Church of Reality: Barbara McClintock on Scientific Mysticism and Plant Consciousness
"Every time I walk on grass I feel sorry because I know the grass is screaming at me."
This post is part of a series on the philosophical and spiritual views of prominent scientists and mathematicians. Past subjects include Erwin Schrödinger and Georg Cantor. Future subjects will include Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, and Max Planck.
Barbara McClintock was a cytogeneticist and a pioneer of non-Mendelian genetics. In 1983, she earned an unshared Nobel Prize for her discovery of chromosomal crossover, or “jumping genes”.
McClintock was also a self-described mystic. She used altered states of mind to gain insight into complex systems. And she empathized deeply with the plants she studied—she saw a level of awareness in plants that we typically reserve for mammals.
McClintock’s philosophy and mystical experiences had a huge influence on her work. Let’s see how her beliefs and her discoveries built on one another.
The Eucalyptus Trees
Ego-Reduction and Flow States
Pain is an Illusion
The Inadequacy of Science
The Problem with Language
McClintock took a very different approach to scientific study. She was led primarily not by deductive reasoning, but by intuition. She frequently describes a sudden revelation, followed by hours or weeks of working out a way to explain it.
When you suddenly see the problem, something happens that you have the answer—before you are able to put it into words. It is all done subconsciously. This has happened too many times to me, and I know when to take it seriously. I’m so absolutely sure. I don’t talk about it, I don’t have to tell anybody about it, I’m just sure this is it.
Her description echoes Einstein’s discovery of special relativity: he spent years building his intuition, then had a sudden revelation about the nature of time, and considered the problem solved. But it took five weeks of grinding out the math before he had a theory he could share.
The Eucalyptus Trees
McClintock’s intuitive approach to science solidified during a 1944 visit to Stanford, where she was invited to help study the strange meiotic cycle of Neurospora crassa, a bread mold. She’d just been elected to the National Academy of Sciences—only the third woman to earn that distinction—but soon after arriving in California, her confidence began to flag.
Neurospora was notoriously hard to work with—its chromosomes were tiny, making cytological study all but impossible. After three days of staring at her microscope and getting nowhere, McClintock decided to go for a walk, and found herself sitting on a bench beneath a row of giant eucalyptus trees. Without much intention or thought, the problem suddenly resolved itself:
I must have done this very intense, subconscious thinking….Suddenly I jumped up, I couldn’t wait to get back to the laboratory. I knew I was going to solve it—everything was going to be all right.
While relating this story to her biographer, Evelyn Fox Keller, McClintock sat forward on her seat. The experience was a pivotal moment in her life, and she was eager to make herself understood. Keller writes:
…above all, she felt it was “what happened under the eucalyptus trees” that was crucial. She had brought about a change in herself that enabled her to see more clearly, “reorienting” herself in such a way that she could immediately “integrate” what she saw.
Ego-Reduction and Flow States
In the following days, McClintock was enormously productive. She speaks about the experience in terms of ego-reduction, a hallmark of mysticism:
As you look at these things, they become part of you. And you forget yourself. The main thing about it is you forget yourself.
The loss of ego left her completely absorbed, almost to the point of hallucination:
I found that the more I worked with [the chromosomes] the bigger and bigger [they] got, and when I was really working with them I wasn’t outside, I was down there. I was part of the system. I was right down there with them, and everything got big. I even was able to see the internal parts of the chromosomes—actually everything was there. It surprised me because I actually felt as if I were right down there and these were my friends.
After the eucalyptus trees, McClintock seems to have entered a flow state. A week later she gave a seminar on the meiotic cycle of Neurospora. George Beadle, her host at Stanford and an expert on Neurospora, said of her work, “Barbara…did more to clean up the cytology of Neurospora than all the other cytological geneticists had done in all previous time on all forms of mold.”
The following year McClintock began her work on transposons—work which eventually earned her a Nobel Prize.
After her experience at Stanford, McClintock developed an intensely empathetic relationship with the plants she studied, to the point of attributing consciousness to them. Keller writes:
What enabled McClintock to see further and deeper into the mysteries of genetics than her colleagues?
Her answer is simple. Over and over again, she tells us one must have the time to look, the patience to "hear what the material has to say to you," the openness to "let it come to you." Above all, one must have "a feeling for the organism."
Over the years, a special kind of sympathetic understanding grew in McClintock, heightening her powers of discernment, until finally, the objects of her study have become subjects in their own right; they claim from her a kind of attention that most of us experience only in relation to other persons. "Organism" is for her a code word—not simply a plant or animal…but the name of a living form, of object-as-subject.
McClintock spent most of her career in solitude, working independently at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. She worked primarily with maize, which had enough genetic complexity for a deep, lifelong study. Most scientists avoided maize, since you can only grow two crops per year. But for McClintock, a single crop each year generated more than enough data.
She paid deep attention to every plant in her care—a friend quipped that she could write each one’s biography. As McClintock put it:
No two plants are exactly alike. They’re all different, and as a consequence, you have to know that difference. I start with the seedling and I don’t want to leave it. I don’t feel I really know the story if I don’t watch the plant all the way along. So I know every plant in the field. I know them intimately. And I find it a great pleasure to know them.
The inner lives of plants were a source of wonder for McClintock. She was frustrated by the orthodox belief that only animals have subjective experience.
