WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH – Molecular Geneticist Barbara McClintock, one of “The Paradigm Shifters” of Science

Molecular Geneticist Barbara McClintock, one of

“The Paradigm Shifters” of Science [1]

Abdu'l-Baha in 1912

In 1912 a Middle Eastern traveler to the United States by the name of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá made some farsighted pronouncements concerning the role of women. He had spent his life mentoring both Eastern and Western women to achieve their full capacities and render great services to humanity. In a talk in Boston, Massachusetts, he specifically encouraged women to “devote their energies and abilities toward the industrial and agricultural sciences” and seek to assist humankind “in that which is most needful.”[2]

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s thesis was that women could bring a unique dimension to these fields, due to qualities of character in which they excel. Among these qualities are intuition and receptiveness, mental alertness, “abundance of mercy and sympathy,” concern for “the needy and suffering,” and “greater moral courage.” [3]

A survey of the contributions women have made in some of these fields reveals women scientists who have, indeed, exemplified qualities in which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says women excel. When entering previously male-dominated fields they have evinced ground-breaking influence not only by their accomplishments but also by methods and motivations that contrasted those of previous practitioners.

Intuition and Receptiveness

The use of intuition in science is perhaps most controversially illustrated by Barbara McClintock, Nobel laureate and discoverer of gene transposition.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá states, “In some respects woman is superior to man. She is more tender-hearted, more receptive, her intuition is more intense.”[1]  When asked to define the faculty of intuition, He said that

…the second sort of knowledge, which is the knowledge of being, is intuitive; it is like the cognizance and consciousness that man has of  himself.  For example, the mind and the spirit of man are cognizant of the conditions and states of the members and component parts of the body, and are aware of all the physical sensations; in the same way, they are aware of their power, of their feelings, and of their spiritual conditions. This is the knowledge of being which man realizes and perceives, for the spirit surrounds the body and is aware of its sensations and powers. This knowledge is not the outcome of effort and study. It is an existing thing; it is an absolute gift. [2]

Abdu’l-Bahá continues to develop the theme of intuition by speaking of the inter-relatedness of all things:

The most noble being on the earth is man. He embraces the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms–that is to say, these conditions are contained in him to such an extent that he is the possessor of these conditions and states; he is aware of their mysteries and of the secrets of their existence. [Ibid.]

In this statement one sees that it is not anathema to use intuition in the process of science, which is the delving into the realities of things, for if the conditions of these kingdoms are contained within human beings, the unraveling of their “mysteries and the secrets of their existence” is the same as understanding ourselves. Part of the scientific method, then, is to tap into this connection.

Barbara McClintock

Through meticulous manipulation and observation of the inheritance of pigment patterns in Indian corn, Barbara McClintock, a cell geneticist and plant breeder made what has come to be recognized as the most revolutionary genetic discovery since Mendel’s discovery of the gene in 1865. [3]

In 1951 she published the theory of gene transposition, postulating that genes do not always behave in an orderly fashion in heredity but, triggered by developmental events, sometimes actually jump around on a chromosome or from one chromosome to another. Her theory united the disciplines of cell genetics and developmental biology, paving the way for the modern sciences of molecular genetics and genetic engineering.

After McClintock’s discovery of transposition, she was ostracized by the scientific community and considered eccentric, perhaps because the discovery was so revolutionary and because at the time there were few geneticists in the world capable of understanding her work. It took the scientific community thirty years to arrive slowly, through numerous other lines of evidence, at an understanding of McClintock’s 1951 discovery.

The theory of gene transposition is now accepted, and, though McClintock worked with plants, her discovery has made it possible to study antibiotic-resistant bacteria, to seek a cure for African sleeping sickness, and to help understand the mechanism of cancer.

Evelyn Fox Keller, McClintock’s biographer, has written about the reasons for the dual themes of success and marginality characterizing her career.[4]  McClintock saw transposable elements as the key to developmental regulation. Her contemporaries were not able to absorb her discovery because she was a philosophical and methodological deviant. Her concept of nature, for example, was that “anything you can think of you will find…organisms…do everything we can think of, they do it better, more efficiently, more marvelously.” This meant that one had to “listen to the material,” to respect individual differences, not as aberrations, but as possible clues to the greater picture. Instead of trying to fit knowledge into a central dogma, discarding all exceptions as irrelevant, she pursued the single exception with the greatest respect. Her work on transposition began, in fact, from the observation of an aberrant pattern of pigmentation on a few kernels of a single corn plant. “The important thing is to develop the capacity to see one kernel [of maize] that is different and make it understandable,” she wrote. Her major criticism of contemporary research was what she saw as inadequate humility, the scientist wanting to impose an answer on the material; “if you’d only just let the material tell you,” she cautioned.[5]

McClintock’s approach, now dubbed “a feeling for the organism,” is illustrated in her description of chromosomes she was trying to identify through microscopic observation:

I found that the more I worked with them, the bigger and bigger [the chromosomes got], and when I was really working with them I wasn’t outside, I was down there. I was part of the system…And you forget yourself.[6]

