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Professor Steve Jones


Steve Jones is a geneticist, world-renowned snail biologist and prize-winning author on the subject of evolution.  He is the Professor of Genetics at the Galton Laboratory of University College London.  His popular science books are some of the most highly regarded in his field and include ‘Almost Like a Whale: The Origin of Species Updated’ and ‘Y: The Descent of Man’.  His latest book, ‘The Serpent’s Promise: The Bible Retold as Science’, is released in 2013.

If genetics is the language of biology, evolution is its grammar.

On becoming interested in science

My first memories of becoming interested in science, oddly enough, map on to what I spend a lot of my life doing, which is making maps of the geography of genes across Europe, across the world, in snails, in humans, in all things, because when i was a kid, for reasons I don’t really understand, I had a great interest in maps.  I had, Sheet 107 it was, of the Ordnance Survey map, a one inch map as it was, which was the map of Aberystwyth, which is where I spent my childhood.  Then when I was about nine or ten we moved away, to my great fury, to Liverpool’s left bank, the river peninsula, an utterly deadly part of the world, um, and I had greatly missed Aberystwyth and I spent a lot of time just looking at this map, tracing the courses of the rivers, then I looked at geological maps and then I began to read about the geology and the biology of this area and I found myself being drawn into that more and more.  Now I’ve drawn maps, published maps, of the distribution of genes in snails and humans which I can probably trace back to that initial fascination.

On snails

So, my area of science is genetics and my particular area is what’s called population genetics, why different populations of snails, people or fruit flies, why are they different from each other.  Now [the snail], well, it’s got a wonderful personality of course and it doesn’t move very fast.  It tends to live in national parks and beautiful places but the great advantage was that when I started working on it, which I hate to admit was almost 50 years ago, it was one of the very few creatures you could actually do population genetics on because the snails have got various attributes on their shells in terms of colours and stripes and markings of different kinds which are inherited.  So you could go out, and by picking them up you could count genes in different places and there was almost no animals you could do that with then but now of course, with DNA, you could that with anything you like, ourselves included.  We have finally risen to the level of the snail.

Snails are an important foodstuff.  We don’t eat them much in Britain, but if you go to caves in southern Europe you’ll see that early modern humans, or early humans, ate them in enormous numbers.  There’s millions of empty snail shells in there and that’s obvious why you would do that.  Why run after a woolly mammoth when you can pick up the same weight in snails with no trouble at all?  And plenty of creatures eat snails and then you can make jokes about them.  Birds do them, they smash the shells open and the animal comes from a broken home, we say in our witty way, or we say, that one’s got shell shock.  That’s the other snail joke.  

But there’s a remarkable piece of work I learned about the other week which is, it turns out, if you look at the brains of various creatures they’re actually, as we say, quite lateralised, and we knew that already.  The speech area in humans is on the left side, let’s say.  But it turns out it’s much more than that.  For example, in a certain snake, the hunting area is always on the right, so it always hunts through its right eye, looks through its right eye, OK?  And what it does, I think it comes from Malaysia this snake, it comes slithering up to a snail, looking through its right eye, pounces, grabs the snail’s body, and eats it.  And that’s because the snail actually itself coils to the right.  And what’s happened in the recent evolutionary past is there’s been a mutation, an error, a mistake, in the snail population that made some of them coil to the left.  Now the snake comes up, looking out of its eye, pounces, and of course breaks its teeth on the shell and what that means is of course that new change is advantageous and so you’ve got evolution actually happening in front of your very eyes.

On the mapping of the human genome

Most people have heard of the Human Genome Project and it was started with a great deal of hubris with the expectation that once you’ve disentangled the code that makes us human you’d understand what it takes to make us humans, as species and as individuals, individual members of that species.  Well, I have to say ,it’s all been rather a disappointment.  It’s now possible to sequence the entire three thousand million letters of DNA in a day or so rather than the fifteen years it took initially for around a thousand US dollars rather than the billion US dollars that the initial bill was, and in a couple of years you’ll be able to do it without question in an hour or so.  So what’s that told us?

The short answer is, it’s reminded us how unimportant genes actually are for most people.  Now that isn’t true for everybody, of course.  People with genetic conditions such as cystic fibrosis or sickle-cell disease, it’s very important to them but they’re actually, generally speaking, a very small part of the population.  For most of us the genes really are pretty irrelevant.

On writing about evolution

Darwin wrote nineteen books altogether, so I have a certain, I’ve got a long way to go, but I’m a serial plagiarist.  I’ve serially plagiarised four of Darwin’s books.  The obvious one, which is On the Origin of Species, that was my Almost Like a Whale a book, um, what I did was, I didn’t really read the ‘the Origin’ until I was in my 30s when I’d been doing evolutionary biology for a long time and most students have not read ‘the Origin’, most biology students have not read ‘the Origin’, if the truth be told.  So I read it and I thought, you know, this is really rather a good book and about 15 years later I thought ‘I tell you what, here’s a good idea.  I’ll go to ‘the Origin’ and I’ll reconstruct it, I’ll do a postmodernist treatment of ‘the Origin’.’  In other words, I’ll strip it down to its long argument, which is what Darwin called it, to its steel frame, it was covered, you know, it was covered in rather unpleasant 1960s plastic before, I’ll tear the 1960s plastic off and I’ll replace it with some sparkling new glass and it’ll look like a brand new building.  And I have to say I was astonished, genuinely astonished, by how easy it was to rewrite ‘the Origin’ as if it were being rewritten in 2002 or 3 which is when I did the job.

