Jonathan Weiner is one of our favorite science writers. He animates topics like evolution and genetics with personal stories about pioneer scientists that read like adventures you don’t want to end. You can go to the Galapagos Islands to marvel at blue-footed boobies, but if you want to appreciate the importance of the islands in the history of science, you can’t go without reading The Beak of the Finch, Weiner’s 1994, Pulitzer Prize-winning book about biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant. It tells the story of evolution in microcosm, through a bright cinematic focus on Darwin’s finches.
You can’t beat Weiner’s characterizations of his protagonists, such as Seymour Benzer, the maverick subject of his 1999 book, Time, Love, Memory. In the 1960s, “Benzer wanted to work from the gene to the neuron to the brain to behavior, and he hoped to dissect them all the way he had dissected the gene. While he thought and read, he asked [his wife] Dotty to buy brains at the butcher’s shop: sheep, cow, goat, pig, and chicken brains. One by one she brought them home, and one by one he dissected them, usually in the middle of the night. Afterward, he ate them.”
When we asked Weiner to talk about the three themes—Genius, Big Bangs, Nothingness—that make up the Winter 2015 Nautilus Quarterly, in which he’s featured, Weiner, true to character, shaped his answers into a story about evolution (with a couple of fun digressions). We chatted in a Sardinian café near his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Who in your mind is a genius?
Not surprisingly, Charles Darwin. What everybody says about Darwin is that he disclaimed genius himself. His personal motto was, “It’s dogged as does it.” He loved dogs, by the way, so that wasn’t a total self put-down! A great part of his genius was that he was willing to be patient and put one foot in front of the other. There’s a wonderful moment in his notebooks, those amazing secret notebooks he started after the Beagle voyage, where he writes to himself, “My handwriting same as Grandfather.” His grandfather, Erasmus, had been an evolutionist or “transmutationist.” But Erasmus hadn’t thought of a mechanism for transmutation. He didn’t know why life would change from generation to generation. After the voyage of the Beagle, and a series of amazing eureka moments, Darwin studied barnacles for eight years. He didn’t just rely on the poetic inspiration of Erasmus or the hot flash of Alfred Russell Wallace, who, in a malarial fever, came up with a mechanism for transmutation. Darwin had all of that plus incredible persistence. That’s a special kind of genius. It’s what led him to arrive at last at a substantial, well worked out argument for the origin and evolution of species.
Do you remember the experience of first reading Darwin?
Yes, I loved it! I read The Voyage of The Beagle before I went to the Galapagos and really enjoyed it. And then I was reading The Origin of Species all through the writing of The Beak of the Finch. I was also reading the King James Version of the Bible for the prose and for the reverence for life. I felt the same reverence in Darwin. I tried to communicate that in writing The Beak of the Finch, that you don’t have to set aside feelings of awe and reverence in contemplating evolution through the eyes of Darwinists.
Remind us what’s special about the beaks of finches.
The beaks of Darwin’s finches are a focal point of natural selection. They’re under enormous selection pressure because it’s do or die for those birds. They’ve got to pick up enough seeds to make it through the day, and the beak has to be just right to pick up the right seed, and the bird lucky enough to have the right beak to crack the last tough seeds on the island that nobody else can crack, might survive a drought that the others don’t make it through. The beak of the finch is a microcosm of Darwin’s ideas. There’s a line in A Midsummer Night’s Dream about giving things “a local habitation and a name.” The Galapagos and its finches give Darwin’s ideas a local habitation and a name.
I don’t know if you’d call Seymour Benzer a genius. But he did find the first solid links between genes and behavior, and he sure seemed like a character.
