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DARWIN’S DISCIPLE
Steadfast in his beliefs, Dr. Masatoshi Nei
has charted the path we have traveled and will travel

   By Leonard Novarro


    
He is called the “Charles Darwin of the 21st Century” for good reason.
Not only did Masatoshi Nei choose Charles Darwin as his hero and evolution as his life’s study, his decision to change universities, from Brown to Penn State, was also based on environment.  The Great Valley, home to Penn State,
reminded him of his home in Japan and somewhat of the area around Darwin’s home in England, which he also visited early in his career.
    
Like Darwin, he also appreciated engaging in research while teaching – with the emphasis on research. His choice of the U.S. to do that, he said is based on a simple truism: “All new data is produced in the U.S.,” he said.
Last November, after receiving the Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences, Dr. Nei  engaged local sixth grade  students in Japan on “Solving the Mysteries of Evolution.” In addition to explaining how evolution occurs, he focused on “the joy” of studying the subject, which, to this day, enthralls him. His message to the students: “Evolution is replete with mysteries and it takes the energy of young people to solve them. I would be delighted if you were to take interest in this subject.”
    
Dr. Nei was in San Diego in early March to participate in the Kyoto Prize workshops and symposium held each year in commemoration of the awards, the second highest honor in the world after the Nobel Prize.  The symposium and gala are held in San Diego, the American headquarters of the Kyocera Corporation founded by Kazuo Inamori, who also created the Kyoto Prize, named after Inamori’s birthplace and site of the company’s global headquarters.
Dr. Nei, who teaches and conducts his research at Penn State, is famous for his theories of genetic distance in explaining mathematically how animal and human species evolved.  His method for measuring the extent of natural selection at the DNA sequence level  has become a standard in measuring the evolutionary pattern of genes that control an individual’s characteristics resulting from the interaction of gene and environment.

    
From his initial studies of these characteristics, or phenotype, he determined that  the first split of human populations occurred 100,000 years ago between Africans and non-Africans.
    
All this may never have happened but for an accident early in life. As a child, in 1946, he lost vision in his left eye after a piece of a war-time bomb exploded in front of him. As a result of the injury, he spent a month recuperating in a clinic and spent almost all of that time reading with his good eye. That spurred his interest in both evolution and mathematics, both of which came together later under his pioneer aegis.  Applying mathematics, he was able to study the relationship between and within species and decided to further his studies in the United States.
    
Dr. Nei has been on the receiving end of criticism on two accounts: His contention that the theory of evolution trumps most religions, which typically have tried to trump Darwin’s theory. Says Nei: “The Bible is less than 4,000 years old. The record of human change – evolution – is older than 10,000 years. If they are happy (in their belief), that’s fine. But in the scientific world, we have to be objective.”
    
However, he does oppose creationism being taught in the public schools alongside Darwinism. “That is not science,” he says, referring to religion. “In Japan, no one doubts evolution. Evolution is accepted by almost everybody.”
    
Dr. Nei has also been criticized for his “out of Africa” theory on the separation of races – usually by those who don’t accept the idea that humanity, as we know it, began in Africa.
    
Like Darwin, he is undeterred in his belief, which is grounded in science.
    
“Some people find something that fits. I don’t care,” he said.
    
Where we go from here is anybody’s guess, he added.
    
“Evolution is unpredictable. The only thing that is certain is that we will be diverse. All populations will be mixed.”

 
 
 
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