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Alumni Spotlight // Art & Science

BEING HUMAN

Author and scientist Ron Newby `62, MA `65


Why are some people greedy while others show compassion? Why defines us – nature or nurture?

Ron Newby `62, MA `65 (Photo courtesy of Ron Newby)

In his new book The Nature of Humans: Why We Behave As We Do, author and scientist Ron Newby `62, MA `65 answers these questions about the nature of being human. Through personal anecdotes and engaging discussions on how politics, religion, the sciences and the humanities are influenced by human behavior, this former Salk Institute researcher and founder of The Bronowski Art & Science Forum takes readers on a biological and philosophical exploration of who we are as a species.

The Nature of Humans

"Newby is a ‘parrhesiastes’ who views human history and especially American society with a clear, unflinching vision, and is therefore compelled to express his concern and compassion,” said Dr John Chalmers, who serves as a faculty member at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. In his review of Newby’s latest book, Chalmers praised the author’s thought-provoking assessment of the nature of humans. “Despite the seriousness of the topic, however, the book is written in a highly readable and personal style that makes it a pleasure to read."

This is Newby’s second book. In 2014, he published Homo Sapiens: A Liberal’s Perspective, a critique on the climate crisis, the divide between rich and poor, religion and politics.

Newby’s writing draws from a long career in the sciences and a lifelong love of the arts. At UC Santa Barbara, he graduated with an undergraduate degree in botany and a master’s degree in analytical biology before joining the Salk Institute in 1965.

For 27 years, Newby researched gene regulation at the iconic Institute building designed by Louis Kahn in La Jolla, California. At the Institute’s lunchroom, the young scientist met some of the biggest names in research, like Dr. Jonas Salk, Dr. Francis Crick and British mathematician and arts advocate Dr. Jacob “Bruno” Bronowski.

His conversations with Bronowski inspired Newby to later establish The Bronowski Art & Science Forum. “I realized that there is a need for such collaboration in today’s complex world where solutions to important questions require cross disciplinary exploration,” wrote Newby in his definition of the mission of the Forum. For 14 years, Newby helped curate over 100 presentations from artists, scientists, musicians, architects, actors and scholars.

In this Alumni Q&A, Newby talks about his days as a student at UCSB, his experience at the Salk Institute and what inspires him as a writer.

Congratulations on the publication of your new book The Nature of Humans. What was the process like for you, as you worked on this project?

I’m retired, so now I have the time! I’ve been writing the last four years. I was writing almost everyday – working on the books for the last four years, six seven hours most every day of the week. It’s addicting.

It’s challenging and frustrating and satisfying. It’s infectious, writing a book. It’s better than cocaine.

The most difficult part of being an author is promotion. That is something that I don’t relish doing – if this book does very well, I have some ideas I can follow up on. (If it fails to reach a large audience, I’ll keep writing.) Right now I’m trying to get the word out.

I write because of my curious nature.

For this book, I’ve often wondered why people behave as they do – the creative nature of humans and how bizarre, crazy, aggressive we all are. Why are people greedy? Why are we compassionate? I love looking into these questions. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I know that there are genetic factors involved in all this. The brain has neurotransmitters that signal different parts of the brain. It’s not all the same in humans – these different levels of serotonin and dopamine. That’s one explanation I have. Nurturing of course plays a significant role in one’s behavior but less acknowledged is that all human behaviors originate as functions of brain activity and not all human brains are identical. Individual variability in the brain’s signaling pathways can account for the variety of human behaviors. Regulation of the levels of serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and an assortment of other neurotransmitters can vary between humans leading to the variety of behaviors.

I’m also exploring ideas about my biggest concern: global warming and climate change. There are those who accept and those who deny it – almost across the board, you can divide these camps into conservatives and liberals. (Full disclosure: I fall on the liberal side.) I compare liberal and conservative points of view, as well as issues sustainability of all life forms, and how this all goes into the political sphere.

Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like?

I’m a native Californian. I spent my early years in Pasadena, in Monterrey. My father died when I was 10, and my mother moved us back to Pasadena where she grew up. So I didn’t grow up with a father. My mother was busy trying to work and provide for us.

