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Monday, April 6, 2015


I have on a number of occasions made reference to my big sister, Dr. Barbara Searle, whose periodic recommendations of books on evolutionary biology and genetics are unfailingly worth pursuing.  Seventy-five years ago, Barbara taught me to read as a way of "playing school," and somewhat later, taught me to do the Fox Trot and the Lindy Hop [she was a magnificent dancer].  Fifteen years ago, Barbara threw herself a big seventieth birthday party, at which I played for her the Prelude to the Second Bach Suite for unaccompanied cello, arranged for viola.  Five years ago, Susie and I threw her an eightieth birthday party in Paris, to which her children and grandchildren came, along with my children and grandchildreen, several of her friends, and our Paris cousins.  It ended with a dinner cruise on the Seine.  In August, her children and I will throw her an eighty-fifth birthday party at the home of my son, Patrick, in San Francisco.

Perhaps anticipating that event, Barbara yesterday sent me a copy of a speech she gave five years ago at the Washington Ethical Culture Society, where she is a very active member.  It reminded me in many ways of the reflection I posted fifteen months ago when I turned eighty.

With Barbara's permssion, I reproduce it here.  It will give all of you some sense of what an extraordinary person she is.  She did not include the graphs to which she refers.


       Platform delivered at the Washington Ethical Society, August 15, 2010

            Sometime early last spring, Mary Herman called and asked if I would give a platform in August.  I said sure, and promptly forgot about it.  Then, last May my son Josh was up here talking to you, and the commitment came back, now with considerably more urgency.  Mary’s request was apparently motivated, at least in part, by the WES theme for the summer, which is science.  Having done many things in my working life, I have now returned, in retirement, to my original fascination with science.  For the last several years I’ve been teaching biology at a local program for retirees at American University.  So I guess I was an obvious candidate for a science platform. 

            But who on earth wants a biology lecture on a Sunday morning in August?  What was I to do?  Clearly, the first step was to bag the science theme.  And in fact, something much more pressing is happening to me – I am about to turn 80 years old.  Now, we’ve all been through ‘milestone’ birthdays, and so we all have some idea of the combination of disbelief and the need to take stock that they bring up.  But 80???  I have no idea how to process this rather bizarre occurrence. 

            Like everyone, I have always had conceptions of what was ‘old age.’  When I was young, people who were middle-aged looked old to me.  I once described my fifty year old father as elderly.  He was not amused.  And my grandmother, though quite spry well into her 90s, was clearly old.  But not me!!!  So I thought that preparing a platform might provide a good opportunity to examine what it means to me to be 80.

            Often, when I think about my life, I think of a graph.  So I decided to call the platform, The Shape of a Life.  I’m going to say lots more about the graph in a few minutes, but now I want to make a connection to science.  As I sat at my computer musing, I noticed a book in my bookcase that I like a lot.  It is called The Shape of Life; it’s written by a scientist named Rudolf Raff.  This was definitely too much of a coincidence.  There must be a deeper meaning to it all!  Thinking more about the connection brought me to sea urchins.  Yes, you heard correctly, SEA URCHINS.  Have you ever seen a sea urchin?  Probably not.  They’re pretty nondescript.  But they are quite fascinating (to a biologist), and Rudy Raff has spent a lifetime studying them.

            One very interesting thing about some sea urchins is that they go through metamorphosis.  You’re familiar with this – many insects do it – insects start out as a larva, become a pupa, and then become an adult.  I’m talking about sea urchins only because I noticed Rudy Raff’s book.  The process they go through is roughly the same as with insects.  Let me tell you something about sea urchins.  (So – here is the science lecture after all!)

            Sea urchins begin their development as all multicellular animals do. Two sex cells, the sperm and the egg, fuse to form a single cell called the zygote.  The zygote divides, first to 2 cells, then to 4, then to 8, and so on.  In this process, every cell that is produced has the same genome—the same set of genes.  But in any particular part of the animal, at any particular moment, only some of these genes are active, or as biologists say colloquially, only some genes are turned on.     

            Animals that metamorphose have a particularly interesting developmental pathway.  Very early in the process of forming the larva, groups of cells are set aside that will ultimately be used to begin the transformation to the adult form.  While the sea urchin is functioning as a larva these cells lie dormant, not dividing and not taking any part in its life processes.  Yet they are an integral part of the animal in that they carry the same identity as the larva.

            When a signal arrives for metamorphosis to begin, the tissues of the larva are broken down into their constituent molecules.  The cells that were earlier set aside then begin to develop into adult structures.  They use the raw materials that originally constituted the larva, and the information in the genome, to form an entirely new kind of organism, the adult. 

            Why have I told you all this?  Because I want to use this process of metamorphosis as a metaphor for what happened to me in my life.  Now it is time to turn back to the graph.  About 20 years ago, I gave a talk about my life to a group I belonged to at the World Bank.  Here’s the graph I drew for that talk.  On the X axis is age.  On the Y axis is success.  In a little while I’ll say more about how ‘success’ is defined.  Right now, just imagine it is whatever you think it is and you will have the general idea. 

