Allan Wilson (1934-1991)
was a pioneer in the use of molecular approaches to understand
evolutionary change and reconstruct phylogenies. He was one
of the most controversial figures in post-war biology, whose
work attracted a great deal of attention both from within,
and outside, the academic world. Wilson first gained prominence
in 1967 when he and Vincent Sarich used immunological techniques
to argue that humans and apes diverged from a common ancestor
only around five million years ago. Most contemporary anthropologists,
who favored a date of around 25 million years, dismissed his
work as absurd. The controversy that ensued widened the fissure
that was already developing between molecular and organismal
biologists. His next major achievement came in the mid-1970s,
when he and Mary-Claire King determined, using electrophoresis,
that humans and chimpanzees were only 1 percent distinct at
the level of proteins. Wilson remains best known, however,
for his work in the mid- and late-1980s with Rebecca Cann
and Mark Stoneking on the so-called "Mitchocondrial Eve"
hypothesis. Based on their studies of restriction site variation
in human mitchocondria, they argued that all living humans
descended from a common ancestor that lived in Africa some
200,000 years ago.
Wilson's success can at least partially be attributed to
his willingness to adopt new molecular techniques at the earliest
stages of their development. For instance, he was one of the
first scientists to apply DNA sequencing and PCR to the study
of evolution. Throughout the course of his career, Wilson
trained more than 200 graduate students and post-docs in molecular
evolutionary biology. Indeed, his laboratory was a virtual
obligatory passage point for anyone wishing to do empirical
work in the field of molecular evolution in the 1970s and
One unifying aspect of all of Wilson's work was the importance
he placed on the molecular clock. He came to be seen as one
of the most prominent defenders of the notion that at least
some evolutionary change at the molecular level is due to
mutations that occur at a steady rate, unaffected by selective
pressures. By comparing DNA and proteins from various species,
he argued, one could approximate the amount of time that has
past since they diverged.
Born in 1934 in New Zealand, Wilson received his Ph.D. from
UC-Berkeley in 1961 under the direction of Arthur Pardee.
After doing post-doctoral work, he returned to Berkeley as
a professor, where he remained until his untimely death in
July 1991 while undergoing treatment for leukemia. He was
a Fellow of the Royal Society, and a recipient of a MacArthur
This page was written by Jay Aronson on September 22, 2001
- A.C.Wilson and N.O.Kaplan (1963) Enzymes and nucleic acids
in systematics. Proceedings of the XVI International
Congress of Zoology Vol.4, pp.125-127.
- A.C.Wilson and N.O.Kaplan (1964) Enzyme structure and
its relation to taxonomy. In: C.A.Leone (editor) Taxonomic
Biochemistry and Serology Ronald Press, New York.
- A.C.Wilson and V.M.Sarich (1969) A molecular time scale
for human evolution. PNAS Vol.63 (No.4), pp.1088-1093
- A.C.Wilson, L.R.Maxson and V.M.Sarich (1974) Two types
of molecular evolution: Evidence from studies of interspecific
hybridization. PNAS Vol.71, pp.2843-2847
- V.M.Sarich and A.C.Wilson (1967) Immunological time scale
for hominid evolution. Science Vol.158, pp.1200-1203.
- V.M.Sarich and A.C.Wilson (1967) Rates of albumin evolution
in primates. PNAS Vol.58 (No.1), pp.142-148.
- D.G.Wallace, L.R.Maxson and A.C.Wilson (1971) Albumin
evolution in frogs: A test of the evolutionary clock hypothesis.
PNAS Vol.68, pp.3127-3129.
- V.M.Sarich and A.C.Wilson (1973) Generation time and genomic
evolution in primates. Science Vol 179, pp.1144-1147.
- A.C.Wilson, V.M.Sarich and L.R.Maxson (1974) The importance
of gene rearrangement in evolution: evidence from studies
on rates of chromosomal, protein, and anatomical evolution.
PNAS Vol.71, pp.3028-3030
- M.C.King and A.C.Wilson (1975) Evolution at two levels
in humans and chimpanzees. Science Vol.188, pp.107-116
(see also commentary Science Vol.189, pp.446-447).
- M.C.King and A.C.Wilson (1975) Our close cousin, the chimpanzee.
New Scientist Vol.67, pp.16-18
- A.C.Wilson (1975) Evolutionary importance of gene regulation.
Stadler Genetics Symposium Vol.7, pp.117-134.
