Existentialism in Mendel’s Dwarf: What Mendel DIDN’T Discover

I wanted to call attention once again to Benedict’s quote, taken from his conversation with Jean, which we concentrated on only briefly in class:


“You must understand that the DNA isn’t carrying the message: the message is an integral part of the molecule. The message IS the molecule. And just so, there isn’t a fundamental you that stands outside all this and watches it from some exalted viewpoint, like a reader looking at a book. It’s much stranger than that. You watch it with the machinery that has created it. You understand it—or fail to—with the machinery that it has created. That’s the point. The medium is the message. “


Only after reading, re-reading, and re-reading this conversation did I truly grasp the weight of Mendel’s discovery.  Mendel did NOT discover “genes” in the way that Louis Pasteur discovered germs. Mendel did NOT discover any “thing” in the sense of discovering some sort of unknown entity, the way that a scientist in the jungle discovers a new species.  No, Mendel’s discovery was perhaps the first true recognition of “self-hood” in the history of the human race.  Mendel found out that he was a book reading itself, editing itself, and acting itself out.  He was a book in a series of books called the human race, and there are millions of other series’ of books written in the same language, similarly reading, editing, and acting out themselves.

“It says proteins.  That is all, and that is everything,” says Benedict.  What he really should have said is, “It says itself,” or “It is proteins, and proteins say proteins.”  In fact, any semblance of communication in the word “says” might be incorrect, for a the “response” to “reading proteins” might be better understood as being more parallel to a chemical reaction.

We are a complex puzzle constantly trying to solve ourselves, and the only tools we have are pieces of the puzzle.  However, though Benedict asserts that we fail to understand the machine with the machinery that created it, he neglects to admit the machines can upgrade themselves.  As we continue to read, edit, and act out our own books in the Human Race series of protein-bound literature, it might not be long before we start writing our own books and our own series–in a different language all together.

-Jason Wire


~ by jasonwire on April 7, 2008.

2 Responses to “Existentialism in Mendel’s Dwarf: What Mendel DIDN’T Discover”

  1. I’m glad Jason called attention to this quotation, because I think this is an important point many people outside science fail to realize. I feel many people just view DNA as this code of letters in your body that just sit around until time to reproduce. Benedict succinctly sums up DNA in a way most do not understand.

    I also think the quotation is dramatically linked to the theme of the novel. Benedict uses his genes and the coding for achondroplasia in a way that defines his life. He allows his one mutation to define his life work and social interactions; “the medium is the message.”

  2. You focus on one of the most important passages in the novel. The problem of self-reflexivity is one of the primary connections between genetics and literature. I love the way you phrase the “puzzle trying to solve ourselves.” But I don’t think it follows that Mendel discovered “self-hood.” In a way, I think your analysis shows the opposite: the discovery that we are a book trying to read itself may dissolve selfhood into an endless loop. At the very least, it transforms selfhood into an epiphenomenon of the self-organizing complexity of the genetic code.

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