The year is 1856 and a Silesian friar and science teacher named Gregor Johann Mendel gets the go-ahead from his abbot to conduct horticultural experiments on the few acres the monks maintain at the Augustinian Abbey of St. Thomas, in the vowel-starved city of Brno in what is now the Czech Republic. Mendel selects and crossbreeds strains of garden peas in every combination, trying to precisely control and predict the expression of various characteristics (pea color, pod shape, plant height, etc.). Along the way he discovers that the plants vary according to a regular statistical function, and more interestingly still, that a “daughter” plant’s characteristics are not merely a blend of its parents’. Rather, a pair of “factors” that split and recombine during the reproductive process controls the offspring’s characteristics, and certain of these factors are “dominant” over others. Mendel presents his findings in a paper (“Versuche über Pflanzenhybriden”) to the local natural-history society, and by all accounts there is much nodding and favorable rapping of walking-sticks. But Mendel’s work is forgotten for decades, and only in the middle of the 20th century is his path-breaking discovery of these “factors” (we call them genes) rediscovered and Mendel recognized as the father of modern genetics.
Fast-forward to 2013. A distant Facebook “friend” whom we’ll call Fletcher — the brother of an acquaintance’s ex-girlfriend — is in full lather, clogging my wall with the agit-prop of a tinfoil-hat brigade called “Truth Seeds.” The paradigmatic image: a collection of one-dollar bills scrawled with magic-marker entreaties: “RESEARCH: 9/11 Building Controlled Demolition Thermite,” “RESEARCH: U.S. Government Created Al-Qaeda,” “RESEARCH: Free Energy Suppression Tesla,” “RESEARCH: Sodium Fluoride Side Effects,” “RESEARCH: Bilderberg Group Trilateral Commission Logan Act,” “RESEARCH: Monsanto GMO.” If you don’t like my answers, Fletcher seems to be saying, I suggest you cease asking frightening questions.