Tuesday, June 1, 1999

Q&A: Jonathan Weiner


 Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review. Date Approximate. 

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 a somehow floating above the body, apart from the body, as if they belonged to the realm of the spirit and not of the flesh, as if they were supernatural, might be mapped right alongside qualities as mundane as eye pigment.
   "Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior"

Science writer Jonathan Weiner is author of Pulitzer Prize winning, "The Beak of the Finch." His new book, "Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior," is about biologist Seymour Benzer's work with fruit flies and the development of modern genetics,


HB: Seymour Benzer seems like a guy who followed his own instincts. If the crowd was going in one direction, he was likely to go the other way.

JW: Always. He started out in physics, doing work that led to the invention of the transistor, then got out of there, because it was getting too hot, almost immediately. All of his friends said, you can get rich. He didn't want to get rich. he wanted to get to the next mystery. On to the gene.
HB: You point out that there were quite a few geneticists, including Francis Crick, who started out in physics. Did they think that because they could get to the root of things in physics, they could do the same in biology?

JW: Exactly. In some ways it was arrogance. Physics was on a roll, physicists were riding very high in the middle years of the twentieth-century, and they wanted to turn from one triumph to the other: we split the atom, now we're going to crack the gene. They were so sure of themselves, these young physicists. They were going to crack the biggest mystery on the planet -- and they did.

HB: You make it seem that work on the fruit fly directly set the stage for the human genome project.

JW: The modern science of genetics begins with the fly bottle in the fly room. Then Benzer started work on the fine structure of the gene. So there's a tremendous sentimental value associated with the fly genome for people in the field. That is where it started. In 1990, the human Genome Project set out to sequence the fruit fly genome, and the complete, 180,000,000 letter sequence has been published.

HB: You make a point about how much Sinclair Lewis's "Arrowsmith," mattered to Seymour Benzer. Usually we trace the way science effects literary imagination, but here we see the opposite, a great scientist who was moved to become one by a work of fiction.

JW: And he's very conscious of it. He even started writing in the fine black ink of Max Gottlieb, the scientist who was Arrowsmith's hero in the novel -- and he still does.

HB: Let me tell you one of my favorite sentences in the book: "Generations in Brenner's school have gotten to know the slither look of them [nematode worms], the male nosing around the female -- wrapping around her, searching efficiently for the vulva, and finding it with the ingenuous directness or excitement of the young Philip Roth."

JW: I was very conscious that I was writing about something, including private human experience, that used to belong only to the arts, and now here comes molecular biology saying, we can get at this question from the nuts and bolts level of the genes. Even my title, "Time, Love, Memory," was meant to read two ways. On the one hand, it can be read literally: it's about three clusters of genes that Benzer and his crew found that shape time, love and memory for the fly. On the other hand, it sounds like a book of poems or a memoir. I wanted to suggest that science had arrived where previously only the arts and philosophy could go.

HB: The book glides between science and literature all the time.

JW: That's part of the fun for me. I was an English major at Harvard in the 70s when, if you wanted to be a poet, you didn't have to take any science courses. I went to college thinking I'd be either a biologist or a writer and quickly decided I was going to be a writer, which meant, or so I thought, I had to hate science. But I still was interested in it, and when I graduated, and was just trying to get published, I wrote a profile of Isaac Bashevis Singer for the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, and a profile of the social ameba for Harvard Magazine. If editors had called and said we want more profiles of writers like Singer, I would be on a different track. Instead, I got a call from an editor at a science magazine who said they wanted more essays like that one about the social ameba. I've just been marching along with the social ameba ever since.

HB: So market forces turned you toward science writing.

JW: There are many writers knocking on the doors of novelists like Singer. There aren't as many writers knocking on the doors of laboratories. There is more of a market for writing with poetic feeling about science than there is for writing poetry.

HB: What level of detail do you need to know as a science writer, and what level of detail do you present to readers?

JW: I look at the manuscript and ask myself, if this were a novel, would this detail belong in it? If I were telling this story to be read just for pleasure, not for information, would I put that in? If it's not fun to write and fun to read, there's something wrong. Either it doesn't belong there, or I haven't set it up right.

HB: You exemplify the kind of thing that Richard Dawkins proposes in his book, "Unweaving the Rainbow," where he's basically instructing poets in the poetry of natural science. The problem, though, is that he takes it to a ridiculous extreme and can't see poetry in anything but natural science.

JW: I agree there's poetry in science, There are also places where your poetic feelings clash with what science is telling you.

