Rethinking Evolution with Stuart Newman
It’s not surprising that Stuart Newman was one of the "Altenberg 16" scientists who kicked off a reformulation of the theory of evolution, the "extended evolutionary synthesis," this July at Konrad Lorenz Institute. While I’ve been writing about Newman’s work over the last several months, his scientific investigation into form (limb bud development) was first showcased to an international audience a quarter century ago – in a 1982 Newsweek cover story on the embryo. Since then Newman, a dedicated cell biologist and professor of anatomy at New York Medical College, has been in and out of the news, writing about the ethical issues of human genetics and bioengineering in scientific journals, sometimes appearing on public television, as well as testifying before Congress when asked.
Stuart Newman’s current hypothesis is that all 35 or so animal phyla physically self-organized by the time of the Cambrian explosion a half billion years ago using what he and his co-author Ramray Bhat call a pattern language – DPMs (dynamical pattering modules). The DPM concept has generated excitement since publication in Physical Biology in April, although the commercial media is just beginning to notice.
Newman is a patient man, doesn’t take being overlooked personally, and attributes the lack of mainstream media coverage to "disseminators of information" not yet understanding a physical approach to evolution. Newman, on the other hand, has an A.B. in chemistry and a Ph.D. in chemical physics and is largely self-taught in biology.
With the highly publicized Altenberg meeting over, Newman felt comfortable enough to suggest that I visit him at New York Medical College in Valhalla "one day," where he teaches and directs a research lab, to talk more about his work.
He followed up with this polite email:
"Please take the Metro-North 1:48 pm "Southeast" train from GCS [Grand Central Station] to Hawthorne, NY. I’ll pick you up at the station at 2:30 pm (just come down the stairs)." (Just come down the stairs)? I wonder why the parentheses. . .
Several days later, I take the train to Hawthorne and walk down the stairs to the parking lot to meet Stuart Newman. Am I misreading cues or has he just spotted me through the window of the enclosed stairwell, put his hands in his pockets and turned his back?
He later asks, "Did I really do that?"
Stuart Newman is a graceful man, about 6’1" with the hands of a microsurgeon – which he is. He is dressed in casual European elegance with sleeves turned up. I try not to be, but am affected by his sincerity and focus. There is an exotic twist to his hair, which in earlier photos makes him look North African.
Newman keeps fit on a vegetarian diet and does not follow sports, although he confesses he’s been watching the Beijing Olympics. He says he’s never attended a New York Giants football practice though, despite the fact that the Giants summer camp at Pleasantville for many years was only a village or two away from his office. A former student describes Newman as "a cerebral guy".
We drive to Newman’s lab in Valhalla, a leafy village with fewer than 8,000 people situated along the Hudson River about a half hour from Manhattan.
I finally meet his charming grad student Ramray Bhat, who I’ve also interviewed. Bhat is from India and we speak briefly of problems in Kashmir, a conflict I covered in the 1990s.
The first thing I notice as I follow Stuart Newman into his office is a collection of champagne bottles against the far wall. Newman says they represent the thesis defenses of his graduate students. One bottle of Mumm Extra Dry is from March 1970 in celebration of Newman’s own Ph.D. defense.
Newman offers me a chair beside him. His computer opens to his desktop screen containing the voluptuous images of Rubens’ "The Apotheosis of Henry IV and the Proclamation of the Regency of Marie de Medicis on May 14, 1610". He says art was his first love – he still draws – and then science.
He next gives me a crash course in self-organization, presenting the visual evidence:
"This is an extinct limb. And this is another extinct limb. This is a modern limb of an amphibian. This is a bird. An iguana. And you can see that they’re all kind of built the same way. They all have a single bone and then two bones. And maybe a cluster of bones. There’s a mathematical regularity.
This is a transparent view of the chicken limb as the bones start to emerge. And the ones close to the body differentiate first before the ones furthest from the body. It’s the same for all vertebrates – definitely all birds and mammals. They’re showing the orientation. It’s called proximal – distal, dorsal – ventral, anterior – posterior. They’re just axes.
Here’s a limb bud. It’s confining itself to the tip where fingers form by cells contacting each other which then turn into cartilage. Some of the cells in between the dotted lines die off. They don’t interact, they just die off. Or in a duck’s foot they become webs. They don’t differentiate into cartilage.
What happens when these cells interact is that they undergo a process of condensation. There’s a clustering. This actually becomes one of our DPMs – the ability of cells to respond to their microenvironment and cluster. . . .
I’ll show you what a self-organizational process looks like. So here [looking at cells clustering] are places where it starts up randomly, some then fade away and some get stronger. With self-organization, you can have random starts at different places but then you have competition between the centers and finally you get a pattern, which is going to oscillate. The pattern is going to subside and then it’s going to come back. And it will come back with the same statistics but the peaks will be in different places. That shows it is a true self-organizational process. . . .
