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Foundation of a Founder of Evo-Devo

by Donald Prothero, Oct 03 2012

A review of Once we all had Gills: Growing up evolutionist in an evolving world, by Rudolf A. Raff

Autobiography is a popular genre in the publishing industry, but most are accounts of famous actors or politicians or other public figures. There are relatively few good examples of autobiographic accounts by important scientists (both past and present). Most scientists tend not to write autobiographical accounts of themselves, whether it be because they are too modest, too busy, or whether the ego-denying, self-effacing scientific culture which suppresses the first-person pronouns and the active voice (“the experiment was conducted by so-and-so’s lab”) makes us less than willing to talk about ourselves. When an autobiographical account of a prominent scientist appears, it gives us important insights into the questions of how great scientists are made, as well as how they made their discoveries. Reading Darwin’s autobiography (even if he did modify some details) has been an important source regarding events and ideas led to his discovery of evolution by natural selection. Feynman’s autobiographical books (especially Surely you’re Joking, Mr. Feynman) are laugh-out-loud funny as this brilliant misfit gives us his quirky view of the world, amazing his professors and colleagues, and playing tricks on Army security when he was working on the Bomb in Los Alamos. E.O. Wilson’s 2006 autobiography Naturalist shows how his childhood love of collecting bugs in Alabama blossomed not only into a career as a world famous ant expert, but also to his insights about ecological biogeography and sociobiology. For historians of science, as well as people who want to understand what makes a great scientist, such rare first-person accounts are highly valuable.

Into this tradition comes Rudy Raff’s Once We All Had Gills: Growing up an Evolutionist in and Evolving World. For those who don’t recognize the name, Raff has been one of the leading figures in the fields of embryology, developmental biology, and their connection to evolution for the past 50 years. Spending most of his career at Indiana University in Bloomington, Raff made it into a center for research of the exploding field of evolutionary development (“evo-devo”), one of the hottest and fastest-growing areas in all of science. He is currently the James H. Rudy Professor of Biology at Indiana, Director of the Indiana Molecular Biology Institute, editor of the journal Evolution & Development, and also a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and winner of the 2004 Sewall Wright award. He is the author of many books, including three classics that laid the modern foundation for evo-devo. More importantly, Raff entered the field of evolutionary biology when it had become the neglected discipline of evolutionary theory, overshadowed by fruit-fly genetics during the birth of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis during the 1940s and 1950s. Due to the efforts of Raff and just a few others, embryology emerged from decades of being on the sidelines to become the cutting-edge field of science. Now the steady drumbeat of new discoveries about regulatory genes, homeoboxes, and many other major breakthroughs overshadow just about any other branch of biology.

Like many other scientists, Raff’s roots were affected by one of the key events in the history of science: Hitler’s persecution of Jewish scientists and other intellectuals, leading many of them (including Albert Einstein, Max Born, Hans Krebs, Erwin Schrödinger, Edward Teller, Hans Bethe, Enrico Fermi, Max Perutz, and many others) to flee to other countries. Germany was the leading scientific power of the early twentieth century, with the most Nobel Prizes in science, but that status was reversed by a huge “brain drain” triggered by Hitler’s actions. Raff’s father, Rudolf August Victor Raff, had a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Vienna, but fled Austria in 1938 as the Anschluss loomed. He emigrated to Quebec, Canada, because he spoke better French than English, and got a temporary job with a Canadian chemical company. There he met a French-Canadian doctor’s daughter, Therese Dufresne, and they were married in 1939, which saved the Austrian refugee from being interned during the war.

The author describes his early childhood among his Dufresne relatives on Lac Souris near Shawinigan, Quebec, where he was a young child in the 1940s. He recalls at length his explorations of nature around the lake country of northern Quebec, where he acquired his love of natural history and a curiosity about animals and plants that never left him. Then in 1949 his father got a job at a chemical company in Pittsburgh, and young Rudy became enamored of the amazing dinosaur halls at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, where he got to hang out in the halls and mingle with the curators. Meanwhile, he was pursuing a serious interest in natural history in western Pennsylvania, especially focusing on salamanders, spiders, and dragonflies, as well as collecting fossils in the region. He finished a major in chemistry at Penn State (B.A., 1963), then on to Duke where he got his doctorate in Biochemistry in 1967. He also met his wife Beth at Penn State during a visit there on break from Duke, and they were married in 1965. Raff recounts some of his many scientific expeditions to discover new species of animals, especially in Chiapas, Mexico, and makes it clear that he is more than a lab scientist, but a true naturalist.

In the late 1960s, Raff began doing post-doctoral work on sea urchin embryos in Paul Gross’ lab at MIT, where he was to make groundbreaking discoveries about development and embryos. In 1971, he was hired at Indiana, which was already a cutting-edge institution in molecular biology at that time. Over the following 40 years, his lab was at the center of the “evo-devo” revolution. Many of his former grad students and post-docs are now prominent scientists in their own right, carrying on the latest research. Raff himself not only participated in this research, but wrote three very influential books which summarized the understanding of development and evolution at the time they were written. These books introduced many generations of biologists to the importance of development and epigenetic change in evolution.

Throughout his lively account of his field exploits as a naturalist, and his lab discoveries as an embryologist, Raff also maintains a narrative of the political background that framed his career, from his early days as a child in Quebec during World War II to growing up in the U.S. during in the Cold War (he even did a short stint in the military, but they used his talents in radiation biology), to living in Cambridge during the height of the student revolt of the late 1960s. But the main underlying theme of the book is evolution, and Raff’s long career documenting how it occurs. Even though his primary training in molecular biology, he maintained his interest in fossils, and often participated in important paleontological discoveries, or integrated their implications into his own research. His final chapters discuss the problem of American creationism, and its damaging effects on American science education and culture in general. In his own passionate way, he recounts the development of creationism, the events leading up to the 2005 Dover “intelligent design” trial, and then debunks many of the standard creationist arguments in his own unique way. Like many of my fellow scientific colleagues, it is a great mystery and a distressing fact to him that the myths of primitive Bronze Age shepherds can still retard scientific advances in a country which still leads the world in many areas of science—but almost 50% of its own population believes pure nonsense. His final chapter, “Evolution Matters,” is a rousing call to arms for scientists and educated Americans to stand up against the forces of creationism and science denialism, and not allow the United States to slide backwards and become a scientific backwater, as Hitler did to Germany in the 1930s.

The book has a wonderful cover painting of the “fishibian” Acanthostega climbing out of the water (painted by Raul Martin), which reminds us of the title: Once we all had gills. As biologists know, that title has two levels of meaning. Not only are we descended from gilled amphibians like Acanthostega and even earlier fish-like ancestors, but as embryos, we all had gill slits about 5 weeks after conception that we eventually lost. Both are pieces of our evolutionary past that remind us how important evolution is to understanding our origins.

Raff’s book is thus both a fascinating story of how a young boy interested in natural history became a scientist at the founding of the “evo-devo” revolution, and also a polemic arguing about the importance of science and its defense against the powers of ignorance. It is a lively read, no matter how much background you might have in biology, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in these topics, as well as those interested in scientific biography.

2 Responses to “Foundation of a Founder of Evo-Devo”

  1. Janet Camp says:

    Thanks. This genre (scientist autobiography–and biography) is a favorite of mine and I may have missed this one without this review, since I did not know the name before reading. I loved the Feynman book you mentioned!

  2. John Wilkins says:

    Typo: “entered the field of [developmental biology] when it had become…”