HB: For example?

JW: Look at evolution. It's on the one hand so random that you feel belittled by it and, on the other hand, so beautiful and so talented at fitting the organism to the environment. How do you reconcile the implacable indifference of the process and its gift for making wonderfully fit creatures, including human beings?

Or take genes and behavior. One the one hand, the romantic in me quails at this specter of a science that tries to link up cold atoms with warm feelings. On the other hand, isn't this what we've always been looking for, a way of connecting with the earth and with the universe? And I get that feeling all the time. I like to get up early, before dawn, and read poetry still, and I read Hebrew scripture.

HB: Do you have religious beliefs that you hold parallel to Darwinism and science?

JW: I'm not a believer. I don't read Hebrew scripture to tell me how the universe was made. Today's science has enough trouble telling us that; I wouldn't look for answers of that kind in writings from thousands of years ago. But I'm still deeply moved by the poetry and by the importance that those words and stories have had for generation after generation. Also, it helps me keep perspective. I'm reminded that there is more than one way of looking at the world. Many scientists and science writers fall into what is known as scientism, the naive faith that science has all the answers or is about to deliver them.

HB: And that modalities outside science are essentially nonsensical.

JW: I find that really offensive. It will never be true that our reason will be able to explain it all to us. If I weren't reading the poems and weren't reading scripture, I might fall into the kind of watchmaker's fascination that the molecular biologists have. The people I hang around with all day are trying to take apart the molecular clock.

When I first met Mike Young, who's one of the world's leading clock guys, at Rockefeller I was just getting a feel for molecular biology, and said to him, kind of wonderingly, "I think I understand what you are trying to do. You are really just trying to figure out how the clock works."
And he looked at me so blankly -- as if, as a molecular biologist, he could ever have been doing anything else. For me, just contemplating something like that clock pushes me toward the great inchoate questions that we have so much trouble even expressing. So I'm the guy who walks into the labs and asks those big questions. And they enjoy talking about it because they haven't had a chance.

HB: Hasn't the metaphor of the clock been replaced by the metaphor of the computer?

JW: You're pointing toward the question of free will. The old idea of the clockwork universe pretty much eliminated it. Now, after quantum mechanics, chaos theory and information theory, human beings aren't considered to be much like billiard balls or clock mechanisms. But when it comes to the genes themselves, the clock still prevails. In the last pages of the book I talk about Benzer's students and their students who are now trying to figure out how genes work together, so it's not just single genes -- the quote unquote gay gene or happiness gene -- it's constellations of genes working together, which pushes us more toward information theory.

HB: The material is so politically volatile. You write that Watson, who is now head of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, makes the point of keeping the Lab's archive open for cautionary purposes, to show how not that long ago Cold Spring Harbor was the seat of the eugenics movement. Perhaps, but if you just go there as a tourist and want to know about the history of the place, they do not make it terribly easy for you to find out.

JW: Is that right?

HB: If you press, they'll take you aside and tell you more about it or they'll show you some books. But it's not part of the spiel to visitors, and it seems to me it should be.

JW: Yes, that should be part of the beaten path.

The last time I was at Cold Spring Harbor, I was in the lab of Tim Tully, who works on learning and memory. He is one of Benzer's best students and one of Watson's golden boys. He had some of his students set me up in front of a computer monitor and show me how to use a joystick and a foot pedal to inject a piece of DNA into the rear end of a fly embryo. That's the technique that allows them to engineer flies with photographic memories, for example. That same gene is also active in human memory, so in principle what I was doing with the monitor and the joystick and the foot pedal might be done, not too long from now, to engineer a human baby with better ability to remember.

My kids are 14 and 11. I wouldn't be surprised if the science moves so fast enough that by the time they are ready to have kids, they will be able to go to a fertility clinic and have people at the clinic say, here are eight little embryos: this one's going to be taller, this one better at math, this one disease resistant. You choice.

HB: Near the end of the book you speculate that in one possible future: "The rich will pick and choose the genes of their children; the poor will not. The gap between rich and poor may widen so far in the third millennium that before the end of it there will be not only two classes of human beings but two species . . . a Darwinian nightmare; out of utopian eugenics, a dystopian origin of species. "

JW: I find that argument really persuasive, I'm sorry to say. It's hard to see how you could stop it. So this stuff Benzer started is going to go in all kinds of directions, and we're not going to like every one of them. On the other hand, there are literally hundreds of diseases that can be studied at the level of the genes, and you can't not hope for them to make progress there. It's very tough to draw the line.


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