Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behaviorby Jonathan Weiner
Jonathan Weiner, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Beak of the Finch, brings his brilliant reporting skills to the story of Seymour Benzer, the Brooklyn-born maverick scientist whose study of genetics and experiments with/i>/i>
"A fascinating history. Literate and authoritative.Marvelously exciting." The New York Times Book Review
Jonathan Weiner, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Beak of the Finch, brings his brilliant reporting skills to the story of Seymour Benzer, the Brooklyn-born maverick scientist whose study of genetics and experiments with fruit fly genes has helped revolutionize or knowledge of the connections between DNA and behavior both animal and human.
How much of our fate is decided before we are born? Which of our characteristics is inscribed in our DNA? Weiner brings us into Benzer's Fly Rooms at the California Institute of Technology, where Benzer, and his asssociates are in the process of finding answers, often astonishing ones, to these questions. Part biography, part thrilling scientific detective story, Time, Love, Memory forcefully demonstrates how Benzer's studies are changing our world viewand even our lives.
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"Weiner shines his formidable science-reporting light indoors....There is no better fly on the wall." The Philadelphia Inquirer
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Read an Excerpt
Philosophers used to speak of the ultimities. The last stop of a trip, the highest high C of a musical scale, and the final stage of an alchemical process, when the liquid in a beaker had traveled "from Crudity to Perfect Concoction," as Sir Francis Bacon put it--these were ultimities.
In science, the ultimities are the ultimate questions. These are the
questions that so many generations have raised that they have come to seem eternal, always to be asked and never to be answered. They are the problems that interest us so much that solving them--finding even a small piece of them--would feel like finding the secret of life. The origin of species was once one of the ultimities of science, until Darwin. The origin of the universe is one of the ultimities today. So is the origin of life. And the most intimate, the most immediate, in some ways the most intricate and the most important for our inquiring species, will always be the origin of behavior. We have asked these questions from the beginning: How much of our fate is decided before we are born? What is written and in what code and of what materials? What are the connections between atoms, thoughts, feelings, behavior? How much of our behavior is passed down with the genes from one generation to the next?
Benzer's countercurrent machine was a point of origin for the science of genes and behavior, a point of origin for the headlines that have punctuated the news for the last ten years and sometimes seem likely to dominate it within another ten years. It was the beginning of what Benzer calls the genetic dissection of behavior.
This is a science that is dedicated to exploring the inward infinity thatPascal imagined and to reading the writing on John Locke's slate--for even Locke knew that the slate is not blank. He thought that our temperaments are at least partly innate: "Some men by unalterable frame of their constitution are stout, others timorous, some confident, others modest and tractable." He did not think that much else about our minds is innate, although other eighteenth-century philosophers argued that we are born knowing a great deal: "that sweetness is not bitterness," to give one of the examples that Locke cited; or "that 'two bodies cannot be in the same place,' and that 'it is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be,' that 'white is not black,' that a 'square is not a circle,' that 'yellowness is not sweetness.' " Many philosophers assumed that "these and a million of other such propositions," as Locke skeptically wrote, "must be innate." Today, these are questions that the science of genes and behavior can begin to test at the level of the hipbone-is-connected-to-the-thighbone.
Sigmund Freud tried to make a solid science of human behavior. "Have you not noticed," he wrote early in the century, "that every philosopher, every imaginative writer, every historian and every biographer makes up his own psychology for himself, brings forward his own particular hypotheses concerning the interconnections and aims of mental acts--all more or less plausible and all equally untrustworthy? There is an evident lack of any common foundation." Freud tried to establish a foundation as solid as the foundations in physics and chemistry; but today the most interesting effort in progress is founded on physics, chemistry, and Benzer's beginning.
The new effort also builds on Darwin, and on the Darwinian studies of behavior that were attempted in the 1930s and 1940s by Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, Karl von Frisch, and their students, who called themselves ethologists. One of Tinbergen's books is illustrated by the silhouette of a bird in flight. When newborn goslings see that silhouette in the sky, they read the shape as a goose if it is moving to the right, a hawk if it is moving to the left. The silhouette of the goose does not scare goslings, but the silhouette of the hawk sends them scurrying. That kind of hard fact fascinated the ethologists. Goslings don't learn to make that distinction between friend and enemy from their mothers. They know it from the first moment they see the sky. They know it when they are still standing in the nest with caps of eggshell on their heads. How do they know? Ethologists looked at such pieces of behavior and tried to dissect them into routines and subroutines, which they called "atoms of behavior." Now with the tools of genetic dissection biologists can actually begin to study the instincts of goslings and newborn babies at the level of the atoms.
