5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Dr. Lee M. Silver


One of more unusual collaborations currently on the New York stage involves Jeremy Kareken, a writer, actor and researcher for Inside the Actors Studio, and Lee M. Silver, who holds a Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard and is now a professor of molecular biology and public affairs at Princeton University.

Professor Lee M. Silver and Jeremy Kareken. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The play they have written is called Sweet, Sweet Motherhood, and it deeply reflects their disparate backgrounds and common interests.

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The name of the play’s central character is Shelley; she is, according to the press materials, “bitingly intelligent.” And, of course, like so many gifted undergraduate students, Shelley is more bright than she is wise, preferring to party hard rather than pump her GPA. Enter a professor named Henry Stein, an eminent biotechnology researcher who receives Shelley’s proposal for a kind of extreme senior thesis: she wants to fertilize one of her eggs with a chimpanzee sperm and then carry the “humanzee” to term within her own womb. Naturally, ethical and moral dilemmas ensue.

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Kareken, who identifies as Republican (or at least one with the libertarian instincts), and Silver, whose politics would appear to be more secular and liberal, were brought together by the Two-Headed Challenge — a commission, basically, by two Minneapolis-based theater entities: the Guthrie Theater and the Playwrights Center. Kareken credits as a writer range far wide, including the Ensemble Studio Theatre Playwrights Unit and a teaching gig at NYU. Silver, meanwhile, is author of books with titles like Challenging Nature and Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform the American Family, an optimistic examining of how future science will revolutionize reproduction.

Directed by Michael Bigelow Dixon, Sweet, Sweet Motherhood runs through July 31 at HERE (145 Sixth Ave.); for more information and tickets, visit www.here.org or call 212-352-3101.

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And now, 5 questions Professor Lee M. Silver has never been asked — and a bonus question:

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1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Are you predisposed genetically to challenge conventional wisdom?” Conventional wisdom drives even scientists themselves to believe that humans and chimps are incapable of reproducing together because they are totally distinct species. The evidence in animals has long shown the lie to this pre-Darwinian “wisdom,” but it is core to the religious beliefs of many Americans who think that God made man in his image. Most scientists who could tell the truth, choose not to upset the apple cart. In bringing the unconventional notion of a chimp-human hybrid to Jeremy [Kareken], who ultimately turned it into a script, I was actively engaged in challenging conventional wisdom. Perhaps it is in my genes, just as bonobo genes produce full frontal sex unlike any other animal, save one.

Michael De Nola and Caroline Cooney in "Sweet, Sweet Motherhood"

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“If cloning becomes the standard method for human reproduction, wouldn’t that mean that people would stop having sex?” Anyone who asks such a question is confused about the difference between sex and reproduction. The difference is central to Shelley’s character in Sweet, Sweet Motherhood. Shelley has sex — lots of it — for fun. On the other hand, she approaches reproduction as a sexless experiment. Only in the second act do sex and reproduction come together, perhaps.

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“What happened to you during your childhood that caused you to hate God?” I got this question from a Christian fundamentalist after a public lecture during which I excitedly described the powerful uses of reprogenetics for overcoming family diseases. But the person got it wrong: I don’t hate God, I just think “he” or “she” or “it” is either totally incompetent or more violent than the chimpanzees described by Stein in one of his lectures.

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4) What does the scientific method have in common with the process of crafting a play? What about discovering the commonality between these two pursuits surprised you most?
Well, the interesting thing about the scientific method is that it’s never a means to scientific breakthroughs. If it was, the breakthrough would have already occurred. Revolutionary science is very much like writing a brilliant playscript. In both cases, ideas, objects or enigmas in the real world trigger sparks of creativity that are somehow engendered without obvious progenitors. Perhaps, just perhaps, that’s the trait that distinguishes us (some of us, anyway) from other animals. Working with Jeremy to come up with scientific and literary connections between the various subplots in Sweet, Sweet Motherhood was truly as exciting for me as the scientific breakthroughs that came earlier in my career.

5) Sweet, Sweet Motherhood touches on ethical issues — much as, perhaps, your book on genetic engineering is viewed as politically controversial. Why, in your view, is the right-wing is so terrified by science — especially genetics? Do you personally regret the right’s fear of rational, reasoned thinking?
They are who they are, by which I mean those people who blindly accept dogmatic revelations handed down over the centuries as the absolute truth. Science is fundamentally opposed to religious absolutism in that it highlights the flaws in beliefs about the workings of the world that supposedly came directly from God. Take your pick — either science is wrong or God is wrong. When my child has a bacterial infection, I trust antibiotics, not prayer, to make him better. When it comes to genetics, there’s only one question: If we don’t play God (to cure heritable disease), who will?

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Bonus question:

6) What can the arts — especially the theater — learn from science? What is the one thing you believe has truly illuminated science for your writing collaborator and your director?
The most important role I played was to be the professor — making sure that Jeremy and Michael understood the actual science that provides the engine for the play. They could then take that deep understanding and elegantly translate it into a spoken language that playgoers can understand without having a degree in molecular biology. Scientific reality is often stranger than fiction, and serious playwrights who don’t have a science collaborator are much less likely to get it all right. My greatest pleasure in working on this project is that the science is all right, and it’s alright.