BIOLOGY HAS changed. Not only have gene splicing and clones -- the stuff of science and horror fiction just a decade ago -- become commonplace in laboratories. The laboratories themselves have been moved out of the groves of academe into the private sector. Cloning, more technically known as recombinant DNA work, is big business, and it has spawned a generation of scientists that Stephen Hall calls "boardroom biologists." In Invisible Frontiers, Hall deftly tells the story of biology's commercialization by focusing on a particularly fascinating research project of the late 1970s: the fiercely competitive race to synthesize the gene for insulin.
Hall traces the origins of the biotechnology revolution back to a spring day in 1976, when the Eli Lilly drug company convened a group of insulin and genetics researchers in Indianapolis to discuss the possibility of cloning the insulin gene and producing insulin molecules in sufficient quantity that they could replace the animal insulin currently used by diabetics. Three laboratories subsequently took up the challenge to "go for the gene": a Harvard lab headed up by physicist-turned-biologist Walter Gilbert; a University of California-San Francisco lab headed by William Rutter and Howard Goodman; and a third group made up largely of young postdocs, which under the scientific direction of Herbert Boyer became the fabulously successful private gene-splicing company known as Genentech.
Hall is a first-rate science writer, and here he manages the difficult task of describing all three projects over the following five years, comparing the different intellectual strategies and explaining fairly technical procedures at just the right level of detail. And as he narrates the scientific work, he also captures the politics that surrounded gene-splicing a decade ago -- the local efforts by Cambridge activists to ban Gilbert's work and the national debate over hazards and potential benefits of such work.
Invisible Frontiers reminds me of Tracy Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine, which got so much favorable attention a few years back. Hall describes not only the science itself, but the scientists -- their ambitions, jealousies, frustrations, paranoia, pride -- and as a result the laboratories come alive. Hall has clearly done a lot of work, and he has produced a splendid piece of science writing.
SHOW ME someone with no interest in the origins of humanity, and I'll show you a human with a primitive imagination. Who, after all, could not be fascinated with how and why our species, and only our species, parted ways with the great apes, left the trees and ventured out into the treacherous African savannah, where they not only survived but prospered? How did they acquire the skills to make a go of it? Two new books survey what scientists have learned about the answers to these compelling and difficult questions; they are very different books with different scientific interests, but both in the end want to know where we come from.
Roger Lewin, a reporter for Science magazine, approaches the study of human origins through what is arguably the most quarrelsome scientific discipline in existence -- physical anthropology. I used to cover this field among other social sciences, and I was always struck by how this group -- the scientists who study the fossilized remains of the earliest humans and prehumans -- are, well, rude to each other. Their public debates on scientific issues are pointed, unfriendly. In his fine and aptly named history, Bones of Contention, Lewin captures the flavor of this debate and even hints at why fossil hunters might be such a contentious lot.
Lewin traces the modern controversy over our beginnings back to Raymond Dart's discovery of the so-called Taung baby in South Africa. Taung was an animal that walked upright yet still had the brain of an ape, and so appeared (to Dart at least, though not to his many critics) to be the "missing link" between "brute nature" and humanity. But Lewin's real interest is in a much more recent argument -- that between the famous Leakey family of Kenya (the late Louis, wife Mary and son Richard), who have theorized an ancient Homo line, and upstart Donald Johanson, who discovered the remarkable fossil "Lucy" in the late 1970s and used her to name a new hominid, or prehuman, species that contradicts the Leakeys' reasoning.
It should be noted that Lewin has coauthored three books with Richard Leakey, but to his credit he is absolutely fair in assessing the evidence for early human evolution as it now exists. Perhaps it has to do with his own conclusion after surveying the data: that the questions that so fascinate us may be unsolvable. However precise the measurements of fossilized canine teeth and femurs have become, physical anthropologists remain essentially storytellers with a heavy baggage of human biases -- mythmakers, in the best sense, with a wonderful story to tell.
ANTHROPOLOGIST Shirley Strum is also interested in human origins, but as a graduate student she found herself bored by bones. Consequently, she took a different intellectual tack, and instead of measuring the fossils of early hominids she chose to observe in the wild another species of primate that has also managed to survive in the African savannah -- the baboon. What they did, and continue to do, she reasoned, should offer clues to understanding the ways that we managed the same transition.
What Strum found, based on 13 years of close observation of a troupe of olive baboons in Kenya, is surprising and -- to Strum -- hopeful. The troupe that she studied -- known as the "Pumphouse Gang" -- did not conform to the dominant moded of primate social behavior, which had male dominance, through aggression, controlling the social hierarchy. Instead, Strum reports, female baboons provided group stability, and males (who move from group to group) relied more on solicitous behavior than aggression in the role of interloper.
Strum believes (others don't) that baboons offer a better model of early human evolution because -- unlike our closer relatives, the apes -- they ventured out of the jungle. Given that context, her evidence that the baboons evolved an alternative to aggression, that is, a friendly, peaceful society, is quite remarkable. I don't know what the reaction will be among her scientific colleagues, but here she makes a convincing case that early humans might have worked out a way to get along.
This is also a personal narrative. Strum becomes (understandably, over 13 years) very involved with her chosen baboons -- and with a local gamekeeper whom she marries. Almost Human ranks with Jane Goodall's In the Shadow of Man and Dian Fossey's Gorillas in the Mist in ethological studies of higher primates.
THE well-known evolutionary biologist and science popularizer Stephen Jay Gould writes in his introduction to An Urchin in the Storm that his philosophy of book reviewing is not to describe or comment on the book assigned to him, but rather to use the book's publication as an opportunity for lecturing on the author's topic himself. Furthermore, he claims that he likes it when reviewers treat his own books that way, ignoring him, his writing, his ideas and substituting themselves, their ideas, their writing.
You cannot believe how sore the temptation is to adopt his spirit and say nothing about An Urchin in the Storm, but the thing is I really disagree with his ideas about book criticism. I think that reviewers should serve book consumers, first by describing what's inside a book and then by weighing its merits and demerits. What's inside this book is recycled book reviews -- 18 of them, some a decade old, all bloated, all self-centered. I can't think of a reason to preserve them in a permanent volume.
Wray Herbert is the managing editor of Psychology Today magazine.