            Very early in my life, when I was 17, I had a wild success.  My science teacher in high school groomed me, and others, to enter the Westinghouse Science Talent Search.  This is a science prize given to high school students who take a test and do some sort of science project.  It is now run by Intel instead of Westinghouse.  The test is given nationwide and the pool narrowed to several hundred kids, who are all guaranteed Honorable Mention.  Another selection process yields 40 finalists, who come to Washington for the last round.   In that last round I won one of two top prizes (the one for girls!). 

            Then, four years later, I graduated from Swarthmore College with highest honors in Biology. 

            I feel awkward telling you this history.  It’s not something I bring up often.  But it is essential to my story. 

            Now, in my world, in those days, the most prestigious goal I could achieve would be to become a research scientist.  By age 21 it seemed I was well on my way.

            However, after college, something strange happened.  It began when I went to graduate school at Harvard.  For a bunch of reasons, my experience at Harvard was a great disappointment.  But I soldiered on, and eventually was awarded a PhD.   Following a well-beaten track, I got a post-doctoral fellowship in a wonderful laboratory.  But my professional life continued to deteriorate.  Hard as it was to admit to myself, I hated working in the laboratory.  I hit bottom when I was 30.  That’s this point here.  [on the graph]  I found myself taking naps in the ladies room during the day.  Clearly something was drastically wrong.  I resigned my fellowship and sank into a depression so deep I could scarcely find the energy to walk to the end of the driveway to get the mail.

            Like the sea urchin undergoing metamorphosis, I literally came apart.  Of course I didn’t disintegrate physically, like the sea urchin.  But my aspirations, my expectations and standards about what constituted a valuable and productive life, in short my very conception of myself, needed to be completely dismantled before I could reconstitute myself, just as the larval sea urchin’s body dissolves until only the basic molecules, the genome, and the special groups of cells are left.  Let me be a bit more specific.  I had grown up believing that science was the most prestigious field, and doing research was the most laudable science occupation.  Now I had to give that up.  And worse yet, I had nothing to replace it with! 

            Luckily, a few months later, my first child was born.  (That’s the Josh that many of you know!)  Having a baby was enough of a distraction that I was able to pull myself out of the depression, and set aside the identity problems.  A bit later my daughter was born, providing me with some more breathing time.  Then, when I was about 35, the slow rebuilding process began.  It was still underway when I gave that talk at the World Bank 20 years ago.  As the graph shows, I knew the curve was still rising.  But I was very pessimistic about ever reaching the height of the earlier peak I’d reached between 17 and 20.

              I didn’t realize it at the time, but I know now, that in part my pessimism was the result of the way I was defining success.  As you will have noted from what I’ve said about those early years, my definition of success was completely external – that is, it was based on what the rest of the world, including my family, thought of me.  The inner truth about the science prize is that I KNEW that I really didn’t deserve it, that it was the result of some lucky circumstances, and a glib tongue.  Oh, of course I was smart, but so were lots of other people, and in particular the 39 other contestants were REALLY smart.  What I did was nothing special.  Four years later, the award of highest honors was a little less a reflection of luck and more a matter of work, but luck played a big part there too.  Behind all the insecurity I knew one thing – I was fascinated by genetics and evolution.  But I had no idea where that fascination could possibly fit into my life.  So, at age 35, when the reconstruction process began, I not only gave up my notions about what constituted success--that is, being a research scientist.  I also gave up my fascination with biology. 

            The years between 35 and 65 were, in their way, remarkable and satisfying.  I really did recreate myself, several times!  I ended my career as the Ombudsman of the World Bank—quite a distance from being a laboratory scientist.  I no longer felt so alienated from what I did professionally.  But, looking back, its clear to me that what I did in the work world did not truly engage all of me.  So, when I retired I began the reconstruction process all over again.  (One thing I did, by the way, was to join WES—a good move!)  Fortunately I was free of the necessity of earning a living (thanks largely to the Bank, but also to other pensions, including social security).  Among other things, I began reading books about science.  But it was almost ten years before I actually found myself teaching biology.  And immediately, I knew I had found my niche. I am, as it turns out, a good teacher.  But more important, I care deeply about the ideas that permeate everything I teach.  In fact, I have become something of a missionary.  I truly believe that enlightened citizens, today, need to understand how our biology – that is how we are put together and function as living organisms – should be playing a central role in how our society is organized.

            Let me take another science detour, and give you a flavor of two of the topics that fascinate me and what I think you, as intelligent citizens, should know about them.