In the 1970s, E. O. Wilson, inspired in part by his studies of ant societies, tried to extend the work of the ethologists to human beings in a new synthesis he called "sociobiology." Wilson was attacked by social scientists, on the one side, because they hated his attempt to biologize human nature, and he was attacked by biologists, on the other side, because they felt he had built castles in the air and had not acknowledged the need for hard molecular biologists to put foundations under them. Today many of those sociobiological speculations can be explored in the code of the ants, the code of the flies, and the code of human beings; and Wilson himself wants to claim the genetic dissection of behavior as a cornerstone of his foundation. "Better Benzer than Freud! Quote me. Better Benzer than Freud!" Wilson says, standing in his office by one of his celebrated colonies of leaf-cutter ants, to which he feeds Drosophila--preferably wingless mutants.
"There is Grandeur in this view of life," Charles Darwin writes in the last lines of The Origin of Species. Darwin found grandeur in the thought that life, "having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one," has gone and is still going in so many astonishing directions; that life, "whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity," has produced and is now producing so many astonishing species and varieties, from viruses and bacteria to grass, from oaks to peacocks, great apes, and great whales; that "from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."
Of all the endless forms that have been and are being evolved on this planet, some of the most wonderful (if not the most beautiful) have emerged from the laboratories of Seymour Benzer and his school. The science they make possible is changing our view of life; and both the most passionate proponents and opponents of the science believe that in the twenty-first century it may change the conditions and prospects of life. Many compare this moment to the sudden acceleration of science itself in the seventeenth century, Pascal's century, or of atomic physics in the first half of the twentieth century. Others say the pace of biology today is unprecedented. "To compare the speed with which understanding is being deepened in the life sciences with what happened in physics in the 1920s is probably flattering to physics," the former editor of the journal Nature wrote not long ago in his farewell editorial, after several decades of watching the molecular revolution. "Can there ever have been a time when there have been so many people pushing at an open door?"
As the twentieth century ends, more and more of the best and brightest in science are being drawn to the effort. Molecular biology has made biology the royalty of science. James Watson has installed one of the science's golden boys--one of Benzer's best students' best students--next to his own office at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York, where Watson is the director. Sometimes late in the evening Watson wanders into the Fly Rooms and looks at the madding crowds in the tidy bottles. He has a nimbus of white hair, but he is still almost as gaunt and gangly as he was at the age of twenty-four, when he cleared a space on his desktop, slid together a few puzzle pieces of tin and cardboard, and saw the double helix. Now when he looks at the mutants in the Fly Rooms next to his office, he feels that he is looking at the beginning of the twentieth century and also the beginning of the twenty-first. This is where his science started, and this is where it is going. "And--I just find it very--" Watson says with a blue-eyed cosmic stare. "You know, just divorcing yourself from humans--just forgetting about us. That there are certain complicated behaviors that seem to be inherited. That's really--" He laughs through his teeth with what sounds like a snicker of glee, as he must have laughed four decades ago when he was talking with Crick about the physical structure of the gene. "You know," he says, and he snickers again, "that's the problem to solve."
In the study of the physical links between genes and behavior, many of the first answers and half answers came from flies: time, love, memory, as viewed through a compound eye. In one way, this is a parable of the strangeness of life: so much millennial science from such tiny and alien creatures. In another way, it is a parable of the unity of life, since not only flies and human beings but everything alive springs from even homelier materials: the same genes, the same atoms, the same clay, the same simple beginnings. In the first view, the whole world looks alien to us; in the second view, there is nothing on earth that is not familiar.
Knowing what he does now, Benzer would not dream of calling a fruit fly just an atom of behavior. His research has reached that penultimate stage during which he would rather work than eat or sleep. In the middle of the night, after putting his test tubes back on their shelf, he unhoods a microscope and examines the head of a fly. "About the size of the head of a pin," he says. "A hundred thousand angels on it. Dancing."
Meet the Author
Also the author of THE BEAK OF THE FINCH, Jonathan Weiner lives in Bucks County, PA.
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