John Tyler Bonner
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002
215 pp., $24.95 hc
John Bonner is a lucky man, or at least he perceives himself to be, which might be considered the same thing. He was born to affluent, well-educated, and well-connected parents. He attended good schools, received undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard, and was granted summer research internships at Woods Hole from the end of his first year of university onward. He was perhaps luckiest in that he discovered his passion for biology early and he was able to pursue this passion his entire life--even while in the army during the Second World War.
Lives of a Biologist is John Bonner's autobiography, chronicling a life beginning in 1920 and continuing into the 21st century with an undiminished passion for biology, the science of life. The 215-page book is divided into five chapters, each devoted to a 20-year period between 1900 and 2000. Each chapter consists of three parts: a snapshot of Western history during the 20-year period, a summary of important biological research at the time, and a description of Bonner's concurrent life and scientific endeavors. Bonner's social and professional milieu brought him into contact with notable people as varied as Harpo Marx and Albert Einstein, and Bonner includes an anecdote about each.
For lay readers like myself, Bonner's thoughtful discussion of high points and trends in Twentieth-century biological research is interesting and informative. Biologists will probably find much entertainment in comparing their own favorite scientific milestones with Bonner's choices, though I'm sure none will be surprised by his selection of the rediscovery of Mendel's now-famous paper on genetic inheritance, the discovery of the structure of DNA, and the advent of DNA replication and fingerprinting as key contributions to the field.
Bonner's own research on slime molds is presented clearly and in a surprisingly engaging manner. Very little was known about slime molds when, seventy years ago, Bonner chose them for what would be his lifelong research focus. At the time he was one of only two experts in the field. Today, there are hundreds of experts, and Bonner, somewhat to his chagrin, is considered the "Grand Old Man of slime molds." Of course, what makes Bonner a great scientist is not his tireless devotion to slime molds, but his ability to use his observations of a single-celled creature to answer larger questions about life cycles, evolution, and culture.
I found Bonner's views on research and teaching to be thought provoking. His description of graduate students as individuals forced into a quasi-parent/child relationship with their advisors at an age when most other people function as independent adults in society changed my view of my own relationships with both advisors and advisees. Bonner gives scattered examples of what he has found to be effective techniques for influencing students, including the use of negative comments to goad students into excelling just out of spite, though he would not recommend that as a mentoring technique.
Bonner's views on how science progresses, how it is done, and how it should be done, are not novel or alarming. He, like most, advocates Thomas Kuhn's theory (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962), and accordingly advises young scientists to avoid trends and fearlessly to follow interests that are not in vogue. His description of the rise of biochemistry and microbiology, though, lends support to a more "anything goes" style of scientific progress, like that espoused by Paul Feyerabend (Against Method: Outline of An Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge, 1975): he describes one scientific leader who "...used his great intelligence, wrapped in his distinguished background in theoretical physics, as a battering ram on the sensibilities of lesser mortals" (144). The aggressive arrogance of some of those honored for great leaps in scientific understanding "...comes through vividly in James Watson's book The Double Helix; it is a great book partly because it describes that 'take no prisoners' attitude so thoroughly" (144).
Bonner himself comes across as the ideal scientist whose only motivation is his fascination with his field. Though he did not receive funding for every grant proposal he wrote, he did receive many fellowships with apparent ease, and was even granted a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship on the basis of an application he had made five years previously. One wonders if he ever had to fight hard or play the system to support his pursuit of pure knowledge.
Bonner's continuously good-natured, self-effacing style seems a bit ingenuous in places, especially where it is clear that his own life must have been stressful and tumultuous--boot camp during WWII, for instance, or the student riots of the 1960s where he found himself both a university administrator and the father of teenagers. Indeed, if his words are to be taken at face value, Bonner has led a life of uncommon ease and grace. I felt little sympathy when I read of his purported deep poverty while on sabbatical in Paris with his young family. Privation--the deepest he claims ever to have experienced--led him to the extremes of having to dry dirty diapers prior to sending them out for laundering (no question, I guess, of doing one's own washing), yet allowed him to keep a housekeeper who was "...a splendid person and a fantastic cook" (106). We should all be so poor! The average modern academic may experience similar feelings upon reading of Bonner's freedom, while chair of the Biology Department at Princeton, to choose to devote every Thursday afternoon to nature walks with one of his colleagues. Indeed, Bonner's biography has "ivory tower" written all over it, and as such is of only limited value as a guide for entering and leading the life of today's academic.
"Ivory tower" may also explain why Bonner did not see any reason to include a defense of the validity of the theory of evolution, which is the framework and underpinning of most of his research. Clearly, in his world, evolution does not need defending, and he assumes his readership is of a like mind. Surprisingly, though, John Bonner has joined the ranks of eminent zoologists, paleontologists, and geneticists that have been misquoted in creationist writings as rejecting Darwin's theories. Lives of a Biologist makes it quite clear that Bonner is an admirer of Charles Darwin and his work and fully supports the theory of evolution.
Lives of a Biologist is a slim volume, easy to hold up while reading in bed, and it has a thorough index containing entries like "Forster, E.M.," "Magic Flute, The," and "Parker, Dorothy" to pique the curiosity. The volume suffers, though, from the lack of a bibliography. Many wonderful and intriguing books are mentioned, but publication information is not given, leaving the reader at a loss for further information. Even Bonner's own publications are not listed. Further, the structure of the book leads to a great deal of leaping about in time and it is very easy to lose track of what year the author is writing about. A biographical time line, perhaps with a few dates of historical significance thrown in for reference, would be a useful addition to the book.
It is hard not to recommend this book to other readers--it is an easy, pleasant read and a good way to cover the basics of slime molds without cracking a textbook. I do not regret reading Lives of a Biologist. However, it is not a great contribution to the study of the history or philosophy of science, nor does it have much value as a guide to young scientists, given that the author spent his entire life in a milieu that is, sadly, nowhere near the reality of the average 21st-century academic. The target readers for this book are those who are interested in the human side of science and those who enjoy a good anecdote.