February 12, 2005

My DNA Made Me Do It

On Jonathan Weiner's Time, Love, Memory : A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior

by PAT CUMMINGS American Digest Book Editor

Not since the Age of Enlightenment had the world seen such a crew of intellectual cutthroats, divinely assured of their rights of succession and their place in history. The philosophes of the Enlightenment also had their share of tall, thin, prognathous young men, and many of their contemporaries found them (in the words of Horace Walpole) "solemn, arrogant, dictatorial coxcombs—I need not say superlatively disagreeable."
Time, Love, Memory by Jonathan Weiner is the tale of these "intellectual cutthroats" who tracked down the mechanism of Mendelian inheritance, DNA. From Watson and Crick (whose names are famous) to Brooklyn-born Seymour Benzer (whose name is virtually unknown, even in scientific circles outside DNA research), Weiner has put together a brilliant presentation of the unfolding of a new science.
So after the eureka of Watson and Crick, one of the challenges for the new science (which did not yet call itself molecular biology) was to connect these classical maps of the gene with the new model of the double helix. It was Benzer who thought of a way to do it. Not long after Watson and Crick announced their discovery, Benzer hit on a plan that might unite the old revolution and the new revolution: classical genetics and molecular biology.
Weiner's "cast of characters" reads like a Who's Who of 20th century iconoclastic science: Richard Feynman, Max Delbrück, E.O. Wilson, geneticists Watson and Crick and Ronald Konopka, and the "Fly Room" scientists T.H. Morgan (whose name was given to the chromosome map unit "centimorgan"), Alfred Sturtevant and Ed Lewis. At the center of the tale, though, is Seymour Benzer, an innovative thinker who took the inheritance paradigm one step further, asking, can behavior be inherited?
With the discovery of the clock gene, the sense of time, mysterious for so many centuries, was no longer a mystery that could be observed only from the outside. Now it could be explored as a mechanism from the inside. The discovery implied that behavior itself could now be charted and mapped as precisely as any other aspect of inheritance. Qualities that people had always thought of... as if they were supernatural, might be mapped right alongside qualities as mundane as eye pigment.
Benzer's band of "cutthroat intellectuals" would have to battle for the new paradigm, with both the scientific community and outside it. Weiner's book is, therefore a war story; but one in which the victories are celebrated by all combatants, and coups are bloodless. For those interested in behavioral science, genetics, or the concept of paradigm change, it is a fascinating read.
Pat Cummings, constant reader, also reviews books at his site Paper Frigate, and at Blogcritics as well. He can be emailed here.] Posted by Vanderleun at February 12, 2005 12:34 AM
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