Wednesday, April 11, 2001

Research scientist Steve Jones of London is in town for a
UH zoology symposium. His most notable project has
been updating Darwin's famous "Origin of the Species."

Professor updates
Darwin for 2001

Acclaimed author says
the real source of evolution
sprang from Hawaiian Islands

By Helen Altonn

"The thing Hawaii doesn't really realize is, the real Galapagos (Islands) in the world is the Hawaiian chain."

That's the message from Steve Jones, renowned biologist, geneticist and prize-winning author. His most recent book, acclaimed in Britain and the United States, is "Almost Like a Whale" or "Darwin's Ghost: The Origin of Species Updated."

The Galapagos Islands are associated with Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, but he scarcely mentions the Galapagos in his classic, "Origin of the Species," Jones said. "He talks about whales more."

"This (Hawaii) is where modern evolution started, and people don't know it."

Naturalist J.T. Gulick, son of Hawaiian missionaries, did the first modern evolutionary study on Hawaiian land snails, Jones pointed out.

Gulick discovered dramatic differences in snails in valleys only short distances apart and developed a theory about speciation, or new species emerging through evolution.

Jones, professor of genetics at the Galton laboratory, University College London, is a snail biologist who says he has "lowered myself to humans recently."

An amusing, down-to-earth scientist and popular speaker, Jones is in Hawaii for the 26th Annual Albert L. Tester Memorial Symposium, presented by the University of Hawaii Department of Zoology. Tester was UH senior professor of zoology when he died in 1974.

Jones is one of the judges for graduate-student talks on their research today and tomorrow at the Japanese Cultural Center. He will give a public lecture there at 3 p.m. tomorrow on "Rewriting Darwin: Is Homo sapiens just another animal?"

A banquet honoring Jones and students receiving "best-paper awards" will be held tomorrow night at the Queen Emma Summer Palace.

Jones' humorous approach to science was apparent in a wide-ranging interview covering such topics as men and women, clones, genetics, AIDS, Darwin, snails, science education and Viagra, which he said "seems to be a gift from the gods."

He is working on a new, 80,000-word book called "XY" about men who, he says, "turn out to be boring. I'm not sure there are 80,000 words to be said about men."

His book will not explain men, but "the idea that men are defined by testosterone is clearly wrong," he said. So is the idea that identity is defined by sex and that there are two species -- men and women, he said. That was a surprisingly new development in the past century that is now going away, he said.

Jones was recently in Syria and in Jordan's West Bank, "getting Arabs to spit into tubes" for a project studying the male Y chromosome.

Contrary to the image of men who move around, raping and pillaging, the study shows men actually were localized in Europe, compared to females, Jones said.

"The history of men has really been to stay at home."

That makes sense, he added, since men stayed on family farms and brought wives in from elsewhere.

He said he has only a small part in the study and that it has no immediate application, but it may be important to research showing different populations are more subject to certain diseases than others.

It turns out that the root of all Y chromosomes in the New World has been tracked to an almost extinct group of people called the Ket in central Russia, Jones said.

"So all Americans are really Russians," he laughed.

The point, he said, is that "it is foolish to define your nationality by genes."

It isn't easy to define a male, and the Darwin book was more fun, Jones said.

"It's the least original book of the century. I just stole it. Darwin told the story."

Acting as Darwin's ghostwriter, Jones updated the book with modern changes as genetics and AIDS.

"What is astonishing," Jones said, "is how convincing he made his argument with almost no facts. He knew very little. Yet 95 percent of it is rock solid. It's deeply impressive."

Jones cites AIDS as an example of a "great evolutionary experience happening all around us.

"If I should come back in 500 years, my guess is pretty much that AIDS in humans would turn into what AIDS in chimpanzees is, a minor disease like flu, because everyone who survived would have a gene resistant to AIDS.

"Most primates have that gene. They've been through the furnace of natural selection. They have paid the price. ... We're now beginning to pay. The survivors are different from those who don't survive. That's evolution."

Basically, all of biology has become genetics, Jones said.

"Everybody does DNA," which is "mind-crushingly tedious -- far worse than an assembly line in a fruit-packing plant," he described.

Noting he is "the son of a clone" because his mother is an identical twin, Jones said he does not see any particular ethical problems in human cloning.

But ethics aside, to make a clone of anything is tremendously difficult, and all cloned animals, including Dolly the sheep, have major health problems, he said.

Regarding potential benefits of the human genome map, Jones said scientists are realizing almost all diseases involve genetics. Treatment of a genetic disease will not be very much different than it is now, he said.

But what genetics will do is reveal who is at risk for a certain disease, he said, adding that if this is done at a young age, it will change lives.

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