He was a great character and he was thinking all the time. This is a really homely example, but Seymour had a golden retriever named Cassandra. Sometimes we would walk Cassandra when I was interviewing him. He said, “Doesn’t it look like she’s trying to sniff around on the pavement for an odor that’s going to trigger her needing to go? I find if I go into a library with a lot of musty books, I need to go to the bathroom.” And I said, “Hey, you know what, Seymour? I’ve always had that same thing! I always thought it was just the excitement of being in the library with all those books.” He said, “It’s the musty smell, it’s something in that!” So many people who knew Seymour had the same kind of stories. He had all these wild but interesting ideas. He was a very special, down-to-earth, imaginative guy.
What’s been a Big Bang in your professional life?
As a reporter, the Big Bang for me was learning that evolution happens fast, that life is evolving all around us and we can watch. I had no idea. I grew up knowing something about evolution and Darwin, as all of us do, but knowing evolution happens fast knocked me over. And knowing how terribly quickly we’re disrupting the planet with climate change and environmental degradation makes this an incredibly interesting time—in a dark way. There’s a hell of a lot going on, with the emphasis on hell. We’re in the middle of a mass extinction. It’s a new geological age, which is coming to be called the Anthropocene. You can see all this creation and destruction and it changes your whole sense of life.
Changes it from what to what?
Most people think that all of the action of evolution took place in the past and that anything that’s happening now won’t be visible until hundreds of generations have passed. Today scientists see that action at the level of genes and molecules. So instead of this being an insignificant present, this is a highly charged moment and we’re here to watch. At the start of his essay “Nature,” Emerson argued that great literature could come from America as well as from the Old World. He said, “The sun shines today also.” In light of the news that evolution is taking place around us, I have the same feeling. I think most writers who follow science must feel this way.
Did you come away from writing Long for This World, about scientific ideas for achieving immortality, thinking we could cheat death and expand the human lifespan?
I find all those ideas really challenging but I never did figure out how to feel about them. If you’re worried about the human footprint, and if we’re going to start living twice as long, or 20 times as long, then what about the rest of the living world? If you have a sense of how complicated our bodies are because of the billions of years of evolution behind us, then we really have to wonder, Could it be that simple to dramatically change the human lifespan? Scientists have been able to ratchet up the lifespan of flies and worms, so it’s not inconceivable that we’ll figure out how to do something like that for ourselves. But how to feel about that, whether to wish for it, I don’t know. I still haven’t sorted it out.
What intrigues you about the idea of nothingness?
When you talk to people who aren’t enthusiastic about science, when you talk to them about evolution, they feel threatened sometimes. At bottom is a fear that we are reducing ourselves to “nothing but.” That was the reaction of Darwin’s contemporaries: We’re nothing but apes. Today people are afraid we’re nothing but cells, nothing but molecules, nothing but atoms.
Is that how you feel?
I don’t believe in a soul that lives on after death. But I do believe that we are incredibly complicated organisms with incredibly rich inner lives and experiences. Even if you understand the structure of the double helix, you only enhance the wonder of life. You haven’t lost anything. I think you can be a rational materialist and still feel that nothing-but-ness is wrong. The human brain has about 86 billion neurons. The C. elegans worm has only 302 neurons and every one of them has been numbered and mapped. Yet scientists still can’t understand how the worm produces all that amazingly rich, graceful behavior, all those sinuous twisting and turnings. So we don’t reduce ourselves to nothing when we look at our individual neurons. We are looking at working parts of something so phenomenally complicated and beyond our understanding that we should only feel awe, not despair.
Do you think we’ll still feel awe when science finally explains consciousness?
When William Harvey figured out the heart is a pump, we didn’t become heartless. And when we understand the mechanisms of consciousness, we’re not going to be out cold, we’re not going to be unconscious, we’re still going to be living, feeling, breathing, struggling. Life will go on. So that fear of nothingness is an illusion. It’s a bogeyman. I used to feel uneasiness about neuroscience when I was in college. I made a student film about a neuroscientist who was trying to understand the origins of feelings and it was all very scary. It was a very romantic student film! But I don’t feel that way anymore. That’s part of the reason I’m now drawn to writing about the neurosciences. In the same way that we enhance life when we understand evolution, we will enhance life when we understand the brain.