Ed Lewis: a scientist with the heart of a Taoist

Edward B. Lewis

In the current era of brutal competition for scare research funding and recognition among scientists, it may seem, at times, that the only scientists who rise to the top of their fields are those with an unhealthy share of narcissism, self-aggrandizement, hyper-competitiveness, and, frankly, ruthlessness.  In the midst of a scientific culture rife with understandable anxiety about survival of labs and never-ending fretting about “getting ahead,” it is easy for scientists to begin to lose sight of what fascinated them about science and nature in the first place (see my earlier post Finding Tao in science).  That’s why the life and career of Ed Lewis (1918-2004) can be so refreshing to recall.  How is it possible that this man who was so successful, ultimately winning the 1995 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his work on genetic control of embryonic development, also could be so kind, so generous, so unconcerned with external signs of prestige, so lacking in unhealthy narcissism, and so focused on his love of nature itself, rather than artificial measures of his own glory?  Could adopting Lewis’s attitude, his values, still be a possibility for us today?

As Welcome Bender describes in an obituary, Lewis was independent-minded, yet humble, and was guided by his own observations of the fly model of embryonic development that he was studying:

“Lewis was guided by what he saw in his flies and was rarely directed by the models of other biologists.  He generally avoided molecular explanations for his observations, in part due to a feeling of humility towards most things biochemical, and in part from a suspicion that the available molecular mechanisms couldn’t explain the complexity he saw in the flies…No doubt Lewis’s mutations hint at other molecular phenomena yet to be discovered.”

–Welcome Bender (2004) “Edward B. Lewis:  1918-2004,” Nature Genetics 36:919.

This reminds me of a quote from Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching:

“A good scientist has freed himself of concepts

and keeps his mind open to what is.”

Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation, chapter 27

In another obituary, Matthew Scott and Peter Lawrence recall that Lewis seemed to lack interest in the competition to get papers published in the highest-prestige, highest-profile scientific journals, a major preoccupation of many modern scientists, whose self-esteem seems to ride so much on the impact factor of the journals in which they publish (see my earlier post non-striving):

“For those who suspect that the present emphasis on publication [in science] is overdone, Lewis provides a superb role model.  He published rarely and did not seem to care where.  Some of his papers came out in such obscure journals that they were exchanged, like samizdat, as faded Xerox copies…A sweet, courteous and humble man, Ed worked in his lab to the end, probing possible connections between Hox genes and the cancer from which he was suffering.”

–Matthew P. Scott and Peter A. Lawrence (2004) “Edward B. Lewis (1918-2004),” Nature 431:143

I find the last paragraph of Bender’s obituary for Lewis, quoted below, especially moving.  In  Lewis’s personal qualities and values, there is so much resonance with the values of Taoism—-kindness, generosity, humility, cheerfulness and lack of anxiety, a deep-seated fascination and love of nature, rather than of empire-building—qualities that seem so rare, so precious, and so needed in our world:

“Those who knew Ed regarded him with something between affection and devotion.  He was exceeding generous; it was impossible to pay for any meal shared with him, he readily gave away compound mutant chromosomes that had taken years to construct.  His modesty was genuine and was not the least eroded by the attention that came with his honors.  He was cheerful by his genetic constitution; even his final affliction with cancer he took on as an interesting problem.  Mostly we will remember Ed for his infectious enthusiasm for the study of life…he avoided academic politics, and he did most of his science by himself, in the middle of the night.  Ed reminded us of the challenge of a good problem, the delight of a surprising result and the wonder that first drew us to science.”

–Welcome Bender (2004) “Edward B. Lewis:  1918-2004,” Nature Genetics 36:919.

©2009-2012 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved

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