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What Are Qualities?

Stephen L. Talbott1

The celebrated geneticist, Barbara McClintock, was well-known—and considered rather eccentric—for cultivating what has been called a "feeling for the organism". A life-long student of corn and its genetic organization, she would observe every plant she studied, starting when it was a tiny seedling. "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" (Keller 1983, p. 198).

McClintock's biographer, Evelyn Fox Keller, tells of the geneticist's meeting with a group of graduate and postdoctoral biology students at Harvard University. The students were responsive to her exhortation that they "take the time and look", but they were also troubled. Where does one get the time to look and to think? "They argued that the new technology of molecular biology is self-propelling. It doesn't leave time. There's always the next experiment, the next sequencing to do. The pace of current research seems to preclude such a contemplative stance".

McClintock went on to tell the students how fortunate she had been for having worked with a slow technology, a slow organism. Other researchers disliked corn because you could only grow two crops a year. But she found that even two crops a year were too many. If she was really to observe her plants adequately, one crop was all she could handle.

McClintock had little patience for her many colleagues who were "so intent on making everything numerical", and who therefore mi