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Goodbye to John Donne and All That

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John Donne, poet, priest, lawyer (1572)

Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior is a book by Jonathan Weiner and was published in 2000. It's a highly accessible biography of Seymour Benzer, the world's most renowned drosophilist, with many anecdotes and quotations; it is also a very accessible history of fruit fly genetics (drosophilia) and related molecular biology. For information about Seymour Benzer, see here.

However, I was brought up short by one passage in it, on page 244 -

"It is already possible - in fertility clinics it is done every day - to screen the DNA of a set of eight embryos at the eight-cell stage and let the parents pick the one they want to implant in the mother's womb. The more genes there are to screen and the better these gene complexes are understood, the more wealthy parents will select not only the healthiest but also the best and brightest embryo they can, designing the genes of their children....(O)ver the next few centuries whether governments legislate for or against it(,...t)he rich will pick and choose the genes of their children, the poor will not. The gap between rich and poor may widen so far in the third millennium that before the end of it there will not only be two classes of human beings but two species, or a whole Galapagos of different human species. These human species could be prevented from interbreeding by the genetic engineering of chemical incompatibility, so that the egg of one would reject the sperm of the other."


a brave new world, by Gabriele at Flickr (2005)


Toward the end of Marlon Brando's autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, that wise and wonderful man summed up his life's learning as attaining a visceral understanding of how much mankind is driven by group instincts, and how much every group requires outsiders to feel superior to. In the paragraph in Time, Love, Memory following the one quoted from above, Weiner quotes E.O. Wilson saying, "Soon we must look deep within ourselves and decide what we wish to become....What lifts this question beyond mere futurism is that it reveals so clearly our ignorance of the meaning of human existence in the first place." At least, we know what John Donne's reply to Professor Wilson's musing would be.


no man is an island, by Ujwala Prabhu at Flickr (2008)

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Hopefully, there are drosophilists looking for the genes whose sequences determine the proteins for the animal behaviors Brando referred to as "group instincts," and under what conditions their outsider-requiring features may be turned off, in order to ameliorate the dystopia of wealth-created castes to which we already belong as well as to prevent the potential dystopia of wealth-created species to which Weiner alludes. I'd call these our "Groups-or-Gandhi?" sequences, and as fine as this book is, I would have welcomed something in it about drosophilists' thoughts about these sequences.

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"How could I fail to speak with difficulty? I have new things to say." I graduated from Stanford Law School in 1966 but have never practiced. Instead, I dropped back five years and joined The Movement, but it wasn't until the 1970's that I (more...)
 

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I like fruit flies; my wife hates them. She just c... by Allan Wayne on Sunday, Aug 2, 2009 at 1:12:20 PM
But I'll hate to see us go.... by GL Rowsey on Wednesday, Aug 5, 2009 at 6:26:00 PM
Thanks for introducing me to this term.There is a ... by Kathlyn Stone on Thursday, Aug 6, 2009 at 11:10:41 AM
I'd be honored if you put it up at your website.... by GL Rowsey on Thursday, Aug 6, 2009 at 12:38:48 PM