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'We need all possible human knowledge about our origins'

Last updated: 18 January, 2011
What makes us human? is a question that philosophers and scientists have been asking since the time man evolved. A new subject that is opening the eyes of people to this profound question is Anthropogeny.

Ajit Varki, professor of medicine and cellular and molecular medicine, co-director CARTA and co-director of the Glycobiology Research and Training Centre at the University of California, San Diego, has been working on this subject for more than 15 years.

Grandson of the legendary Pothan Joseph, founder editor of Deccan Herald, he spoke to N Niranjan Nikam of Deccan Herald on how the quest for this question is going on and how Anthropogeny might find answers to it in the long run.

Most of us are not familiar with the word anthropogeny, unlike anthropology. What makes it different?

Anthropology is the study of all aspects of humans. Anthropogeny is the study of the genesis (origins) of humans. Anthropogeny is not fully covered by the current field of Anthropology. For instance Anthropology does not give much attention to genome sciences, biochemistry, cell biology, neurosciences, etc. Anthropogeny brings in all these and more disciplines in a ‘transdisciplinary approach,’ taking all relevant facts into account. I also strongly feel the time has come to systematically approach this question of what makes us human.

When did your interest in anthropogeny begin?

My original line of interest has been in glycobiology and sialic acids. I have been working on the interface with humans’ origins for more than 15 years. Three years ago, I re-introduced the term anthropogeny, and now many more people are starting to talk about it.

How close is the subject to Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species?

Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species is about the evolution of all species. Years later he wrote another book called ‘Descent of Man’, about the evolution of humans. This was the first major book on the subject and there have been many other books and articles since.

Of course the underlying questions have always been asked ‘What are humans? And, Where we came from?’ Given a rapidly changing society, the internet and new ways of bringing up children, these are the questions we need to tackle soon. We need all possible human knowledge about human origins, and that is what anthropogeny is about.

The Gen Thimayya Memorial lecture you delivered on the topic ‘Adventures in Anthropogeny: What makes us Human?,’ at Bishop Cotton Boy’s High School in fact raised more questions than it gave us answers...

You are absolutely right. We are at the early stages of this quest. This subject is complicated, and we know very little now. So, you end up with more questions than answers. I am very happy that there were a lot of probing questions. We need such questions to better understand where we are going.

Your research interest focuses on a family of cell surface sugars called sialic acids and their roles in biology, evolution and disease. Please explain briefly what this is all about?

The surface of every cell in nature is covered with a forest of sugars. This area of glycobiology has not been studied much. In these forests, certain important sugars are called sialic acids and have many roles in health, evolution and disease. The study of these molecules is the primary focus of my research.

There are certain ways in which humans have unique features of sialic acids. For example, we are missing one kind of sialic acid. There are two major ones, Neu5Ac and Neu5Gc. We humans are all genetic mutants that stopped making Neu5Gc. We have found many more uniquely-human changes in sialic acids, comparing chimpanzees and humans. This is like searching for a needle in a haystack, and finding a bundle of needles instead.

What is CARTA that you are involved in doing?

I am the founder and co-director of the Centre for Academic Research & Training in Anthropogeny (CARTA, http://carta.anthropogeny.org/). I felt that to approach the question of what makes us human, I needed to bring people from many different fields together. More than 15 years ago, I started doing this in private meetings. Here people from many different disciplines like anthropologists, neuroscientists, computer scientists, geologists, genome experts, etc all meet, three times a year in San Diego, California.

You are the grandson of the legendary Pothan Joseph, founder editor of Deccan Herald.

Having such a distinguished grandfather were you not influenced to take up journalism?

Pothan Joseph was my local guardian when I was a boarder in Bishop Cotton Boy’s High School. Every Saturday I would walk to his house located at the junction of Brigade Road and MG Road. I got wonderful education from him without realising at that young age how the ideas he put into me would shape me. He was a friend of Gandhi and had met many great leaders of the freedom movement.

I was also influenced by hearing about my paternal grandfather A M Varki, a famous educator, and the first person to get a first class in literature from Madras University. I also liked science, got a seat in CMC, Vellore, and moved to medicine. But I was the chief editor of the ‘Journal of Clinical Investigation’ for five years in the US.

Regardless my grandfather had a great influence on me as were many others including those at Bishop Cottons and CMC. In fact, my own life shows how the evolution of humans involves not just genes but also environment and culture. It is the combination of these that makes us human.

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