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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.