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NSERC Presents 2 Minutes With W. Ford Doolittle
Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology,
Dalhousie University


Video Name

2 Minutes with W. Ford Doolittle


NSERC Communications



Release Date

February 3, 2014


Dr. Doolittle has been at the forefront of fundamental research in evolutionary biology for over four decades. He is one of the world's top molecular geneticists, having spent his career exploring the earliest stages of cell evolution and the forces and mechanisms determining the structure of genomes.

He has received numerous awards and honours for his research, including the Award of Excellence from the Genetics Society of Canada and, as of 2013, the NSERC Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a member of the US National Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Doolittle

I think evolutionists are don't realize how broad the theory of evolution really is. If your theory of evolution is kind of a narrow one, saying that there is a tree of life which defines precisely the relationships of all living things or if your theory is that natural selection accounts for all adaptation or all features of organisms, then that's not right. We know most of the mechanisms of which natural selection is an important, but not the only one. I think that where the rubber meets the road in evolution is in molecular biology and understanding genes and how they work and how they change evolution and what kinds of forces impinge upon genes.

At some point I became more interested in the genome evolution as a whole, the evolution of entire genomes, and that gave rise to what was called the selfish DNA hypothesis, which was much debated and is still being debated today. It relates very closely to the notion that much DNA is junk, that much of our own genomes is comprised of things which don't really do us any good and may actually do us some harm including the genomes of viruses.

What's been occupying me in the last year or so is the claim that there is no junk in the human genome, and this comes from some recent, very well-funded studies looking at the biochemical activities of different parts of our own chromosomes. And the conclusion of these studies was that every part of our DNA is functional. And what that really means is every part of our DNA does something measurable. And at the root of this is the belief, which is called pan-adaptationism by many people that each and every trait of each and every organism is the product of selection to do what it does now and so that we are basically perfectly tuned, evolved machines. That's one view.

The other view is stuff happens, and you know, we're just good enough to survive and the vast amount of the complexity within ourselves and in our behaviours are not the product of natural selection, but of other sort of accidental processes.

I favour the latter sort of view, so there can be selection at the level of individual organisms so there can be selection at the lower level, so that's what the level of selfish DNA would be. I'm hoping to keep pursuing these questions on a somewhat of the borderlines actually between experimental biology and philosophy, and I really welcome the opportunities.

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