- C.Y.K.Ho, E.M.Prager, A.C.Wilson, D.T.Osuga and R.E.Feeney
(1976) Penguin evolution: Protein comparisons demonstrate
phylogenetic relationship to flying aquatic birds. Journal
of Molecular Evolution Vol.8, pp.271-282.
- A.C.Wilson, S.S.Carlson and T.J.White (1977) Biochemical
evolution. Annual Review of Biochemistry Vol.46,
- L.M.Cherry, S.M.Case and A.C.Wilson (1978) Frog perspective
on the morphological difference between humans and chimpanzees.
Science Vol.200, pp.209-211.
- L.M.Cherry, S.M.Case and A.C.Wilson (1979) Comparison
of frogs, humans and chimpanzees. Science Vol.204,
- S.D.Ferris, A.C.Wilson and W.M.Brown (1981) Evolutionary
tree for apes and humans based on cleavage maps of mitochondrial
DNA.PNAS Vol.78, pp.2432-2436.
- R.L.Cann and A.C.Wilson (1982) Models of human evolution.
Science Vol.217, pp.303-304.
- W.M.Brown, E.M. Prager, A.Wang and A.C.Wilson (1982) Mitochondrial
DNA sequences of primates: Tempo and mode of evolution.
Journal of Molecular Evolution Vol.18, pp.225-239.
- R.L.Cann and A.C.Wilson (1983) Length mutations in human
mitochondrial DNA. Genetics Vol.104, pp.699-711.
- R.L.Cann, W.M.Brown and A.C.Wilson (1984) Polymorphic
sites and the mechanism of evolution in human mitochondrial
DNA. Genetics Vol.106, pp.479-499.
- A.Larson, E.M.Prager and A.C.Wilson (1984) Chromosomal
evolution, speciation and morphological change in vertebrates:
The role of social behaviour. In M.D. Bennett and A.Gropp
(editors) Chromosomes Today (Vol.8) Allen and Unwin,
- R.G.Higuchi, B.Bowman B, M.Freiberger, O.A.Ryder and A.C.Wilson
(1984) DNA sequences from the quagga, an extinct member
of the horse family. Nature Vol.312, pp.282-284.
- S.M.Beverley and A.C.Wilson (1984) Molecular evolution
in Drosophila and the higher diptera II: A time scale for
fly evolution. Journal of Molecular Evolution Vol.21,
- A.C.Wilson (1985) The molecular basis of evolution. Scientific
American Vol.253 (No.4, October), pp.164-173.
- R.L.Cann, M.Stoneking and A.C.Wilson (1987) Mitochondrial
DNA and human evolution. Nature Vol.325, pp. 31-36.
- R.G.Higuchi, L.A.Wrischnik, E.Oakes, M.George, B.Tong
and A.C.Wilson (1987) Mitochondrial DNA of the extinct quagga:
relatedness and extent of postmortem change. Journal
of Molecular Evolution Vol.25 (No.4), pp.283-287.
- S.Paabo, J.A.Gifford and A.C.Wilson (1988) Mitochondrial
DNA sequences from a 7,000-year-old brain. Nucleic Acids
Research. Vol.16, pp.9775-9787.
- S.Pääbo, R.G.Higuchi and A.C.Wilson (1989) Ancient
DNA and the polymerase chain reaction: The emerging field
of molecular archaeology (Minireview). Journal of Biological
Chemistry. Vol.264, pp.9709-9712
- A.C.Wilson (1990) Will sequencing the human genome revolutionize
biology? New Biology, Vol.2 (No.7), pp.585-586.
- D.M.Irwin, T.D.Kocher and A.C.Wilson (1991) Evolution
of the cytochrome b gene of mammals. Journal of Molecular
Evolution Vol.32 (No.2), pp.128-144
- L.L.Cavalli-Sforza, A.C.Wilson, C.R.Cantor, R.M.Cook-Deegan
and M.C.King (1991) Call for a worldwide survey of human
genetic diversity: a vanishing opportunity for the Human
Genome Project. Genomics Vol.11 (No.2) pp.490-491.
- S.Pääbo and A.C.Wilson (1991) Miocene DNA sequences
- A dream come true? Current Biology Vol.1, pp.45-46.
- A.C.Wilson and R.L.Cann (1992) The recent African genesis
of humans. Scientific American Vol.266 (No 4, April):
- P. Goloubinoff, S.Pääbo and A.C.Wilson (1993)
The evolution of maize according to nuclear DNA sequences
from archaeological specimens. PNAS Vol.90, pp.1997-2001