Old white man of the day

National Human Genome Research Institute

Today’s old white man is the the only New Zealander to win the prestigious US MacArthur ?Genius? Award. As one of the great innovators of science, New Zealander Allan Wilson rewrote the story of human evolution. Quote.

Allan Wilson was born in Ngaruawahia, New Zealand, and raised on a farm at Helvetia, Pukekohe. He attended King?s College in Auckland and excelled in maths and chemistry. After school he gained a BSc from Otago University. It was here, as a Masters student, that Wilson met Professor C.P. ?Mac? McMeekan, a New Zealand pioneer in soil and water science. He suggested that Wilson further his study in biochemistry instead of genetics.

In 1955, Wilson was invited to do his Ph.D at the University of California, Berkeley. […] He stayed at Berkeley for 35 years, setting up one of the world?s most creative biochemistry labs and turning ideas of evolution on their ear.

Allan Wilson first came to world attention when he published a paper titled ?Immunological Time-Scale For Human Evolution? in Science magazine in December 1967. Together with doctoral student Vince Sarich, Wilson argued that the origins of the human species could be seen through, what he termed, a ?molecular clock?. This was a way of dating, not from fossils, but from the genetic mutations that had accumulated since they parted from a common ancestor. The molecular clock estimated the length of time from divergence, given a certain rate of change.

[…] Yet it was in the lab where his influence was felt the strongest. The Wilson Lab at Berkeley pioneered new techniques, such as the Polymerase Chain Reaction and the Relative Rate Test. These pushed the limits of DNA analysis to include extinct species. DNA samples from extinct species such as Moa and Tasmanian wolves were tested, as was fossil bacteria and tissue from a 7000 year old human brain.

[…]?Despite Wilson?s molecular evidence being as strong as the conventional fossil evidence, he remained on the fringes of the anthropological community for the next twenty years. While this was definitely a case of academic politics and a demonstration of the difficulty of changing accepted norms, Wilson, according to accounts given by his team, appeared to relish his role as an outsider, an edge-dweller. He gathered the brightest students around him to test his theories on a multitude of plant and animal species.

Slowly through the 1970s his ideas gained credibility, and through the course of his career he was a visiting professor at Harvard, St Louis, Kansas, Carmel and MIT, and at universities in Israel and Kenya. He edited scientific magazines and journals including: Biochemical Genetics, Chemical Abstracts, Journal of Molecular Evolution, Journal of Human Evolution, Systematic Zoology and Geonomics.

In the early 1980s, as his findings for the age of the proto-humans were starting to be more widely accepted, Wilson again dropped a bombshell on traditional anthropological thinking.

In studying gene types he started to focus on mitochondria DNA (mDNA) ? genes that sit in the cell, but not in the nucleus, and are passed from mother to child. This DNA is material important because it mutates quickly, thus making it easy to plot changes over relatively short time spans. By comparing differences in the (m)DNA Wilson believed it was possible to estimate the time, and the place, modern human first evolved. With his discovery that human mDNA is genetically much less diverse than chimpanzee mDNA, he concluded that modern human races had diverged recently from a single population while older human races such as Neanderthal, Java Erectus and Pekin Erectus had become extinct.

He and his team compared mDNA in people of different racial backgrounds and concluded that all modern humans evolved from one ?lucky mother? in Africa about 200,000 years ago.

This finding was as, if not more, controversial than his 1967 findings. Accepted thinking had various human groups evolving from different ancestors, over a million years in separate geographic regions, but at basically the same rate around the world. In Europe with Homo Sapien Neanderthals, in Indonesia with Java Man, in China with Peking Man. Again, like in the 1960s, many palaeontologists rejected Wilson?s conclusions; fossil scientists were unfamiliar with biochemistry and trusted their own data more than molecular data. It took 20 years to convince palaeontologists of the value of Wilson?s theory, but when they did, it married their science with that of genetics. It was Wilson?s legacy to turn genetics into a study of inherited traits to a biochemical science. […]

The ?Out of Africa? theory is now the accepted account of modern human origins. {Note: This article is 20 years old and that claim may no longer be true.] Further computer analysis of mDNA data, studies of the male ?Y? chromosome (indicating a single male ancestor living in Africa around 270,000 years ago) and re-analysis of the original data show that European Neanderthal and Java Erectus are not ancestral to modern humans.

Allan Wilson died in 1991 in Seattle, aged 55, at the height of his career. […] End of quote.