investigations into the origins of humanity through biochemistry were
revolutionary, yet at the time of his death in 1991 he was still a
controversial figure. His theories on the evolution and age of modern
humans still flew in the face of anthropological thinking of the time, not
to mention inciting anger from American creationists.
After Wilsons death Charles Laird published some thoughts on his lost colleague and friend. He examined his work and his personality and theorised about how the two combined:
In 1955 Wilson was invited to do his Ph.D at the University of California, Berkeley. His father was reluctant to let his son go to America, for fear that he would never return, but Wilsons mother saw her sons potential and persuaded her husband to let him go. At the time the family thought Allan would only be gone two years; instead he stayed at Berkeley for 35 years, setting up one of the worlds most creative biochemistry labs and turning ideas of evolution on their ear.
When Wilson and Sarich analysed and compared genetic material from
humans with chimpanzees they found the material to be 99 percent
identical. From this, using the molecular clock reasoning (bigger
differences equate to greater time since their last common ancestor) they
deduced that the earliest proto-hominids evolved only five million years
old. This was fifteen million years younger than stated by conventional
An obituary written by Joseph Felsenstein and published in Nature magazine describes how Wilson turned around, not only the study of molecular evolution, but also, the way it was studied:
Berkeley in the 1960s was a hotbed of protest against the Vietnam War
and the American military industrial establishment, and rife with academic
liberalism. By all accounts Wilson was highly active in the tide of action
sweeping the campus.
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.
In a feature on the relationship between molecular and evolutionary biology published in Science magazine, science writer Ann Gibbons recognises Wilsons influence on modern scientific thought and practices through his teaching and his foresight to combine disciplines:
Despite Wilsons 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.
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 Wilsons 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 Wilsons theory, but when they did, it married their science
with that of genetics. It was Wilsons legacy to turn genetics into a
study of inherited traits to a biochemical science.
The media concerning this discovery initially offended the religious
lobby. Time magazine ran the story as the Black Eve Theory; other
magazines followed with headlines proclaiming African Eve and other
Africa' theory is now the accepted account of modern human origins. 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. He left behind a wife, son and daughter and, back in New Zealand,
a mother, brother and sister. He had kept his New Zealand ties (his
brother Gary donated bone marrow as part of Wilsons leukaemia
treatment). He also remained close to Otago University, addressing the
graduates of 1988, returning the next year to teach, being awarded an
honorary doctorate that year and being the recipient of the William Evans
Fellow for science.
Many of his Berkeley students are at the forefront of biochemistry today. In a obituary written by British evolutionary theorist John Maynard Smith and published in The Independent, Smith points out that Wilsons teaching ability should be remembered as well as his theories:
IP HOLDINGS LIMITED 1998-2011.
Sites which have linked to this page:
Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution, Massey University, NZ. The centre was set up as part of the NZ Government's Centres of Research Excellence initiative and continues research into the stuff of our origins under the inspiration of Allan's example.
Aitken | Alda | Alley
| Atack | Batten | Bowen |