Robert S. Boynton


Review of Jonathan Weiner’s “Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior

Newsday, May 2, 1999

TIME, LOVE, MEMORY: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of
Behavior, by Jonathan Weiner. Knopf, 320 pp., $ 27.50.

Do you sometimes find
yourself fighting off a yawn at around 3 in the afternoon? Maybe you're simply
bored by your job, or stayed up too late. Or perhaps - if you are drawn to more
theoretically ambitious explanations - we are supposed to be asleep because our
species originally evolved in a hot African climate, where developing the habit
of taking an afternoon catnap could make the difference between survival and
extinction. For the past 20 years, evolutionary psychologists have tried to
explain human behavior using these kinds of evolutionary terms. With Charles
Darwin as their standard-bearer, they examine present-day conventions - family
dynamics, competition for social status, mating rituals - by comparing them to
hypothetical scenarios of how man evolved thousands of years ago. Although
dismissed by some skeptics as irrelevant "just so" stories, these explanations
show the myriad ways the behavior developed by hunters and gatherers living in
jungles and grassy plains is still with us - despite the fact that so many of us
live in skyscrapers and shop at the A&P.

The beauty of evolutionary psychology is that, although many of its precepts
are informed by biology and genetics, the argument generally stays at the level
of empirically observable behavior. Yes, genes carry these characteristics from
generation to generation, but the evolutionary psychologist is less concerned
with learning how a particular gene influences behavior than how that behavior
helped us to survive in the first place.

For those who are interested in the quest to understand human behavior at a
genetic level, Jonathan Weiner's fascinating new book is an excellent
introduction. "Time, Love, Memory" tells the story of Seymour Benzer, an
indefatigable, quirky biologist who has spent his life studying the humble fruit
fly. The Brooklyn-born child of Polish immigrants, who received his first
microscope as a bar mitzvah present, Benzer was the first scientist to map a
gene's interior - the hefty record of which he would unroll at conferences "like
a Torah scroll," writes Weiner. The revelatory, religious overtones are
intentional on Weiner's part: If the most important scientific advances of the
first half of the century were in physics, the second half has clearly been
dominated by biology. Benzer's synthesis of classical genetics and molecular
biology spearheaded this revolution. "The splitting of atoms by Ernest
Rutherford had led to the atomic bomb, and the splitting of genes by Benzer
would lead to the explosions of genetic mapping and genetic engineering that now
dominate biology," writes Weiner. Whereas Benzer and his colleagues originally
set their sights on merely matching behavioral traits to particular genes,
quickly expanded their quest to "go into the clockwork and trace it all the way
from the gene to the movement of the hands of the clock."

In many respects, "Time, Love, Memory" is a sequel to Weiner's brilliant
Pulitzer-winning "The Beak of the Finch," which chonicles the research of Peter
and Rosemary Grant, Princeton ornithologists who spent 20 years studying the
life cycles of the finches on Daphne Major, a small island in the Galapagos. The
thrill of reading "The Beak of the Finch" comes from joining the Grants as they
actually watch evolution taking place in front of them - thus vindicating
Darwin's theory far more dramatically than he would ever have imagined.

With "Time, Love, Memory," Weiner goes micro, focusing on the hunt for the
more technical, less tangible, genetic basis for behavior. Rather than bird
beaks splitting nuts, we read about chromosomes and gene splicing. As a result,
the focus of this book is not as sharp as in Weiner's last, which is inevitable
given the communal nature of genetic research. But if it is an inherently less
dramatic story, it probably has even more important and complex implications.
After all, Benzer is searching for nothing less than the universal genetic
building blocks of animal, and thus human, behavior. "What makes the atomic
theory of behavior such a radical theory is that it is a theory of relation,"
Weiner writes. "It shows us how we are related closely to our siblings and
parents; to every member of our species; to every species from which we have
descended; and to all the ancestral forms that began the experiment of life on
the planet: all one tree, from the crown to the roots."

By isolating particular traits in the fruit fly - the ability to tell time,
to mate, to learn from its mistakes - Benzer and his colleagues identify many of
the genes that are their basis. Because flies and humans share so much genetic
material, Benzer reasoned that research on the former might tell us a lot
about the latter. "Although our brains are fancier," he says with characteristic
simplicity and bluntness, "they are made of the same stuff." For Benzer, time,
love and memory are the cornerstones of all living experience. "If animals and
plants did not have clock genes, they could not keep time with the world. . . .
If we did not have instincts for recognizing and winning the attentions of the
opposite sex, we could not pass on our genes . . . and if we did not have
memories, we could not pass these other genes safely onward and most of us could
not last a day," Weiner writes.

Aside from a compelling account of the origins of a scientific revolution,
"Time, Love, Memory" is also a poignant sketch of the scientist-as-artist;
Weiner offers beautiful descriptions of Benzer working through the night,
repeating his tests over and over again, trying to answer the oldest questions
of heredity, nature and nurture. Benzer is a crucial figure for Weiner not only
because he accomplished so much but because he is also a true man of science who
- amid the hype surrounding the multi-billion-dollar Human Genome Project and
the corporate world's attempts to commercialize genetic research - fully
comprehends its limits. He knows that when one masters the fly's clockwork it
looks "less like an invitation to human intervention and more like a cautionary
tale or object lesson for anyone who might try, in the 21st Century, to improve
on nature's four-billion-year-old designs," Weiner writes. Were there more
Seymour Benzers in the world, we might welcome the fruits of genetic engineering
with a great deal less trepidation.

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