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Just Imagine…Taking the Long View

“Barbara McClintock,” International Livestock Research Institute CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“One must wait for the right time for conceptual change”

Barbara McClintock was a geneticist who did much of her work with maize (corn). Because maize has a far longer generational cycle than E coli bacteria (the subject of most genetic research at the time), McClintock’s work took longer to develop than that of her contemporaries. She also developed insights that others did not.

Her work on gene regulation challenged the beliefs of many of her contemporaries. She saw things that they didn’t. The negative reactions to her work were so severe that she eventually quit publishing the results of her work. She continued her studies but was generally ignored by her peers.

Ten years after she quit publishing her work, her discoveries were confirmed by others. Her work finally achieved the recognition it deserved. Thirty years after her initial discoveries, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. It seemed like the scientific world had finally caught up to her. “One must wait for the right time for conceptual change,” she wrote.

Many of the most promising genetic advances in medicine have their origins in McClintock’s work. This includes the development of the Covid-19 vaccine. McClintock’s work was a true breakthrough. Her belief in her ideas was a lesson for everyone. How many of us would continue our work when others doubted us so much? How many of us would keep the faith that eventually our ideas would prevail? How many of us could keep working with the optimistic spirit necessary for gaining new insights? How many of us could resist the temptation of devolving into bitterness at the rejection of others?

Just imagine if we approached societal problems with a long view as Barbara McClintock did in her studies of maize. Unfortunately our approach to societal issues seems more geared around the two-year cycles of electoral politics. Just imagine the courage it would take to persist in ideas that outpace conventional thinking. Just imagine what it would take to ensure that long-view possibilities are given the consideration they deserve. Just imagine our becoming a society that listens to those whose insights we can not yet fathom.


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“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” – Albert Einstein

This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to imagine with us positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.