Professor Paul Griffiths is the Charles Perkins Centre's Associate Academic Director (Arts and Social Sciences).
Professor Griffiths and his colleagues are studying how non-scientists understand human nature and comparing their ideas to those of scientists from a range of different disciplines.
This ties into the work of the University’s new centre on aspects of public understanding of the role of genetics and of environmental factors in causing obesity.
Professor Griffiths and his colleagues have shown that non-scientists use the phrase ‘in the DNA’ to mean exactly what that earlier generations meant by ‘in the blood’. This idea is that each organism has an inner nature which makes it the kind of organism that it is (for example a human being or a koala). Some features of the organism are produced by this nature, while others are caused by the environment.
This way of understanding what DNA does is inconsistent with what we actually know about the interaction of genetics and environment in development. It is also inconsistent with the fundamental Darwinian insight that species have no defining nature, but are collections of diverse individuals united only by common ancestry.
Professor Griffiths is also probing the practical role of evolutionary thinking in experimental biomedicine. Because human beings are the products of evolution, evolutionary theory is a prime candidate for an integrative framework for multidisciplinary research in the biomedical and social sciences.
Professor Griffiths is establishing a collaboration with the Evolution Institute, a think-tank set up by prominent evolutionary biologist, David Sloan Wilson, which will explore the integrative potential of evolutionary theory.
Evolutionary theory offers a large and growing ‘toolkit’ of ideas about how organisms generate fitness. These ideas suggest new phenomena to look for in human health and disease, and ways to make sense of known but puzzling phenomena.