May 5, 1999
With the discovery of the double helix a generation ago, it was inevitable that we would ask new questions about the origins of behavior – animal and human. How much of our fate is decided before we are born? What is written and in what code? What chain of reactions leads from the twisted strand of DNA to a raucous laugh? To a thought? To a memory? To a head turning toward the light? To the habit of frowning? To a raised hand – or a raised wing?
The man who has given us our first concrete and often astonishing answers is the maverick scientist Seymour Benzer – one of the greatest biologists of the century. His early work on the gene helped transform biological research, and the experiments that he began at the California Institute of technology – experiments that are, like Benzer himself, and once whimsical, serious, and highly original – are now transforming the study of genes and behavior.
In this book, Jonathan Weiner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of one of the most admired and engaging books about evolution, The Beak of the Finch, tells the story of Benzer and his work.
Weiner spent almost five years in the Fly Rooms of Benzer, his students, and his colleagues, who are coming closer and closer to the connections between genes and behavior by breeding mutant fruit flies. We watch over the scientists’ shoulders as they inject genes into fly embryos with microsyringes to create lines of flies with fast clocks and slow clocks (their hours of waking and sleeping changed), flies with good and bad memories, flies with no luck in love. We see that changing a single letter of genetic code can change a fly’s behavior. And we see how many of the genes that Benzer and his students have discovered in flies are now showing up in worms, in mice, and in human beings.
“If he hadn’t done it,” says Francis Crick, “no one else would have done it.” By breeding generations of flies in fly bottles and conducting his experiments with those tiny creatures, Seymour Benzer has changed the way we think about behavior, and about the cornerstones of our experience – time, love, memory.
Jonathan Weiner worked as a writer and editor at The Sciences. He is the author of Planet Earth, The Next One Hundred Years, and The Beak of the Finch, which won both the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Pulitzer Prize. During the writing of Time, Love, Memory he was Visiting Fellow in the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University, and then McGraw Professor in Writing. He lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and their two sons.