A hot topic recently was the First Pooch. The media roiled with speculation: What kind of dog would the Barack Obama's family choose? Obama told the press that the dog would likely come from a shelter, adding, "It will probably be a mutt -- like me."
To some, calling oneself a "mutt" smacks of self-deprecation. It shouldn't. For muttdom, 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, not every hybrid has 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. (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. In foreign affairs, he 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As a veteran plant breeder, I look forward to seeing the results of the president's many ideological outcrossings. I wish him success. And I can't wait to see the first mutt.
George Ball, is past president of the American Horticultural Society and chairman of W. Atlee Burpee & Co.