We’ve taken this self-organizational idea and put it into the context of the geometry of the limb. And we’ve said that at the tip of the limb there’s something suppressing it from happening. Cells have to escape from this suppression to organize into spots or rods.
The geometry changes subtly as the limb grows in length. Under some conditions you’ll get one skeletal element. Under other conditions you’ll get two. Under still other conditions you’ll get three or, as in the human hand, five."
Newman closes out the program and shows me his previous screen, a much more ethereal image. I wonder what the Rubens says about who Stuart Newman is now. . .
On the way out of the office we pass through his lab where he opens an incubator tray of fertilized eggs that his students are observing.
It begins to rain as we exit the college and head into Tarrytown for tea.
We park not far from the Tarrytown theater where the Jefferson Starship will soon appear.
Tarrytown’s Silver Tips is one of the most "serious" tea rooms in the tri-state area, offering 140 kinds of tea. We settle in at a table and order a pot of Assam, which comes in English Chatsford china with matching cups. The feel of the Chatsford cup is half of the delicious experience of sipping. Talking with Stuart Newman naturally is the other half.
Newman mentions his postdoc days at the University of Sussex and his fondness for English scones with clotted cream and preserves, which he now has a chance to enjoy again. "You don’t find clotted cream around much," he says with a certain nostalgia, as he dips into the cream and raspberries.
How does the Tarrytown scone compare with the Sussex scone?
It’s "authentic" but "too much for me actually . . . won’t you have some?" he asks.
He describes his high school years (same one paleontologist Steve Gould attended) and tells me a bit of his family history. We kibbitz about the Catskills and evolutionary politics.
The rain lets up as we leave the tea room and walk downhill to the car. Newman walks in front of me and begins to pick up his pace telling me he forgot to put money in the parking meter. Luckily the car’s still there.
Prior to my visit, Newman sent me an email asking if I’d like to see Usonia, a colony of homes built in the 1950s by Frank Lloyd Wright and others in the woods of Pleasantville. I was fascinated by the idea.
So we drive to Pleasantville along the Kensico Reservoir and then onto Route 141. Newman is a bit concerned that we’re losing sunlight. We turn right now on Lake Street, right again on Bear Ridge Road and make another right onto Usonia Road. Fifty Usonian homes made of glass, wood and stone are somewhere in the surrounding hills, three of them designed by Wright. And we are about to try to find some.
Usonia was begun by a group of New Yorkers following World War II who pooled $22,000 to purchase 95 acres in the area, eventually creating their own homes at a cost of about $5,000 each. Today the homes are individually owned (but the community spirit survives) with some original residents still living in them.
It’s about 6 pm as we enter the woods. Interesting shadows are at play. Newman’s velvety voice becomes even more so as he whispers,"It’s like we’re stalking wild animals."
"That one is a Wright house, isn’t that something!" He points to the home with a section covered with field stones and amber light oozing from the windows into the trees. "You’ve got to come back in the winter and we’ll. . . ."
Newman says he was never crazy about Wright’s design of the Guggenheim Museum though, describing it as "an insult to its surroundings". "Wright’s concept was that everything was supposed to conform to the setting and then he plunks this thing on Fifth Avenue which has nothing to do with Fifth Avenue. I think he just didn’t like New York City."
You’re only allowed to drive through Usonia, and are not supposed to leave the road, but Newman says he often winds up in somebody’s back yard. He points out a sculpture garden. And a tennis court.
Mel Smilow, a famous furniture maker used to live at Usonia. Newman says Smilow and his wife were involved in the nuclear freeze movement and that he got to know them and their house then.
But the shadows soon grow longer, so we leave the enchantment of the forest and head for the Hawthorne train back to Manhattan.
Newman waits with me on the platform as four or five trains pass all going in the wrong direction. 7:21 pm comes and goes without a New York bound train. 7:47 and still no train. We soon learn that trains to GCS are off-schedule because a tree fell onto the track several stations away and there is no announcement about when service will resume.
I have to persuade him that I am a veteran of several wars before he agrees to leave me – insisting that I call him at home if there are further delays (and there is an email later from him asking me to email him as soon as I return home).
We say goodbye. And Newman disappears into the night and nearly full moon.
Stuart Newman is co-author of the textbook Biological Physics of the Developing Embryo (Cambridge University Press) with Gabor Forgacs, and with Gerd Müller (Chair, Konrad Lorenz Institute) co-edited Origination of Organismal Form: Beyond the Gene in Developmental and Evolutionary Biology (MIT Press), a volume about the origination of body form during Ediacaran and early Cambrian periods, also contributing a few chapters to it. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
SUZAN MAZUR’s reports have appeared in the Financial Times, Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer (partial list), and on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose, and various Fox television programs. Email: email@example.com