genes, and the direct association of those genetic elements with particular organismal features, Kampourakis argues forcefully that we now know both of those assumptions to be gross oversimplifications, if not outright fallacies. Consequently perhaps Gregor Mendel, the great mythic founder of genetics, has run his course in that role, and we should re-think how we teach about human heredity. He’s definitely got a good point!”

    – Jonathan Marks, Professor of Anthropology, UNC-Charlotte

    “Kostas Kampourakis has made a name for himself as one of our clearest expositors and interpreters of the history of the life sciences. In How We Get Mendel Wrong, and Why it Matters he tells the story of the origins of genetics, and ends with a punch: an innovative new way to teach it. Applied history of science at its best, this is essential reading not only for geneticists, teachers and administrators, but also for the general public.”

    – Oren Harman, author of The Price of AltruismThe Man Who Invented the Chromosome, and Evolutions: Fifteen myths that Explain Our World

    "How We Get Mendel Wrong, and Why It Matters pulls the rug out from under the standard readings of genetics’ origin story, challenging fundamental assumptions about what Mendel knew, why he conducted those experiments on peas, how his work was received at the turn of the twentieth century, and—most importantly—why the received view that continues to dominate biology textbooks is so dangerous. Kampourakis distills work from history of science, philosophy of science, biology, and educational policy and practice, making that extensive literature accessible. This radical reimagining of that famous “father of genetics” is not to be missed."

    – James Tabery, Professor in the Department of Philosophy, University of Utah

    “In How We Get Mendel Wrong and Why it Matters, Kostas Kampourakis provides a thorough update of the history of Mendel and Mendelism, debunking powerful myths, reminding us of eugenic misuses, and calling for new ways of teaching genetics.”

    – Staffan Müller-Wille, University of Cambridge

    “What if Gregor Mendel and his famous pea experiments were not the foundation of the science of heredity? Kostas Kampourakis provides a lucid, concise guide to a radical shift in how we think about genes and DNA—one that has the potential to radically revise the way we teach, and do, genetics.”

    – Nathaniel Comfort, Professor, Department of the History of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University

    "The myths that cling to Gregor Mendel and his legacies do him -- and us -- a huge disservice. In this superb book, Kostas Kampourakis presents the general reader with a first-rate introduction to the demythologized story, from Mendel's day to our own. The lessons drawn, especially for the genetics classroom, should be required reading for anyone concerned to make biology education fit for purpose in the twenty-first century."

    – Gregory Radick, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Leeds