Animals can walk around, but plants have to stay still to do the same things, with ingenious mechanisms...Plants are extraordinary. For instance…if you pinch a leaf of a plant you set off electric pulses. You can't touch a plant without setting off an electric pulse...There is no question that plants have [all] kinds of sensitivities. They do a lot of responding to their environment. They can do almost anything you can think of. But just because they sit there, anybody walking down the road considers them just a plastic area to look at, [as if] they're not really alive.
…In the summertime, when you walk down the road, you'll see that the tulip leaves, if it's a little warm, turn themselves around so their backs are toward the sun. You can just see where the sun hits them and where the sun doesn't hit...within the restricted areas in which they live, they move around a great deal.
Her belief in the inner life of plants even took on moral dimensions:
Every time I walk on grass I feel sorry because I know the grass is screaming at me.
It’s unclear to me whether McClintock was a panpsychist, but she clearly saw sentience where most of us see nothing. Whether this was an insight derived from diligent study, or the hallucination of a recluse starved for social interaction, is not entirely clear. Probably a bit of both.
Pain is an Illusion
Privately, McClintock experimented with her own physiology. She was fascinated by Tibetan Buddhists, who develop conscious control over their body temperature.
I was so startled by their method of training and by its results that I figured we were limiting ourselves by using what we call the scientific method.
…We are scientists, and we know nothing basically about controlling our body temperature. [But] the Tibetans learn to live with nothing but a tiny cotton jacket. They're out there cold winters and hot summers, and when they have been through the learning process, they have to take certain tests. One of the tests is to take a wet blanket, put it over them, and dry that blanket in the coldest weather. And they dry it.
(These abilities have now been verified in controlled settings.)
But McClintock’s interest wasn’t only academic—she wanted to learn it for herself. She began experimenting in secret, aware that her colleagues wouldn’t approve.
…I couldn't tell other people at the time because it was against the “scientific method”…We just hadn't touched on this kind of knowledge in our medical physiology, [and it is] very, very different from the knowledge we call the only way.
Her experiments were a success. She even pushed beyond controlling her blood flow and body temperature. Her friend Howard Green writes:
She had a Yogi-like ability to control pain. When she went to the dentist she assured him not to worry about inflicting pain because, by an effort of mind, she would not feel any. This piece of information may have raised the dentist’s eyebrows, but the result was as she predicted.
The Inadequacy of Science
When McClintock first presented her Nobel-winning work on maize transposons in 1951, she was ridiculed. She described the scientific community’s reaction as “puzzlement, even hostility…They thought I was crazy, absolutely mad.”
Her trouble appears similar to the difficulty of articulating mystical knowledge:
Over the years I have found that it is difficult if not impossible to bring to consciousness of another person the nature of his tacit assumptions when, by some special experiences [emphasis mine], I have been made aware of them. This became painfully evident to me in my attempts during the 1950s to convince geneticists that the action of genes had to be and was controlled…One must await the right time for conceptual change.
She puzzled over how she could be sure of herself without the approval of her peers. There was a frustrating tension between her intuitive knowledge on the one hand, and her need to articulate it on the other:
Why do you know? Why were you so sure of something when you couldn't tell anyone else? You weren't sure in a boastful way; you were sure in what I call a completely internal way...What you had to do was put it into their frame. Wherever it came in your frame, you had to work to put it into their frame. So you work with so-called scientific methods to put it into their frame after you know.
The Problem with Language
McClintock blamed her problems on language. Language divides the world into categories, so we can only ever describe it in a dissected state. She was able to see things holistically, in vivo, but struggled to dissect her vision into nameable parts.
Basically, everything is one. There is no way in which you draw a line between things. What we [normally] do is to make these subdivisions, but they're not real. Our educational system is full of subdivisions that are artificial, that shouldn't be there.
Keller compares McClintock’s difficulties to Richard Feynman’s. Other physicists were mystified by Feynman, until Freeman Dyson decided to serve as his interpreter. Dyson writes:
The reason Dick’s [Feynman’s] physics was so hard for ordinary physicists to grasp was that he did not use equations…Dick just wrote down the solutions out of his head without ever writing down the equations. He had a physical picture of the way things happen, and the picture gave him the solution directly with a minimum of calculation. It was no wonder that people who had spent their lives solving equations were baffled by him. Their minds were analytical; his was pictorial.
Unfortunately McClintock didn’t have someone like Dyson to lean on—she was her own reluctant interpreter.
McClintock was unfazed by academia’s rejection. She simply stopped publishing and waited for science to catch up. It took 15 years for the scientific community to accept her work, as they began to discover transposons in a wide variety of species. It was another 20 years before she received her Nobel.
Over the many years, I truly enjoyed not being required to defend my interpretations. I could just work with the greatest of pleasure. I never felt the need nor the desire to defend my views.
McClintock was a perfect fit for Colin Wilson’s archetypal Outsider—a recluse, cut off from her peers, working diligently towards a revolution. There is some controversy over whether McClintock’s exile was self-imposed—she was a naturally solitary person—or if it was a reaction to the blatant sexism of her colleagues. Both seem to have played a role.
McClintock had few friends, and never married or had children. But a deep engagement with her work—and with nature—left her more than fulfilled.
I just have been so interested in what I was doing and it’s been such a pleasure, such a deep pleasure, that I never thought of stopping…I’ve had a very, very, satisfying and interesting life.
A Feeling for the Organism by Evelyn Fox Keller
In Memoriam, NobelPrize.org, by Howard Green
Barbara McClintock, NobelPrize.org
Obituary in BioEssays, by James A. Shapiro