Richard Axel is a science celebrity. He is brilliant, funny, and, oh yeah, he won a Nobel Prize. And I got to sit next to him at lunch the other day! He was in town to give a talk in my department. To give us grad students a chance to brush with greatness, we are allowed to have lunch with the invited speakers (woohoo, they let us out of lab! free food!). I find that many famous scientists (perhaps like famous celebrities? although I have yet to meet celebrities of the non-scientific persuasion) have quirky personalities. And Dr. Axel is no exception. He is larger than life, quite a tall man, and incessantly chews nicorette gum (this was confirmed by my boyfriend: during his interview for grad school at Columbia years ago Dr. Axel was also chewing said gum).
As I’ve said, he is an extremely intelligent man, and he has formed many ideas about the field of neuroscience, on which he does his research. He studies the olfactory system in particular (and was awarded the Nobel Prize with Linda Buck for discovering odorant receptors – the protein structures in your nose that detect smells). One student in the room asked him whether he thought that humans have pheromones – chemicals that animals use to communicate with each other about food, sex, predators. The behaviors that pheromones trigger are often innate, hard-wired, instinctual responses since they are about things essential to live and reproduce (eating, mating, avoiding being eaten…), as opposed to learned behaviors. Pheromones are detected much in the same way as smells, using the vomeronasal organ which is also in the nose, although in humans the vomeronasal organ is pathetic and wimpy and its function in humans is very controversial.
Which brings us back to Richard Axel. He espouses the view (or at least said so to generate a rousing conversation) that ALL human behavior is learned – basically we have no instincts. While we put him to task on this – providing lots of promising counterexamples – he shot them all down. I and perhaps much of the room am not entirely convinced, I had some interesting examples concerning studies of female sexual arousal (graphically detailed by the talented Mary Roach in her book Bonk if you are now aroused to know more) up my sleeve that I did not get to bring up, but it was a very interesting conversation in which one particularly outspoken grad student earned the dubious nickname “the philosopher”.
This brings me to Woody Allen. Partway through the lunch Axel nonchalantly drops something to the extent of, “I was having lunch with Woody Allen a few months back.” At this our eyes promptly bug out of our heads (actual celebrity? you mean if we become famous scientists we can meet real celebrities?). Here’s the story (greatly paraphrased): Axel was having lunch with Woody Allen in New York (they both live there… makes sense…) and Allen wanted to ask him a question since Axel is the expert on genes and behavior.
Allen says, “So this has got to be in my genes. I’ve got a daughter.”
Here Axel, in an aside to us says, “I was going to say, Yeah, and you married her.” Heehee.
So Allen says, “When she was born, even though I just knew her for a minute, I had this rush of emotion. I could die for her. Is this in my genes?”
Axel responds, “Well, take this. What if I took one of your cells and I cloned it. Would you feel the same way about your clone as you do about your daughter?”
And Allen, being Woody Allen responds, “If I was having coffee with my clone and some guy with a gun came in, I’d say ‘Shoot that guy!'”
So, reader? Is it in the genes?