SciMy Interview: Professor Mark Stoneking (Part II)

Interviewed by Dr. New Jaa Yien

This is the second part of the interview with Prof. Mark Stoneking. Part I of the interview is here

Prof. Mark Stoneking giving a talk at the Monash University Malaysia

Q1. Sir David Attenborough said that he believed humans had stopped evolving1. What is your opinion about that and are there any solid evidence supporting or against that?

There are some truths to that. If there are changes that wouldn’t require biological response, humans will respond culturally instead. For example, the exposure to UV radiation, humans most likely won’t evolve to have thicker skin or hair but will develop protective cream or move cities underground. This creates a cultural buffer between humans and the environment. Yet at the same time, there is another view that I think that humans are constantly and continuing to evolve. These are due to cultural practices that influence our biological evolution and there are some examples to that. One of the strongest signals in the recent selection of the human genome is the practice of milk consumption which is a source of nutrients, with lactose being one of the major sugars. To digest the lactose, lactase enzyme is needed to digest it and it is only made in the principle for nursing. When you stop nursing, theoretically the lactase enzyme is no longer needed. However, some of us continue to make lactase into adulthood and it turns out to be highly correlated with population that historically consume milk as a source of nutrients. This is a classic example of cultural trait that has influence on biological evolution. Another example would be the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) epidemic. There is evidence that there is a genetic variant in the European populations that provides resistance to HIV, where the cell surface receptor that the HIV needed to enter the white blood cells is mutated, providing resistance to HIV. This is an example of biological evolution with humans evolving, responding to changes in the environment.

Q2. Despite the overwhelming evidence of human evolution, a huge proportion of the general public still believes in intelligent design. What do you think can be done to educate the public on human evolution?

To me it is a matter of personal choice that people have to decide for themselves what view of the world makes the most sense to them, what they are most comfortable with. I think what we can do is to provide the scientific evidence. Science is one way of looking at the world but it is not the only way. Whether it is the correct way or not, there is no way of proving it. We start with the assumption that there is a scientific rational explanation for everything and that everything follows from there. So the best thing that we could do is to present the evidence and the shortcomings of the evidence as well. We certainly can’t explain everything at the moment and there are a lot of things that we couldn’t understand. That’s why research is needed to try to fill in those gaps. What we are trying to do is to educate people about what science actually means and hopefully they will realise that intelligent design is not a scientific view even though it tries to masquerade itself as a pseudoscience. Basically to reach a scientific hypothesis statement, is has to be falsifiable with some observations that you can make. However, intelligent design doesn’t start with that, as there is no observation that you can make. It may be right but it is not science.

Q3. Has the funding situation for anthropology and evolutionary research in Germany continued to be encouraging?

Yes it is encouraging and that was one of the reasons that led me to move from the US to Germany. The Max Planck society is fully funded by the German Government and we received very generous support. They have a strong vision and oversee our institute by identifying the people who can do good research and give them the resources. Our research budget remains the same and it goes up every year. We could therefore concentrate on doing research rather than spending time trying to apply for grants. So it’s a very different philosophy from the United States when I left 15 years ago as I was spending most of my time looking for funding and it only got much worse. It is therefore a really productive environment to do research in Germany. From a scientist point of view, it is like you’ve gone to heaven. We have excellent resources and excellent colleagues. For anthropology, it is more probably the best place in the world to do this sort of work.

Q4. How could the industry or private sectors be interested to fund anthropology/evolutionary research?

Human are naturally interested in their origins, they want to know how much the personal genomics, how much the personal ancestry field has grown. Humans are naturally curious about our own origins, what sets us apart from others. What we are trying to do is to address these fundamental questions about what makes humans human, and what was different about us among other organisms, or are we the ones that have evolved consciousness and cultures. These are the things that industry and business people are also curious about and interested in so we look for their support.

We start with the assumption that there is a scientific rational explanation for everything and that everything follows from there.

Q5. Do you have any collaboration with researchers in Malaysia? If yes, would you like to elaborate on what you are working on with them?

Yes, I have an on-going collaboration with Professor Maude Phipps right here at Monash University Malaysia. She had a PhD student, Farhang Aghakhanian who came to my laboratory towards the end of 2014. He brought some data on the Orang Asli (OA) group from Malaysia and we provided some directions and suggestions as to how to pursue with the analysis.

So basically Farhang is looking at the genetic history of three different OA populations in Malaysia. These indigenous groups comprises of the Negritos, the Senoi and the Proto-Malays. They are analysing the patterns and genetic variation of these populations, trying to understand their genetic history, how they are related to one another and how they came to Malaysia. So that is the focus of the research.

Q6. What would be your advice for youngsters interested in Anthropology?

My advice would be for whatever area that you are interested in, not just for anthropology, is to go beyond the classroom and get your hands dirty. Do whatever it takes to do some research so you can actually see what’s involved. Many professors may not have the money to pay you but you can start by volunteering. That may turn into some paid position later on. Even if it doesn’t, your purpose is just to get some exposure to research. This is important for two reasons. First of all, it is important to be involved in research at an early stage, to see whether it is something that you want to do. A lot of times, people don’t realise that research takes a lot of hard work and it can be boring as you are just doing the same thing over and over again. It’s only until the very end that you see something interesting. Second of all, if research is what you want to do, you will be in a better position if you start earlier. It will be a very valuable experience to help you to get into graduate school/university later on.

Prof Mark Stoneking

This interview was conducted by Dr. New Jaa Yien, a lecturer at the School of Science, Monash University Malaysia after a talk given by Prof. Mark Stoneking at Monash University Malaysia.

Part 1 of this interview is here


Background Reading

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