'Mendel's Dwarf': The temptation of eugenics

March 22, 1998|By Tess Lewis | Tess Lewis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Mendel's Dwarf," by Simon Mawer. Harmony. 310 pages. $23.

Dr. Benedict Lambert, the narrator of Simon Mawer's fifth novel, is a dwarf with little time for euphemism or social niceties. Rejecting the labels "vertically challenged" and "little people" as well as vaguer adjectives like "diminutive" and "courageous," he prefers to describe himself as "an aberration, a mutant, the product of pure, malign chance."

He is, after all, well versed in the science of mutation. A lecturer in molecular genetics at the Royal Institute for Genetics in London, Lambert's expertise lies in his research on the genetic mutation that causes his own condition: achondroplasia, or dwarfism. He is also the great-great-great nephew of Gregor Mendel, the Moravian monk who founded the science of genetics 130 years ago by tracking such traits as height and color through generation after generation of garden peas.

Lambert reacts to the unfair hand life has dealt him with a blunt and sardonic wit that makes "phenotypically normal" people squirm with discomfort. "I don't want to kick a man when he's down," he demurs before adding: "Actually I do - given my particular disadvantage, it's the only way I get the opportunity."

His pervasive bitterness challenges the sympathy of his students, lecture audiences, and often the reader. Yet his fundamental decency and strong moral principles are more obvious than he would like to admit.

They are tested when he must decide whether or not to exact revenge upon a woman who loved him briefly before rejecting him. Jean Piercey loved him enough to want his child, but only if assured that the 50 percent chance of its being affected with achondroplasia be eliminated.

It is up to Lambert to eliminate it - or not.

In "Mendel's Dwarf," Lambert interweaves an imaginative reconstruction of Gregor Mendel's life and work with an account of his own childhood, scientific research, and a short-lived love affair. Many of the moral certainties taken for granted in the 19th century have been eroded, as "Mendel's Dwarf" makes painfully clear. Fully aware that the temptation to play God is almost irresistible, Lambert envisions a world in which the obvious immorality of eugenics at the service of racial purity is superceded by the more ambiguous amorality of eugenics governed by the laws of the marketplace: genetic screening of embryos for the preferred eye, hair, or skin color, sex, height, etc.

The screening techniques and the related moral quandaries described in this novel are not yet established but are likely to be readily available - to those who can afford them - in the not too distant future.

Simon Mawer has written a gripping tale of scientific intrigue and moral uncertainty. A teacher of biology, he convincingly works the intricacies of genetic theory into Lambert's narrative. In this novel, he brings to life the ethical dilemmas inherent in genetic science far more vividly than any article about cloned sheep.

Tess Lewis is a Rhodes Scholar. She has written for the Hudson Review, the Partisan Review and other publications. Her translation of Peter Handke's "Once Again For Thucydides" will be published by New Directions this fall.

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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