George Andrews/NZ/2008; R0
GA Productions, $49.95 | Reviewed by Andy Palmer

AT LAST we, as a nation, are starting to celebrate our intellectuals; those who have left their mark internationally outside of the sporting arena. Allan Wilson: Evolutionary is a documentary about a man who helped develop and strengthen evolutionary theory. Or, as the publicity puts it, a “groundbreaking researcher and a lightning rod for controversy, [who] revolutionized science and galvanized the scientific community”.

I would suggest Allan Wilson is far from a household name here, even though his work is most likely being taught at high schools around the country. To say this doco is timely would be an understatement.

Born in Ngaruawahia, he grew up on a farm near Pukekohe, was educated at Kings College, Auckland, and Otago University, before heading to America for post-grad study, a PhD, and employment. After showing early interest in the biological sciences, at the behest of the local vicar’s wife, Wilson was sent to Kings College rather than the local high school. There he was captured by evolution – a subject apparently not on the curricula in late-1940s New Zealand. He majored in both biochemistry (then a relatively new science) and zoology at Otago before being invited to Pullman University in Washington State where he completed his Masters, and stated that he would solve the problem of evolution. Then he was off to do his PhD at Berkeley, where he consequently spent most of his working life.

At the time there were two schools of thought around evolution – the paleontological/physical and the genetic/biochemical. With his background in biochemistry and zoology Wilson was able to bridge the two. His 1967 paper ‘Immunological Time-Scale for Human Evolution’ postulated the idea of the ‘molecular clock’ – a way of dating ancestral divergence from genetic mutations rather than from fossils. He argued that the earliest proto-hominids evolved only five million years ago at a time when most contemporary anthropologists dated it around 25 million years ago. His work was dismissed work as absurd.

In the mid-70s he worked on using mitochondrial DNA in placenta tissue to trace maternal genealogies back to ‘Eve’, once again causing controversy. He said that “the closer you get to the social sciences the harder it is to overthrow earlier thinking.” Never one to shy away from new technologies, he was an early adopter of the polymerase chain reaction – a technique that allowed near infinite reproduction of DNA from small samples. With this he was able to study the DNA of extinct species, and in doing so challenge long held views on species evolution.

In July 1991 (while I was bumbling through my degree in biochemistry), Allan Wilson died of leukaemia, still a controversial figure. One of his colleagues stated that 100 years from now, when people are discussing the major players in shifts of scientific thinking over time, Wilson will be one of the few people pointed to.

Over the course of its 40 minutes, Allan Wilson: Evolutionary paints a good overview of the man, albeit pretty light and rather dry. The science is well explained and, I imagine, the relevance of the results would be fairly understandable to most people. The documentary only really spoke to those who had worked with Wilson over the years. It would have been good to have had more information about the prevailing ideas and the full impact of Wilson’s work, and to have heard from those who disagreed with his views – particularly if they were willing to admit their errors. As with plate tectonics, it is difficult for us to fully grasp the major shift in thinking required to accept these ideas, when only a few decades later the ideas have become the prevailing best theory.

Though lacking in parts, those who nothing about the man and his science will be drawn in and astounded by his achievements. Along with Christine Cole Catley’s fantastic recent biography on cosmologist Beatrice Tinsley, Bright Star, this documentary celebrates a New Zealander we should all be celebrating. After reading Bright Star I wanted to see, or even make, the film. After Allan Wilson: Evolutionary I’ll be looking for the biography. Roll on works about William Pickering, Maurice Wilkins, John Money, and any other Kiwi’s quietly changing the world as we know it.