Hybrid Vigor

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.

This entry was posted on Monday, February 16th, 2009 at 10:44 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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33 Responses to “Hybrid Vigor”

  1. Al Tompkins said:

    You need to send a copy of this posting to the President.

  2. George said:

    Al – I hope someone in the government gets something out of it. Maybe an op/ed article. Thanks much.

  3. Connie said:

    Hybrid vigor is great. Synthesis of thought, too. Creativity, etc. But is is wrong to say that 1 + 1 = 3. It never will. And because of that, we CAN do science and figure out the things that DO vary.

  4. George said:

    Connie – I thought synergy was defined that way, as a figure of speech. Thanks for the input.

  5. Ben said:

    I agree with hybridization as a new beginning. It will produce many political “mutts”. I would hope to apply an ample dose of scientific method to determine which path we choose to travel.

  6. George said:

    Ben – Great point. So far that’s not been terribly evident. However, it’s still early. I believe in our president is the will of the people. He’ll get better over time.

  7. chris said:

    Any dog is beautiful if you look into their soul. Their eyes reveal all the love in the world.

  8. George said:

    Thanks for the beautiful thought Chris.

  9. Jacqui Robertson said:

    Hurray…what a wonderful essay…great observations and a positive, hopeful message that can be endorsed by all. Will enjoy passing your thoughts along to others.

  10. George said:

    Thanks very much, Jacqui

  11. tracy said:

    i love your emails i learn so much and as one “mutt” to another YEAH

  12. George said:

    Thanks, Tracy

  13. TC said:

    You are a most eloquent writer. If you’re ever in my neck of the woods for any reason, please let me know so that I might try and hybridize some of your wisdom. (I often lament about not taking my literary criticism professor up on his offer that I attend lit crit grad school.)

  14. George said:

    TC – You can still read Ezra Pound’s “ABC”. I heartily recommend it, since it helped me greatly. Thank you for the compliment. Hope you can make it to one of the Fordhook Opens.

  15. Joyce said:

    Great talk this week. Thanks for making all these connections on hybrid vigour. J

  16. Wendy said:

    My dog whom I recently put to rest at 16 yrs of age, was a mutt. I remember her expressions, yes espressions, when the neighborhood “hybrid” dogs would walk by the house and pee on my prized bushes and plants. I could tell that she was thinking, “I would never do that.” I hope the President chooses a mutt, and hope that it will be as intelligent as my dog, and not mistreat any new vegetable gardens the Obama’s might have at the White House.

  17. George said:

    Hear, hear, Wendy.

  18. Bruce Crawford said:

    I always enjoy your philosophies and opinions – your point several months ago about the demise of the newspaper and editorials was well taken. I am not certain where you find the time to write these prose, but….

  19. George said:

    Thanks Bruce. Since July when I appointed Chris Romas as my able new company president. Freed up some time.

  20. Rachel said:

    Seems like it is just verbiage you are pointing out here. Remember the average American has the comprehension of an 8th grader. So he does have to use language the mass of the population can understand. Don’t be too hard on them. We are only products of our predecessors, just like plants. Love your ideologies, keep em’ coming!

  21. George said:

    Rachael – I think “stimulus” is a bit more difficult to comprehend then “seed”, but I’m no expert. I just like to write little opinion articles in the wintertime. When spring gets underway—very soon—not so much time. Thanks.

  22. Jagan n Sharma said:

    Mr. Ball is a very well read person, and knows his ideas to express in black and white in such a beautiful manner. EXCELLENT.

  23. George said:

    Dear Jaggi –

    Hello my “Qurbani” friend! So nice to hear from a truly great plant breeder and wonderful character such as yourself. I hope you and the family are very well. Yours truly, GB.

  24. Jenny Sawyer said:

    Your writing is a delight for the eyes and senses as is planning for gardens, scents and color when deep snows have finally melted into the ground…winter is indeed a fine time for thoughtful writing…

  25. mark andrews said:

    from a gardening perspective,,,, i didn’t read anything in this blog that talked much about plant hybrids….. mostly about people hybrids…. isn’t this a gardening website???

  26. George said:

    Mark – Thanks. I try to interweave gardenesque musings with pure plant articles. That’s the point of the term “silva rerum”. The last 10 posts have been mostly related to plants, directly or indirectly. But I hear you, and will focus on plants especially as the season gets underway. Thanks again.

  27. Corinne Applegate said:

    Especially great job on this one, George.

  28. PAULA said:

    Wonderful commentary, I wish the President well and hope he may fulfill his dreams for this nation.

  29. Lisa Colburn said:

    How creative that you compare plants to dogs and people. It would do us all some good to be able to view life in such an abstract way. The ability to view things in many shades of gray instead of black and white is the sign of an intelligent and healthy individual. You are not only a plantsman, you are also an artist!
    Best regards,
    Lisa

  30. Ruth Ann Schmitt said:

    Beautifully said!

  31. James Golden said:

    Lincoln had a hard time with all sides, even his friends. His strength of character, understanding of others, and sense of timing were masterful (at least as presented by Doris Kearns Goodwin). Let’s hope Obama can take the heat, and make judgments that are up to the challenges our world faces. I’m trying to relate this to hybrid vigor, but seem to be moving toward a mixed metaphor…

  32. Pat Crane said:

    Your message is very thought provoking and has an interesting viewpoint. I am with you as hoping the new, seemingly far seeing president leads us to a new better time.

  33. Marshall Smyth said:

    Hybrid vigor can continue for more than the first finial generation. That very special first generation has the dominant and recessive genes put together so that those dominant genes get expressed over their recessive counterparts everywhere, and the codominant genes and gene sets play their music in the hybrid in ways that surprise the breeder. You even notice other kinds of sub dominance or sub recessive traits. But the offspring of that first generation give new variations of the hybrid’s theme! This is where the breeder’s selections become suddenly strong. 1+1=Lots of things! If one of the original parents had one kind of growing vigor, and the other parent had another kind of growing vigor, wow. 1+1 can equal something like a lot more than 2. Yep, some of the others can get neither parent’s vigor. I know about that happening. I truly do hope you are breeding plants in your own personal garden, and growing the succeeding selected generations. Sometimes the impossible happens, and a chromosome breaks, giving a plant with pairs of traits that don’t go together. I sure hope my truly determinate potato leaf tomato plant, with terminating racemes of flowers isn’t going to be sterile. 12+12 can equal 25 or 26, depending on when the chromosome broke. It could be a handy trait for automated picking machines, or for growing at home with the cages 30″ high. There they are, right at your waist, most of them all at once. I find that vigor is different with each cross. Cosmos don’t show hybrid vigor, but they combine traits very beautifully.

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