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Crimson Chimera

Abigail Lustig

A Brand-New Bird: How Two Amateur Scientists Created the First Genetically Engineered Animal. Tim Birkhead. xx + 268 pp. Basic Books, 2003. $26.

Tim Birkhead's new book is a diverting addition to the currently popular genre exemplified by Dava Sobel's Longitude and Simon Winchester's Krakatoa—works of nonfiction that combine amusement with instruction about some dusty corner of history and science. A Brand-New Bird tells two stories. The first is that of canaries under domestication. Birkhead provides an engaging overview of pet canaries, which were originally green. From their first appearance as cage birds in the 15th century, however, fanciers tinkered with them, gussying up both their voices and their feathers to produce yellow and white birds and varieties whose songs differed greatly from those of their progenitors.

The book also probes the story of a German secondary-school teacher, bird enthusiast and geneticist named Hans Duncker, who in the 1920s teamed up with a pair of bird fanciers—men whose hobby was the breeding and exhibition of cage birds—in an attempt to produce a red canary. At the time, a red canary was like a blue rose: seemingly a biological impossibility. Duncker, however, became obsessed with the idea that he could introduce an inherited red color to the species by hybridizing canaries with a naturally red finch, the red siskin of Venezuela.

It is this aspect of Duncker's project that is alluded to in the book's subtitle claiming that the red canary was "the first genetically engineered animal" (a phrase implying that the project gave rise in the 1930s to a truly novel kind of organism, such as we've seen created during the past few decades). This claim, although sensational and perhaps tantalizing to the book-buyer (which is presumably why it's on the cover), is mostly incidental to Birkhead's story, and he is wise not to have emphasized it. The red canary may possibly have been the first domestic animal created by interspecies hybridization to breed a missing character of interest into a variety. But the technique, along with its associated ontological, taxonomic, aesthetic and ethical disquiets, had already been thoroughly explored in horticulture and plant-breeding by the mid-19th century.

Bankrolled by his well-off bird-fancier friends, Duncker embarked on an all-out breeding program. He was aided, Birkhead contends, by strict and unrelenting Mendelianism, untainted by the Lamarckian views of inheritance that were rampant "for no rational, scientific reason" in German and international biology at the time. Birkhead, a behavioral ecologist and evolutionary biologist himself, with obvious commitments to the modern neo-Darwinist program, engages in some convenient historical elision here in conflating "Darwinism" with anti-Lamarckism. Indeed, it is not at all clear in Birkhead's account how Duncker came to be, against the dominant biology of his time, such an arch-selectionist as Birkhead paints him to be. It could certainly not have been, as Birkhead implies, due to his devotion to the very words of Darwin himself, because Darwin made free use of the inheritance of acquired characters in evolutionary explanations—a fact that Birkhead whitewashes.

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Alas, it was Duncker's stringent adherence to Mendelianism, which Birkhead in general considers his most heroic characteristic, that proved to be his fatal flaw, twice over. The first instance of this was scientific, and it explains Duncker's failure to produce a truly crimson canary. Duncker was so strongly committed to the idea that genes determine all characteristics of an organism that he evidently believed the use of any kind of environmental influence on phenotype to be cheating. That canaries' colors could be influenced by their diet had been well known, Birkhead engagingly explains, since the notorious orange canary scandal in Britain in the 1870s: These prodigies, which swept all the prizes, were found to have been fed on chilis beforehand to pep up their tints. In outbreeding his birds to the red siskin in order to introduce genes for redness (technically a difficult trick), Duncker refused to entertain the possibility that red plumage—even (as it later proved) the siskin's—could depend on diet to any degree. In his view, a blood-red canary should be red by blood alone.

Duncker's first flaw, an absolute dependence on the primacy of genes over environment, led to his second—fatal hubris. The historian of modern biology or of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s will find it no surprise, but to Birkhead, who has invested a great deal in the purity of Duncker's biology, it comes as a "terrible shock" and "bitter blow" that Duncker's views on canary breeding coincided largely with his eugenical views on human breeding, which led him in turn into collusion with the Nazis. He was director of the local chapter of the Society for Racial Hygiene, arranged lecture programs for local National Socialist party members and gave enthusiastic public lectures on eugenics. He had also by the late 1930s grown a "Hitleresque" mustache. During his de-Nazification inquisition after the war, Duncker insisted that he had, at some detriment to his career, resisted becoming a party member himself until 1940 (true), but he nevertheless refused to apologize for his previous actions or views.

Birkhead derives from Duncker's ambitions and failures a moral lesson on the subject of nature and nurture: Duncker's downfall came from feeling too strongly that "creating a red canary by breeding rather than feeding was a matter of personal pride, coupled with an unshakable belief in the inheritance of color." In Birkhead's view, this failure to appreciate the complex interdependence of genes and environment crippled both Duncker's biological views and his political views. We happy inheritors of a modern biological paradigm are wiser, Birkhead implies in the closing pages, because a sociobiology has triumphed that through integration of nature and nurture proposes a new eugenics. Based on "our enormous strides in understanding the genome and in developing reproductive technologies," it shows "great promise for improving the quality of life." If scientists are allowed proper control this time, he believes, this new eugenics will be free of the poisons introduced in the past by "politicians and regulators." Future historians will judge.—Abigail J. Lustig, History, University of Texas, Austin, and Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin

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