A hot topic recently was the First Pooch. The media roiled with speculation: what kind of dog would the President-elect’s family choose? The President-to-be told the press that the family dog would likely come from an animal shelter, adding, “It will probably be a mutt—like me.”
To some, calling oneself a “mutt” smacks of self-deprecation. It shouldn’t. Being a mutt, genetically speaking, is a badge of honor. Whether, like the President, you come from a mixed race parentage, or are of differing ethnicities, you are a hybrid—and being a hybrid has its privileges.
As a veteran plant breeder, I am well acquainted with hybrid vigor, the naturally occurring genetic enhancement achieved by combining the unique virtues of diverse parents in the offspring. The resulting hybrid’s superiority comes from the repression of recessive traits from one parent by the dominant traits from the other—the best of both worlds.
Of course, every hybrid does not have a triumphant result. The actress Sarah Bernhardt once mused to George Bernard Shaw, “Imagine we had a child, and it had my looks and your brain.” Shaw replied, “Yes, but imagine if it had your brain and my looks.”
And yes, not all purebreds are high-strung, thin-blooded and Velcro for every passing virus. If you are an AKC champion whippet, or a WASP who proudly traces your lineage to the Magna Carta, I salute you.
”Te salud, Don Corleone.”
(Though to the WASP I’d point out that Anglo-Saxon is itself a hybrid, Protestantism a Teutonic variant of Catholicism, and whiteness a genetic variation as well, one suitable for northern climes with relatively little sunlight.)
The phenomenon of hybrid vigor (heterosis is the technical term) is a key factor in all plant and animal breeding—whether you’re talking tulips or thoroughbred racehorses. It’s vital. As management seer Peter Drucker notes, “Few knowledge-based innovations in this century [20th] have benefited humanity more than the hybridization of seeds and livestock.”
However, the President is not merely a hybrid. Recombinant thinking is reflected in his domestic politics, foreign policy and management style. For his cabinet, he has assembled a group of strong personalities with diverse outlooks, including three Republicans, often compared to President Lincoln’s “team of rivals.” During the presidential primary, he invoked Ronald Reagan as a Presidential role model, drawing the wrath of his Democratic opponents and party diehards. In foreign affairs, he consistently emphasizes dialogue, even with countries that oppose us.
No president in memory has so emphatically endorsed looking beyond ideology and party labels in crafting policy, surprising both his supporters and his detractors. Asking Megachurch pastor Rick Warren to give the opening prayer at his inauguration is a striking example.
In my opinion, the President clearly grasps the importance of combining—or crossing, to use the genetic term—disparate ideas and ideologies. He’s not merely thinking strategically, but indeed bespeaking the essence of evolution and creativity. I pray that he’s as competent as he seems.
Researchers into the nature of creativity find that the ability to combine and recombine seemingly unrelated elements is the magic that makes 1 + 1 = 3.
Hybridism is an indispensable catalyst in the arts, ideas and sciences. You can likely trace all innovations to the merger of two contrasting, or even opposing ideas. Where you see a new paradigm, conceptual breakthrough or creative revolution, the 1 + 1 = 3 equation is at work.
In the chemistry of human attraction, we often see the attraction of opposites. Plato called it “the desire and pursuit of the whole.” We seek the person who will, in a sense, complement and complete us. Hybridism runs through our collective unconscious as well. In mythology we see creatures that unite traits of different animals: the griffon (with the head and wings of an eagle and a lion’s body), the centaur (a horse with a human body, legs and arms) and the faun (a human with a goat’s ears, legs and tail).
In technology, Drucker sees hybrid knowledge in the development of hybrid corn—the convergence of the work of Michigan plant breeder William J. Beal, who discovered hybrid vigor in the 1880s, and the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s genetics by the Dutch biologist Hugo de Vries. The Wright Brothers’ airplane represents the cross-linking of the gasoline engine and mathematical aerodynamics. That ubiquitous thing we call “mass communications” is a hybrid of information and advertising brought about by the likes of newspaper barons William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer and Adolf Ochs. Today these convergences seem altogether inevitable and inextricable.
The arts is a garden overflowing with striking hybrids, where two dissimilar ingredients are fused to spectacular and enduring effect. The results don’t appear anomalous, but predestined: not an end, but a new beginning. Their bloom does not fade.
Picasso mated primitive African art to modern art; Stravinsky crossbred Russian folk dances with western classical music. Taking a cue from the philosopher Henri Bergson, Virginia Woolf merged stream-of-consciousness into dazzling fiction. Oscar Wilde married oriental paradox to the drawing-room comedy. The poet Ezra Pound was a cross-breeder of styles par excellence, drawing on everything from Provencal ballads to Chinese poetry.
I look forward to seeing the results of the President’s many ideological out-crossings. I wish him success. And I can’t wait to see the first mutt. I’ll bet it’s a beauty.