On Saturday I trundled along to Academy Cinemas in Auckland to watch a documentary on the life and achievements of Allan Wilson, a NZ-born molecular evolutionary biologist.
Allan Wilson was born in Ngaruawahia in 1934 and died of leukaemia in 1991. He spent most of his life in the United States where he formed the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution at Berkeley.
So what was so special about Allan Wilson that a documentary was made about him?
At the time that Wilson was studying, the theory of evolution didn’t really have much objective data to go on regarding the differences between species. People could look at the size and shape of a bone and compare it with other species (across the outside of the tree of life) and they could see back down inside the branches by digging up old bones to see if modern species might share common ancestors. Going by morphology (i.e. how things look) is a fairly inexact science and while it might point you in the right direction it would have been nicer to be able to use numbers to be able to make mathematical and statistical predictions.
We take DNA for granted these days but in Wilson’s time very little was known about these building blocks of life.
Wilson straddled a path between zoology and molecular chemistry which were both tackling the problem of evolution from quite different angles. He caught a bit of flak for his attempts to marry the two but he drew the most fire from creationists – surprise, surprise – when some of his later experiments began to show the true, measurable relationships between humans and other species, namely the great apes.
He was heavily involved in the concept of the molecular clock, which is a way of finding how closely related one species is to another at the genetic level without necessarily being able to read the genes themselves. You may have also heard of the Mitochondrial Eve hypothesis – that’s his too.
Since his death both the human and the chimpanzee genomes have been read and have further bolstered the conclusions he was able to make by merging two seemingly disparate sciences. And also, sadly, since his death advances in diagnosis as well as treatment of leukaemia have been made due to the methods he and his team pioneered.
The film-maker went so far as to say that in the years to come Allan Wilson’s name will become synonymous with some of the other pioneers in the theory of evolution by natural selection. And everyone seems to agree; just about everything that present-day evolutionary biologists are working on stems from the advancements of this one bloke from Ngaruawahia.