Category Archives: history of biology

Biology Today, the ’70s textbook that would have made me a biologist

Biology Today cover

A few weeks ago, thanks to the blog A Journey Round My Skull (via Crooked Timber), I discovered Biology Today, an amazing college biology textbook from 1972. You can get the basics from the Wikipedia article I put together: [[Biology Today]]. But there’s a lot more to it than what I could put into a Wikipedia article without running afoul of the “no original research” policy–and a lot more than I can fit into a blog post. The reviewer of a bowdlerized later edition got it right: “The true story of the development of Biology Today would make an interesting book in itself.”

The text of Biology Today was apparently assembled from the work of a long list of “contributing consultants”. The list is star-studded, including James D. Watson and six other Nobel laureates (as well as Michael Crichton). The list–and the text–is dominated by molecular biology, which was reaching perhaps its cultural acme in the early 1970s.

A Journey Round My Skull has collected on Flickr many (but far from all) of the interesting and unusual “artist’s interpretations” and other images that make Biology Today such a magnificent artifact. Many of the diagrams are outstanding both aesthetically and conceptually.

The most lavish interleaf illustration is supposed to depict the “central dogma” of molecular biology with a three-panel view into the holy of holies, the DNA-filled nucleus, and a two-panel view of nucleic acids making their way into the cytoplasm and translating genetic information into proteins:

Biology Today nucleus

Biology Today cell interior

Molecular biologists, by the 1970s, thought of themselves not only as the future of science, but of culture more generally. Many adopted the scientific humanism that had been championed by the previous generation of public biologists like Julian Huxley, although the mechanistic and cybernetic worldview of molecular biology, rather than the neo-Darwinism of Huxley and his allies, was their gospel. For intellectually- and sexually liberated biologists (like Watson), anthropology and sexology displaced parochial religious ideas, and science had nothing to offer religionists but contempt or pity. Behold Noah’s Ark, from the chapter on “Human Sexual Behavior”:

Biology Today Noah's Ark

Evolution’s role in this textook is a curious one. The only well-known figure who can be considered primarily an evolutionary biologist is Richard Lewontin, a pioneer of molecular evolution and a frequent critic of adaptationism, sociobiology, and much of mainstream evolutionary theory in the 1960s and 1970s. The chapter on population genetics, which introduces the mechanisms of evolution (and doesn’t come until page 672!) looks like it was written by Lewontin; it treats, in turn, “genetic equilibrium”, “genetic drift”, “mutation”, “selection”, and “multiple factors”, with no particular emphasis on natural selection. Of course, whether one was a follower of the selection-centric modern evolutionary synthesis or not, Darwin was (and still is) the patron saint of biology:
Biology Today Michaelangelo's Darwin

But in Biology Today, veneration of nature, of the scientific life, and of humanity trumped veneration of Darwin. In the lyrical ten-page illustrated preface from biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi, there is a passage (one of many) that could never be found in a mainstream biology textbook today, when creationists have turned their energies (in the form of Intelligent Design) to molecular biology, rather than the organismal evolutionary biology that earlier generations of creationists (and evolutionists) focused on. Working his way up through the levels of biological complexity, Szent-Györgyi makes his way to the mind:

“I do not think that the extremely complex speech center of the human brain, involving a network formed by thousands of nerve cells and fibers, was created by random mutations that happened to improve the chances of survival of individuals. I must believe that man built a speech center when he had something to say, and he developed the structure of this center to higher complexity as he had more to say. I cannot accept the notion that this capacity arose through random alterations, relying on the survival of the fittest. I believe that some principle must have guided the development toward the kind of speech center that was needed.”

For both cultural and scientific reasons, that’s not something you would catch many biologists saying today.

Craig Venter is making history

…or at least trying to.

Venter’s J. Craig Venter Institute, the successor of TIGR and TCAG, has been working on what they characterize as the first man-made organism: Mycoplasma laboratorium. The ongoing project centers on “Synthia”, a slimmed-down synthetic chromosome that they are calling (and patenting as) a “minimal bacterial genome”. It consists of 381 of the ca. 470 genes of the tiny parasitic bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium. (The name “Synthia” comes not from Venter, et. al., but from the critical ETC Group; it seems to have stuck.) Add Synthia to an empty cell, and viola! Life!

The project builds on earlier work in which Venter’s team (led by restriction enzyme pioneer and Nobel laureate Hamilton O. Smith, Clyde A. Hutchinson, III and Cynthia Pfannkoch) recreated the genome of the bacteriophage phi X-174 from scratch and stuck it into an empty coat to create a viable phage; they generated the 5,386 base pair sequence in 14 days. In the 2003 PNAS report, they described a plan to use similarly-sized chunks of synthetic DNA to assemble whole genomes. Since the phi X-174 project, they have been developing and improving DNA cloning methods that can deal with ever larger target sequences without high levels of error–a boon for DNA sequencing as well as chromosome synthesis. (Synthetic phi X-174 could be selected for infectivity to week out high-error sequences, but that’s not an option with arbitrary 5,000 bp “gene cassettes”.)

Since 2003, they’ve gotten to the point of putting together a whole genome (if a very small one). They quietly started filing patents for “Synthia” in 2006, and in June 2007 announced that man-made life in the form of M. laboratorium was right around the corner. Proving that the synthetic genome is viable by sticking it into a genome-less cell and making it live will be a powerful proof-of-concept for new and more drastic kinds of genetic engineering.

“Man-made life” makes a great headline, but it’s worth picking apart. At the fundamental level, even Venter’s team is quick to note that M. laboratorium won’t be a wholesale synthetic organism, as it will rely on the molecular machinery and cellular environment taken from natural cells. (At least, as natural as a laboratory organism with its genome carefully removed can be.) The conflation of genes with life has been the constant complaint of all the biologists except the molecular ones since the rise of molecular biology. It was one of the chief complaints of those who thought the Human Genome Project was (all funding levels being equal) a bad idea. In a recent article in I forget which history of science journal, (atheist) Emile Zuckerkandl accuses HGP leader (Christian-turned-atheist-turned-Christian) Francis Collins of exploiting the genes=life fallacy in his best-selling quasi-intelligent design book The Language of God. (The language of God, of course, is the genome.) The all-powerful gene is a potent political and rhetorical force (and has been a great basis for securing grants, at least since the 1940s), even if biological reality is considerably more complex.

But even looking past the conflation of a genome with life itself, M. laboratorium has a dubious claim as synthetic life. As the ETC Group points out, “Synthia” only distinguishes itself from a natural chromosome by what is missing (i.e., a fifth of its genes). This organism would have a shakier claim at being man-made life even than the 1972 oil-eating bacterium of Diamond v. Chakrabarty (the landmark patent case that established the legitimacy of patenting genetically-engineering lifeforms); at least Chakrabarty’s bug had a combination of characteristics that no natural organism had. Does putting together most of the DNA of an organism (which happens to be synthesized artificially) together with everything but the DNA of that organism mean scientists have created artificial life? It’s hard not to invoke Frankenstein.

Venter has been very successful at framing his science in ways that grab headlines, generate public interest, and seem self-evidently of central historical importance (whatever the later historical verdict). I haven’t decided whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. He’s certainly earning his place in history, one headline and Discovery channel documentary at a time.