            The first has to do with genes.  When I was in school, everyone thought of genes as beads on a string.  When the idea of a gene was invented, no one knew what they were.  By my high school days we knew that the string was the chromosome.  All research in genetics and evolution treated the genes as independent entities, not interacting with one another.  Furthermore, most research questions were about connecting external features of organisms, what we call traits, with genes.  So it was natural to use ‘gene for’ language.  There was a gene for this and a gene for that.   Some traits didn’t fit the paradigm, like height.  But adjustments were easy to make.  This ‘gene for’ language grabbed the public imagination, and continues to be deeply entrenched in the way all of us talk about heredity.  And it is basically WRONG (or at least grossly misleading).  The more we learn about living organisms, the more wrong it gets.  It leads to formulations that are sometimes ridiculous and sometimes pernicious.  Some examples: there’s a gene for marital infidelity, or a gene for violent behavior, or a gene for homosexuality, or a gene for musical talent.  You get the idea, because if you pay any attention at all to science reporting in the media, you’ve heard it or read it dozens of times.  Why is it wrong?  It’s a long story, but one which all of you can understand, without any special knowledge of genetics.  Take one of my courses and you’ll see how straightforward it is!

            A second topic that fascinates me is a bit less accessible.  It has to do with how novelty arises in living organisms.  You will remember that Darwin’s famous book was called On the Origin of Species.  Well, the truth is, Darwin had practically nothing to say about this topic, since the knowledge needed to think systematically and constructively about it simply didn’t exist in his time.  One thing Darwin believed deeply, and what his book was at pains to demonstrate, is that new species were not the work of a designer.  Everyone understood that ‘designer’ was a euphemism for God but he tread very carefully in this area.  One important reason is that such talk deeply offended his wife.

            Darwin’s evidence ranged very widely.  Here’s one example: When he visited the Galapagos Islands he found similar, but slightly different, birds—what are now called Darwin’s finches—on each of the islands.  He also noticed that the finches on the mainland (which is Ecuador) were also quite similar to those on the islands.  He could not fathom why a Creator would have bothered to make the birds on neighboring islands different or why those 500 miles away would be created to resemble those on the islands.  But he could readily explain these facts through his ideas about natural selection.  Darwin believed, and scientists still believe, that differences arise by processes that can be completely explained by natural mechanisms.  And of course I agree.

            Darwin had little to say about how big differences—what I’ve called novelties—arise.  He argued, and until very recently, most biologists agreed, that big differences are the result of accumulating small differences.  I never found this a very satisfactory argument and there are now many scientists who are of the same opinion.  In fact, there have always been such scientists, but the power of orthodoxy has silenced them for decades.  These days many studies are shedding new light on this whole question of the origin of novelties.  I find the new evidence astonishing and fascinating.  Its not yet the whole story, but surely the research is moving in the right direction.      

            With regard to evolution, I think it is important for  the intelligent public to be able to differentiate between those who deny evolution because they want or need to attribute life to a deity and those who have genuine questions about the explanations they encounter in school and the media., which often do not seem to make sense.  Even where evolution is actually taught, it is often taught badly – at least to my way of thinking.

            On a more general level, I believe that societies are going to be called upon to make increasingly nuanced and difficult decisions about the ethical consequences of biological technologies, for example, the capacity to manipulate genomes and transfer genes between species.  To participate effectively, we need to be sophisticated in our understanding of both the ethical and biological dimensions of such issues.  In my view, we, as a humanistic religious society, have a heavy task in front of us.

            Ok, enough biology.  Now, for an important caveat:  You will have noticed that I’ve said little about my family and friends.  They are tremendously important to me, and greatly enrich my life.  In telling the full story of my life, they would have a huge role to play, but I’ve chosen today to focus on only one small part – that is, me and biology. 

            Now, back to the shape of my life.  A question may have occurred to you:  During that long time between 35 and 65 did I know how it was all going to turn out?  Of course not.  But one thing was always obvious.  Whenever I looked back, I could see that, no matter what the ups and downs of the moment, where I was now was basically better than where I’d been.  But even more important, I felt less and less of a fraud.  The gap between who I felt myself to be and how I appeared on the outside got smaller and smaller.  There were a few occasions, like the talk at the World Bank, when I was asked to reflect on my life, and as I did so, I began to see patterns emerging.  But only now am I aware of how coherent the whole story is.  Not only that, as I approach the end, I can look forward as well as backward.  What do I see?  Well, on the downside, my body is beginning to fall apart.  I guess that’s inevitable.  That’s why I’m sitting instead of standing.  But on the upside, until nature intervenes, I expect to continue to experience the deep satisfaction of doing things I love and I’m good at. 

            So what does my life look like from the perspective of 80?  I’ve drawn a new graph that says it all!


Jerry Fresia said...

A fascinating life, indeed. And a nicely written piece too; clean and simple language. I can't help but think that Barbara's return to biology somewhat parallels your return to a great love as well, your viola.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Yes, save that she plays Biology a lot better than I play viola!

Bruce Aune said...

What extraordinary lives you both have had. There has been human frailty but rare indomitability and you are both still soaring.

Brian Deutrom said...

Please pass on my warmest regards to your sister. She is held in special and high regard ever since I first met her in Papua New Guinea. I think about her fondly and often.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I certainly will!