I was a Boy’s Scout and did camping trips all the time. We would hike through the Sierra Madres near Pasadena. I developed a love of science with my science teachers and meeting people in nature. I met a forester up in the mountains. All those types of professions intrigued me, and I was fascinated by what they showed me, on what they were doing. It’s those influences that stayed with me. (I think if I had been around building, I would have become an architect.)

What was it like e at UCSB when you were a student?

What I loved best about UCSB were the fellow students in the science department, in biology. The professors were also wonderful. It was a very congenial, family-like atmosphere.

To some people, UCSB was thought to be a party school. However within the biology department we all were serious students. That is not to say we didn’t have parties but these parties would often include our professors. Conversations at these parties would often be concerned with science, art, politics or philosophy. Sports and the latest music were of little interest. It was a joy to be around serious and intelligent people. To the sorority/ fraternity group we were known as the geeky artsy/crafty group. I never went to commencement. Commencement cost money – you had to rent a cap and gown. Money was very scarce for me at that time. There was nothing that I felt that I missed out on by not going to the ceremony.

I never went to commencement. Commencement cost money – you had to rent a cap and gown. Money was very scarce for me at that time. There was nothing that I felt that I missed out on by not going to the ceremony.

You worked at the Salk Institute. What was that experience like for you?

It was the most marvelous place! At the time, it had just opened up the new facility. They only had about 500 people. It’s now three times the size it was back then.

There were such great people at the Institute. I had conversations with five or six Nobel Laureates around lunch tables. They knew me, I knew them. I was never on their level – I was just a researcher - but I enjoyed their company.

It was very congenial – there was a lot of cross-conversations between personnel. I knew Jonas Salk very well. He was very open and friendly and very smart. He was very warm and interested in the same sort of things – the connection of the sciences and daily life. Dr. Jacob Bronowski was the associate director of the Institute. He thought the Institute should have a greater connection between art and science. He came to the Institute because he was a humanist. He wrote the book Ascent of Man, that turned into a 12-part BBC series. I greatly admired him. I also got to know Francis Crick very well. He was a research professor there. It was very exciting to be among all these brilliant scientists.

What advice would you like to share, especially to young people attending UCSB today?

I ask young people what they will be doing in five years and make them think about that. Like a person at the Starbucks counter, it’s a job that they are there for, for a short time. Most young people these days have to think about their future. Most young people are as goal-oriented as they should be to survive in this economy. The type of people that go to university, some people go to learn a trade and some are more interested in the humanities and look at the broad spectrum.

I don’t know that “Gaucho-ness” is unique – you find that spirit at all great universities. You find great intellects everywhere. What I really appreciate about UCSB was that it was a liberal arts college. I had taken all these courses – and you just did it, you explored all these different ideas and disciplines in college. I am so glad I did that. I took a course in Renaissance history from a famous theologian - he came for just a summer to teach. It was a most difficult class I ever had – and I took a couple of 101 classes and worked very hard in those classes!

I’m very closely associated with UCSB. I met a lot of great people there. I think that I was there luckily before Ronald Reagan and the onset of the high tuition burden on our students. I worked part-time when I was a student at UCSB, and I have zero debt. I knew few people took out loans during that time. I was able to work summers and got jobs in the biology department as a lab helper where I washed petri dishes. I understand the burden though. I am a parent to a college graduate who has $120,000 in debt.

So I say: be a multi-disciplinarian. Learn everything you can, especially what’s outside your chosen field. Learn about history, philosophy and the arts – even just a little bit of extra learning goes a long way. It’ll all come together later on.

And be practical. It’s good to dream – but too many kids these days are dreamers and not doers. Dreaming is daydreaming where nothing happens. The other way is dreaming and planning goals. Have a well-defined path. And seek out mentors – talk with anyone who can be a mentor to you or can offer you insight as to what your field of interest entails.

Just like little kids who want to be cowboys or professional basketball players - only very few succeed at actually becoming cowboys or professional basketball players. Have dreams, but make realistic plans.

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