McClintock’s language shows her love for her object, a love that allows for intimacy without annihilation of difference. This, Keller asserts, describes a form of thought that informs her work. It is “a vocabulary of affection, of kinship, of empathy…McClintock can risk the suspension of boundaries between subject and object without jeopardy to science precisely because, to her, science is not premised on that division…. [this] is the wellspring of her powers as a scientist.” “Love revealeth with unfailing and limitless power the mysteries latent in the universe,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá asserts. [7]

Furthermore, McClintock saw the anomalous corn kernels not as evidence of disorder or lawlessness but as part of a larger system of order, one that cannot be reduced to a single law. It was part of the connectedness of all things. Her interest was not so much in knowing the mechanism and structure of genes but in understanding the function and organization, the relationship to the organism as a whole. The traditional division between genetics and developmental biology was one that McClintock could not accept, her foresight perhaps presaging the development of the currently all-powerful science of molecular biology. But what was heretical in McClintock’s thinking was that she saw in transposition a mechanism enabling genetic structures to respond to the needs of the organism. In 1953, two years after McClintock presented her findings, biochemical scientists James Watson and Francis Crick had elucidated the structure of DNA. This mechanism of inheritance became the central dogma, one that postulated a one-directional flow of genetic information from DNA to RNA to protein. The claim was made that the secret of life had been unraveled. This hierarchical structure of genetic organization, similar to organizational charts of corporate structures, became a textbook illustration. McClintock’s views, which added another layer of complexity by suggesting that nature responded more fluidly to the needs of the organism, did not fit into that scheme. Hence she was marginalized until science slowly sorted through and incorporated that additional piece of the puzzle decades later.

One of the many lessons of McClintock’s story lies in the relevance of gender not just to the questions scientists ask but in the answers with which they content themselves. Therefore, the influx of large numbers of women into the sciences must have the effect not just of adding another component to the creative vision now represented in science but of incorporating a fundamentally different view of nature and perhaps a scientific mind more inclusive of subjectivity. Although this could hardly be articulated by most women scientists, it is a fundamental component of their right to be scientists. To accept anything less would have the same demoralizing effect as being invited to sit at the men’s table but having to laugh at misogynist jokes.

In making such a review of the effect of women on the sciences the relevant questions are: if we encounter women scientists practicing these qualities in which women excel did they act as paradigm shifters? Was humanity the better for it? And can they be taken as role models by both men and women seeking to conduct a more enlightened practice of science (one in which the male and female aspects of civilization are more evenly balanced)?

[1]  ‘Abdu’l-Bahá,  Paris Talks 50.6.

[2]  Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, comp. and trans. Laura Clifford Barney, 1st ed.(Wilmette, Ill.: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1984) 157, 158.

[3] See Evelyn Fox Keller, A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of  Barbara McClintock (New York: Freeman, 1983).

[4] Evelyn Fox Keller, ‘A World of Difference,” Reflections on Gender and Science (New Haven: Yale UP, 1985) 158-76.

[5] Keller, ‘World of Difference,” Reflections on Gender and Science 162.

[6] Keller, “World of Difference,” Reflections on Gender and Science 165.

[7] Keller, “World of Difference,” Reflections on Gender and Science 164; Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Bahá, comp. Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, trans. Committee at the Bahá’í World Centre and Marzieh Gail (Haifa: Bahá’í” World Centre, 1997) 27.


We hope you enjoyed our WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH series. This was Part 5 of 5 from Science in the Hands of Women – The Paradigm Shifters

Also check out my novel about a working scientist, Maddie Hawkins, and see what kinds of trouble she gets herself into.


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About rheaharmsen

Rhea Harmsen is a scientist, novelist and author of Language of the Spirit, a volume of selected poems. She has also released three novels, The Harvest of Reason, Intermarry, and God Created Women. Harmsen was born in a family with a black father and a white mother at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in some states. Her parents gave her a vision of world citizenship that informs her writing and her lifestyle and has caused her to reject traditional views of race and gender. Harmsen's article "Science in the Hands of Women: Present Barriers, Future Promise" appeared in World Order in 1998 and provides the foundation for the story line for her novel The Harvest of Reason. She co-published the Monroeville Race Unity Forum Bulletin and authored many poems on racial topics, crystallizing the "conversation on race" in the novel Intermarry. Her work with domestic violence survivors in Puerto Rico inspired the novel God Created Women. Harmsen holds a doctorate in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She currently resides in Puerto Rico. Upcomming projects are described in her web page at rheaharmsen.com
This entry was posted in agriculture, bahai, educators, equality, female professors, food security, genetic engineering, Jane Goodall, national discussion, Paradigm shift, science and religion, social justice, technology, Uncategorized, women in science, women's history and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH – Molecular Geneticist Barbara McClintock, one of “The Paradigm Shifters” of Science

  1. César says:

    Sí, esa mujer fue muy especial. Y pensar que al principio no le hicieron caso y la criticaron muchísimo.

  2. César says:

    Leí todo el artículo “science in the hands of women”y es muy bueno. Felicitaciones.

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