Benson Earl Ginsburg (1918–2016)

A pioneer in the genetic and comparative studies of aggression

By Stephen Maxon, University of Connecticut 

Benson Earl Ginsburg (1918–2016)

Benson Earl Ginsburg (1918–2016)

Benson Ginsburg was born on July 16, 1918, in Detroit Michigan. His mother Sonia and father Morris were recent immigrants from Russia. Benson married Pearl on August 29, 1941. She was his companion and friend for 57 years. He is survived by his three daughters (Judy, Debbie, and Faye), three grandsons, three granddaughters, and three great grandchildren

In 1939, he graduated cum laude from Wayne (State) University, and in 1941, he received a master’s degree from Wayne (State) University. His master’s thesis was titled, “Stock Fertility and Gene Drift in Drosophila melanogaster.” This work led to a summer course in the Zoology Department of the University of Chicago. Benson stayed on to become a graduate student of the population geneticist and zoologist Sewall Wright. His doctoral research was on the biochemistry of coat color genes. The title of his Ph.D. thesis was, “The Effects of the Major Gene Controlling Coat Color in the Guinea Pig on DOPA Oxidase Activity in Skin Extracts.” He received his doctorate in 1943. His interest in gene-gene interactions and their role in development and evolution began with his research in Wright's laboratory. 

While a doctoral student, he also became interested in the genetics of behavior. Wright had several lines of guinea pigs that differed in coat color. Individuals from one of these lines would attack any hand put into the cage. Benson asked Wright if he could breed this behavior out of this line. Wright agreed. During this period, Benson also worked with W.C. Allee, another member of the Zoology faculty. Allee was interested in the evolution of social behavior both cooperative and competitive, and one focus of his research was the genetics of aggression. He invited Benson to study strain differences in aggression of male mice. 

Benson found that males of C57BL10 inbred strain were more aggressive than those of the C3H strain and that the males of the C3H strain were more aggressive than those of the Bagg albino strain (now BALB/c). This was considered evidence of a genetic effect on intermale aggression. About the same time, Paul Scott found that the males of the C3H strain were more aggressive than Bagg albinos and that Bagg albinos were more aggressive than C57BL10s. Prior to publication (Ginsburg & Allee, 1942; Scott, 1942), each replicated his own finding in Allele's laboratory. Some years later, it was shown that the difference in strain rank order was due to a subtle difference in handling of the mice. Benson transferred his mice from cage to cage in a small box or by letting them walk from cage to cage, whereas Scott used forceps to pick the mice up by the tail for transferring from cage to cage. This was the beginning of Benson's interest in genotype by environment interactions.

During World War II, he served in the U.S. Chemical corp. In 1946, Benson returned to the University of Chicago where he resumed his research on genetics of behavior and also turned his attention to undergraduate teaching. He helped to develop an undergraduate program in the natural sciences which he later chaired. Among his many honors, he twice received the Quantrell Award for excellence in undergraduate teaching from The University of Chicago. He also served as Professor of Biopsychology and Biology in the graduate school of the University of Chicago. In 1963, he was appointed William Rainey Harper Professor of Biology, a post he held until 1968 when he left the University of Chicago to organize and chair the graduate Department of Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of Connecticut.

He and his family summered in Bar Harbor, Maine, beginning in 1946. As a summer investigator in the Division of Behavioral Studies of The Jackson Laboratory, he studied audiogenic seizures, aggression, and effects of early experience in mice and rabbits. He also took part in behavioral studies with dogs. Among his colleagues at the lab were Paul Scott, John Fuller, Calvin Hall, Betty Beemen, Victor Denenberg, and Seymour Levine.

On the basis of his research and studies to date as well as the current state of genetics, Benson authored the article, “Genetics as a Tool in the Study of Behavior” (1958). This was just five years after the publication of Watson and Crick's model of the structure of DNA and its implications for gene replication, mutation, and function. In this paper, Benson cogently argued that in the context of evolution, genetics is a way of defining natural units of behavior, of getting at their underlying mechanisms of behavior, and of studying the effects of non-genetic variables on behavior. These were guiding principles for research in his laboratory. Another is summarized in this quote from that paper: "All aspects of the organism may be thought of as 100 percent genetic but not 100 percent determined.”

In 1968, Benson authored another seminal paper. This was entitled “Breeding Structure and Social Behavior in Mammals: A Servo Mechanism for Avoidance of Panmixia.” In it, he proposed that evolution by group selection could be much faster than by individual selection. Group selection would also preserve co-adapted interacting systems of genes. He argued that a role of mammalian social behavior was to divide the gene pool into selectable groups. The ideas in this paper informed most of his subsequent canid research. At the University of Connecticut, there was a kennel for coyotes, wolves, and coyote x beagle crosses as well as a compound for a pack of wolves. This included a study of genetics of species difference in threat gestures and sounds. He also dedicated many years to the development and supervision of a breeding program for Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California

In 1969, Benson left the University of Chicago and along with colleagues founded the Department of Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of Connecticut. This was an inter-disciplinary department bringing together those with expertise in biology, psychology, and anthropology. Its focus was graduate training and interdisciplinary research. He was its department head from 1969 to 1985. Over 100 doctoral students and many master’s students were trained in the Department of Biobehavioral Sciences. 

About 1990, Benson worked with psychologist Ross Buck on the communication gene hypothesis. This hypothesis guided much of their research on human behavioral genetics. After Benson retired in 1997, he was a very active professor emeritus—teaching courses, doing research, supervising graduate students, serving on university committees, and more. As a Senior Research Professor of Psychology, he had appointments in both the graduate school and the medical school. He participated actively in the 2006 meeting of the Behavior Genetics Association and the 2010 World Meeting of the International Society for Research on Aggression at the University of Connecticut.

Among Benson's many achievements is his major role in the founding of the Behavior Genetics Association in 1971. In 1980, he received its Dobzhansky Memorial Award for lifetime contributions in behavior genetics. In 2001, he received a similar award from the International Behavioral and Genetics Society. He was also in 1981 a member of the Seville Working Group and drafted its statement on Biology and Violence. He also received the Centennial Alumni Award from Wayne (State) University, and he was a recipient of the Distinguished Service Award from the University of Chicago’s Medical Alumni Association. He was a fellow of AAAS, American Psychological Society, Animal Behavior Society, International Society for Research on Aggression, and Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (in 1956 and in 1965). He was member of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2002, his colleagues and students honored him with a two-day festschrift at the University of Connecticut.

He affectionately gave his time, his support, his knowledge, and his wisdom to his many students and colleagues, who reciprocated in many ways.  

Ginsburg, B.E. (1958). Genetics as a tool in the study of behavior. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. 1, 397-424

Ginsburg, B.E. (1968). Breeding structure and social behavior in mammals: a servo mechanism for avoidance of panmixia. In: Glass, D. C. (Ed.) Biology and Behavior: Genetics (pp. 117-128) New York. Rockefeller University Press.

Ginsburg, B.E. & Allee, W.C. (1942). Some effects of conditioning and social dominance and subordination in inbred strains of mice. Physiological Zoology. 15, 485-506.

Scott, J.P. (1942). Genetic differences in the social behavior in inbred strains of mice. Journal of Heredity. 33, 11-15.