TIME, LOVE, MEMORY by Jonathan Weiner


A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior
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It’s a biography of a scientist, a summary of 20th-century genetics, and a fly’s-eye (i.e., multifaceted) view of trends and controversies in biology—all told by an expert science writer with one Pulitizer Prize already to his credit (The Beak of the Finch, 1994). Seymour Benzer is the fly man par excellence and a dream subject for profiling. Curious and restless, he made his mark in physics and phage genetics (phage are viruses that infect bacteria) before turning to the fruit fly and launching a second wave of fly genetics that not only sparked a revolution in developmental biology but now has turned to the study of behavior. Yes, flies behave. They have courtship songs; they have circadian rhythms; they can learn and remember. Indeed, time, love, and memory (and thus learning) have become associated with specific fly genes. And these genes have counterparts in mammals, including humans. Benzer et al. are saying that behavior as well as the housekeeping rules that govern cellular metabolism get encoded in living organisms as products of evolutionary adaptation. It’s not that there is a gene for this or that, but rather complex sets of interacting genes affected by environment. But some, like Richard Lewontin and Jonathan Beckwith, will have none of that, categorically denying the relevance of fly genetics to human behavior. Weiner gives them a fair hearing, as well as E.O. Wilson and others on either side of the nature-nurture fence. Fair play aside, the momentum of the new studies could play out in the 21st century with the rich opting for “favored” genes for their offspring, Weiner says, a phenomenon that could eventually split the species. There is thus plenty of food for thought in the volume. But Weiner’s great gift lies in explaining the science with you-are-there descriptions of lab life and personalities; reporting what scientists say and what they do. He provides telling anecdotes that reveal the humor, quirks, frustration, anger, and rewards of being a scientist. (Book-of-the-Month Club dual main selection)

Pub Date: May 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-679-44435-1
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1999


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