In the words of Jonathan Weiner, "Time, love, and memory are ... three cornerstones of the pyramid of behavior." While some find it difficult to view humans as mere machines, molecular biologists maintain that most behavior is genetically based. Even skeptics and opponents agree that molecular biology may well change the way we all live in the 21st century. Little-known outside this exploding field, Seymour Benzer, his mentors, and his generations of students have studied the common fruit fly, Drosophila
, and discovered genes that seem to have some influence upon our internal clock, our sexuality, and our ability to learn from our experiences.
Weiner (whose last book, The Beak of the Finch, won a Pulitzer Prize) has written an affectionate history about the development of the science while offering charming glimpses of the people involved--trading haircuts to stretch their grant money in the early years, roaming the laboratory into the wee hours, naming the genes associated with learning after Pavlov's dogs. It's not all sweetness and light, however; ethical questions are raised, some of the hype (and hysteria) surrounding the human genome project is dissipated, and the complicated "clockwork" gene "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." That said, the scientists in Weiner's tale reveal a very human side of this fast-moving science, and their belief that they'll find answers to important questions is contagious and compelling. As Benzer himself said, "It's a wonderful, fabulous world, and it's been kicking around a long time." --C.B. Delaney
From Publishers Weekly
From the winner of the 1995 Pulitzer for nonfiction (for The Beak of the Finch) comes a vigorously engrossing scientific biography that brings out from the shadows one of the unsung pioneers of molecular biology: brash, eccentric, Brooklyn-born California Institute of Technology physicist-turned-biologist Seymour Benzer. In 1953Athe year Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the structure of DNAABenzer, then at Purdue, invented a way to use viral DNA to map the interior of a gene. Benzer's mapping techniques would help Crick crack the genetic code in the early 1960s. Forsaking viruses and E. coli bacteria for the fruit fly, in the mid-1960s, Benzer began tracking tiny genetic mutations in scores of generations passing through his contraptionAa maze of test-tube tunnels with a light source to which the flies instinctively gravitated. With his wife, neuropathologist Carol Miller, Benzer discovered that the fly brain and the human brain surprisingly share nearly identical genetic sequences. Today their fellow scientists, using mutant fruit flies or mice, attempt to throw light on the genetic coding of memory, learning, courtship, sex assignment, disease and aging. An unresolved question hangs over this enterprise: Will solid links between genes and human behavior ever be established? Weiner answers with a cautious "yes" in this elegantly written scientific detective story told with panache and great lucidity. Benzer, a free spirit with a taste for crashing Hollywood funerals and eating strange food (filet of snake, crocodile tail), may lack the charisma of his Caltech colleague, the late physicist Richard Feynman, but, through Weiner's absorbing presentation, his unorthodox ways in and out of the laboratory will grow on readers. 50 illustrations. Agent, Victoria Pryor. BOMC dual main selection; first serial to the New Yorker.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.