Darwin called the book one long argument and he starts with the very familiar, which is plants and animals on the farm and how they’ve changed, and he ends with the almost unthinkable, that actually humans may have emerged in the same way, and I do exactly the same.  I start with the animals on the farm, the fossil record, the geology, geographical distribution and the facts of the 21st and the 20th century slot in perfectly to that logic.  And I often think, well, my first book actually was called ‘The Language of the Genes‘ and it made the rather hackneyed claim that genetics is like a language, it gives us the words that tell us what we are in some narrow sense.  But if genetics is the language of biology, evolution is its grammar.  You can’t speak a language unless you understand the grammar, unless you understand the way it all fits together.  And that’s what Darwin did with ‘the Origin’.  He took data from the most disparate parts of the world, from geology, from animal behaviour, from plant science, you name it, he just took it and put it all together in a complete seamless whole and that’s why that’s the most important book ever written in science.

On not arguing with creationists

I have a good general rule which is I don’t bother arguing with creationists.  It’s like boxing with a blancmange.  You can give it your hardest punch and it’ll wobble and it’ll keep wobbling and then it’ll slowly come back to shape and it’s still a blancmange.  So the trouble with these people is they know they’re right.  And to know that you are right is the death of science.  What you need is to be uncertain about whether you are right or not, that’s what science is all about, so I don’t really bother arguing with them.

One of the standard and stupid arguments is: ‘Evolution, you can never see it happening’.  Well, of course you can see it happening, you can see it all around you.  You can see it happening in the insect world with evolution of the resistance to insecticides.  In the bacterial world with the disastrous evolution of the resistance, in just 50 or 60 years, to almost all known antibiotics, OK?  But you can also see it in the world of humans in many different ways.  You can see it over the medium term, um, places where about seven or eight thousand years ago cultures began to herd cattle and drink milk, ah, very soon evolved genes which allows us to digest milk when we’re adults.  And that’s really strange.  How should you digest milk when you’re an adult?  Naturally you only get it when you’re an adult.  The only people who can do that come from northern Europe, they come from certain west African tribes who have cattle.  These are cattle herding people and the gene that allows you to digest milk gets common over ten thousand years.  But you can do it much quicker than that.

If you look at the evolution of the resistance to disease it’s worth noting that nearly all, arguably all, important infectious diseases got into us with the appearance of farming.  And farming led to smallpox, to plague, to all kinds of issues of this kind and what we find, is places with a history of, shall we say, cholera, tend to have particular genetic variance which are not present in places without a history of cholera.  But even in the very short term, the evolution of HIV and the AIDS virus.  Now we know with absolute certainty that that virus only got into the general population, probably in the 1980s and in the human population in general, in west Africa, something like 1900 or so, that’s clearly the case.  That evidence is overwhelmingly true.  And in that very, very short time we’ve actually evolved, in places where AIDS is common, we’ve actually evolved effective resistances to the virus so that in time HIV, which is not particularly dangerous to chimpanzees, which is where it began and got into humans, because they had a long time evolving resistance, in time, if enough people die of course, um, in time it will become equally relatively harmless for us.  And that’s evolution in action and if you can deny that, you must believe the world is flat.

On the knowledge of Darwin

It’s sometimes said that Milton was the last man to know everything.  In other words, he knew a lot about the science of his day, he could speak many languages, he was a theologian, he was a real polymath.  Darwin is the Milton of biology.  It would be impossible to do that now.  Nobody could be an expert in plant systematics, an expert in molecular genetics, an expert in brain science, all these things, an expert in barnacles; Darwin’s first book was on barnacles, amazingly, he studied them for eight years.  What Darwin did was to turn himself into somebody who knew biology and nobody knows biology any more, but he did.  And then he had his one great idea, evolution by natural selection, into which he managed to slot information from totally disparate parts of biology.  He wrote whole books about barnacles!  He wrote a book on barnacles that is still the standard text book on the anatomy of barnacles.  He wrote the first book on psychology, ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals‘, and that’s the first book ever published to have photographs in it, amazingly.  He wrote a book on earthworms which really told us about the biology of earthworms.  The guy, I hold my breath in admiration, still now, at what he did.

I think, I was always a keen Darwinian and evolutionary biology is full of very quarrelsome people and that’s because you don’t, you know, you can fit almost any observation of the living world into something which is moulded by natural selection, you know, the reason that the badger has so many hairs on its bottom is that’s the right number of hairs for a badger to maximise its ability to leave offspring or you can, with equal conviction, be more or less certain that it’s random how many hairs there are on a badger’s bottom.  And I was a very much an ‘evolution moulds the badger’s bottom’ man and for snails it looked pretty much like that were true.  But then we started looking at the molecular level in snails and looking, first of all, at the protein variation and the DNA variation and there, as far as I could see, it simply isn’t true at all.  At the molecular level, the rest is noise.  Most of it seems to happen at random.  Which is very disconcerting, but it may be true, so however disconcerted I feel I have to accept the fact.

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