Author: Moorhouse Anna
Institution: English and Cell and Molecular Biology
Date: February 2006
Am not I a fly like thee? Or art not thou a man like me?'
- William Blake, "The Fly"
Any book about genetics that chooses a William Blake poem as its epigram is one in which many literary and scientific lines will be crossed. Jonathan Weiner's Time, Love, Memory does just that, as it delves into the origins of fruit fly genetics. Beginning with the highly influential work of Seymour Benzer and following Benzer's scientific predecessors, like Alfred Sturtevant, the father of gene mapping, the book proceeds to describe the up and coming runners in the field.
As the primary backdrop for his book, Weiner describes Benzer's laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena in terms of its clutter. Between the bins labelled "Pipe Cleaners" and "Toothpicks," lie hundreds of test tubes, glass jars, and old-fashioned, half-pint milk bottles. Inside each bottle is a sea of movement - hundreds of mutant fruits flies, living and breeding under Benzer's watchful eye. Since the 1960s, these mutant strains have opened up the doors to countless avenues in behavioral genetics, including the molecular basis for circadian clocks, sexual preference, memory, and learning. However, as any student who has taken a genetics course will tell you, Benzer is little more than a footnote in most textbooks. Due to the highly private life he lead, his unusual dusk to dawn working hours, and his tendency to keep to the fringes of scientific research, Benzer's story has long gone unheralded. Weiner's account of this remarkable man helps to amend this omission.
Time, Love, Memory is a fascinating account of the politics involved in genetics, the personalities that helped establish the field, as well as the changing tides of public opinion concerning heredity and the "nature versus nurture" question, which spanned pre- World War II to today. Interspersed throughout are quotes from a large cross-section of literary figures, from Plato to Walt Whitman to Proust. The book's humanistic slant helps the reader put fruit fly genetics into perspective: despite all the recent discoveries, questions about how we act and who we are have been under the scrutiny of philosophers and poets long before they ever entered into the realm of science.