We’ve lost a great one: Seymour Benzer


As I’ve mentioned before, my class has been reading Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), which is in large part an account of the amazing work Seymour Benzer accomplished over the course of his long career. Now I’ve got sad news to break to the students tomorrow: Seymour Benzer has died at the age of 86, after a long and exemplary career as a “scientist’s scientist”.



  1. says

    Benzer was a titan in neurogenetics. His impact on the field, both in terms of the studies performed in his lab and the huge number of his trainees who have gone on to their own successful independent careers, has been immense.

  2. David Wilford says

    Out of curiosity, could anyone tell what the difference is between “neurogenetics” and “sociobiology”? I’m guessing that the former is more humble than the latter in terms of greedy reductionism, but I’d be interested to know if there are any points in common between the two.

  3. Ichthyic says

    neurogentics is primarily looking at proximate causes, and sociobiology is primarily looking at ultimate causes.

    that’s the largest general distinction.

    something specific you wanted to know.

    what does “greedy reductionism” mean?
    do please spell it out for us.

  4. rjb says

    This is a sad moment. Seymour Benzer was so influential in so many ways. While it may seem trivial, I think one of the great influences from his lab was the somewhat whimsical naming of learning mutants by him and his students. Great scientist.

  5. Ichthyic says

    “Greedy reductionism”

    then using the term as defined by Dennet, why bother to apply it specifically HERE? It’s equally applicable to just about any scientific field you can name.

    Moreover, was there something specific within the fields of genetics or behavior you wished to discuss?

    btw, Dennet is NOT a biologist, so take his interpretations of the ToE, and researches regarding same, with a grain of salt.

    Most of us who actually do science do.

    Or did you want to take the occasion of Dr. Benzer’s demise to denounce the application of the ToE to human behavior, perhaps?

    If so, are you sure it’s appropriate?

  6. Ichthyic says

    … one more thing before you go on, David:

    do recall that Dennet is an adaptationist himself.

  7. David Wilford says

    Ichthyic, the phrase “greedy reductionism” came to my mind when I heard how Benzer was (sadly, now in the past tense) connected to neurogenetics and how that might related to the sort of sociobiology espoused by E.O. Wilson. I’m no scientist (I only have a lowly B.S. in CompSci) but I was wondering how the two are related, or not. Personally, I do think that trying to explain complex behaviors by simply correlating them with specific genes is greedy reductionism. I have no truck with those who try to correlate IQ with race, certainly.

    What’s your beef with Dennett regarding the ToE? I’m curious, having heard a few things here about adaptationism. As I recall, Richard Dawkins had some differences with Steve Gould on that subject also. Dennett isn’t a biologist, but frankly he’s no dummy either.

  8. Shigella says

    I remember learning about Benzer’s famous T4 phage experiments and thinking to myself in class, “What an extraordinary and elegant set of experiments.” The field of genetics owes a lot to him. I’m not familiar with some of his other work (I’m a microbiologist); did he also work with Drosophila?

  9. Ichthyic says

    and how that might related to the sort of sociobiology espoused by E.O. Wilson.

    what sort of sociobiology is that?

    hmm. did you know that Dennet defended much of what Wilson had to say on the subject?

    forgive my initial tone, but it sounded like you were simply one of those “evolution can’t work” trolls.

    as to how neurobiology, behavior and genetics, are related to evolutionary theory…

    they are related in exactly the same was as morphology, physiology, and genetics are related to evolutionary theory.
    no more, no less.

    there is nothing more to sociobiology than an attempt to apply the basic mechanism of natural selection to behavior in all organisms, including humans.

    selection doesn’t always work (directly) as a mechanism to explain every trait, regardless of whether we are speaking of a physiological, morphological, or behavioral ones (and Wilson never claimed it did). However, it’s a productive place to begin investigations, no doubt about it, as demonstrated by Wilson’s own research into the social behavior of insects.

    most of the negative reaction to Sociobiology was based on what might be done with the implications of the research, not the actual research he based his ideas on.

    I do think that trying to explain complex behaviors by simply correlating them with specific genes is greedy reductionism.

    it certainly can be, just as with any field of endeavor, no more so in the study of behavior than anywhere else, however.

    There are hundreds of studies demonstrating strongly heritable behaviors, dating all the way back before Tinbergen, some of which have been tied to specific, readily identifiable genes, in part due to the work of people like Benzer. Simply because a behavior is “complex”, it doesn’t nullify the effect selection might have/had on it.

    The value of Benzer and those like him is that we in fact ARE able to tie specific behaviors to specific genes, which then allows us to ask the more ultimate question (since that means those behaviors are heritable), as to whether or not that specific behavior was shaped by selection.

    perhaps you are just hung up on the issue of “behavior” as a trait? Have you posed the same question to yourself regarding “complex” morphological traits as you have with behavioral ones? Take for example, the human immune system, which was one subject of contention in the Dover trial, remember? quite complex. do you suppose that it wasn’t capable of being formed through the mechanism of selection?

    anyway, there is a decent summary (with references) of the debates that occured around the time Wilson released his book on the wiki article for Dennet:


    you might want to start with those to get a better perspective on the issue, or even check out a copy of Sociobiology to see for yourself what Wilson was presenting.

    As I recall, Richard Dawkins had some differences with Steve Gould on that subject also.

    indeed, and Dennet sided with Dawkins for the most part.

    my only problem with philosophers has nothing to do with their relative intelligence, but in their lack of actual experience in applying that intelligence to actual experiments.

    even if I agree with their conclusions, I still take them with a grain of salt because of that.

  10. Barn Owl says

    Molecular and genetic information on circadian rhythms was anecdotal-to-nonexistent before Benzer’s work on period and other Drosophila mutants in the 1970s. Just this week, the International Agency for Research on Cancer announced the conclusions of its October meeting, one of which is that “graveyard”, or nighttime, shift work will now be listed as a probable carcinogen. The report will be published in The Lancet Oncology this month; the mechanism is thought to be suppression of melatonin secretion by light exposure at night, with a negative impact on the immune system’s tumor surveillance abilities. Chronobiology has come a long way, in large part thanks to the research of Benzer and his colleagues. My sympathies to his family, colleagues, and former/present lab members.

    I was extremely irritated a couple of weeks ago when NPR (ATC specifically) wasted over 11 minutes inanely eulogizing (again! he’s been dead for awhile now!) that sociopathic serial substance abuser, Hunter S. Thompson. On the one hand, I should have learned my lesson about NPR years ago, but they could redeem themselves somewhat (IMO), if they’d eulogize Seymour Benzer, and use the opportunity to discuss his contributions to genetics, and tie it in with recent advances in chronobiology.