Gee Research Blog

Competitive Generosity Drives Charitable Donations

Fri, 17 Apr 2015 12:09:46 +0000

Unconditional generosity is a characteristic of humans on which we pride ourselves, and billions of dollars is donated to hundreds of thousands of charitable organisations every year. But look at it from an evolutionary perspective, and this trait seems difficult to explain. In some situations, giving may have evolved to advertise positive characteristics of the […]

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Annoucing the Winners of the Write About Research Competition

Fri, 10 Apr 2015 13:49:07 +0000

Thanks to everyone who entered our Write About Research competition. We received some great entries from GEE students and postdocs, covering a broad range of topics from conservation to genetics. The entries will be posted here over the coming months, so watch this space! The Winners are… Drum roll please … WINNER: David Curnick – […]

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Male Promiscuity Boosts Role of Chance in Sex Chromosome Evolution

Thu, 19 Mar 2015 15:02:31 +0000

Humans, like all mammals and birds, determine sex with chromosomes. Whether a fertilised egg develops into a male or female depends on what chromosomes it carries Scientists have long recognised that genes evolve a little differently on the sex chromosomes, and recent research in GEE suggests this may be due to differing patterns of inheritance […]

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Sloths Move Slow, Evolve Fast

Wed, 11 Mar 2015 18:20:41 +0000

Sloths might be notorious for their leisurely pace of life, but research published last year shows they are no slow coaches when it comes to evolution. Sloths, as we know and love them, are small, slow-moving creatures found in the trees of tropical rainforests. But modern sloths are pretty odd compared to their extinct relatives. […]

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Write About Research – A GEE Research Blog Competition

Tue, 03 Mar 2015 15:28:43 +0000

The GEE Research blog communicates UCL science with a wider, non-specialist audience, by providing short summaries of recent research in the department of UCL Genetics, Evolution and Environment. This provides an opportunity to engage with a broad audience, including other academics, students, members of the public, and even businesses and policy-makers. It is a great […]

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A short history of the Department


The department was formed during the recent reorganisation of the Faculty of Life Sciences that brought together scientists with shared interests in genetics, environmental and evolutionary biology who had previously been scattered among a variety of distinct departments. It traces its origins to the now extinct Department of Comparative Anatomy, founded in 1826, and the first in Britain to offer a Zoology degree. It also incorporates the Galton Laboratory, the first institution in the world to study human genetics as a science and previously named Departments of Biology, Botany, Genetics & Biometry,  Microbiology and Zoology.

Some great figures of the past have been associated with the Department - whose own building stands on the site of Charles Darwin's home.  They include Robert Grant (who taught Darwin in Edinburgh and whose extraordinary collection of animal specimens we still possess), Sir Francis Galton (Darwin's cousin, and the founder of the modern study of human genetics and - less creditably - of eugenics, whose legacy helped establish the Galton Laboratory).  Its early members included Karl Pearson and R A Fisher (jointly the founders of modern statistical science), J B S Haldane (the eccentric genius who worked on submarine escape methods and helped to place the theory of evolution on a mathematical basis), and F R Weldon, who carried out the earliest experimental studies on natural selection in action. Later, the Nobel Prize winner, Sir Peter Medawar, who worked out the genetics of tissue recognition and was central to the development of organ transplantation.

Other eminent members include the embryologist Sir Gavin de Beer who helped found what became today’s evolutionary developmental biology or “evo-devo”, Alex Comfort, a pioneer in the study of the biology of ageing (albeit perhaps better known for his book The Joy of Sex), Hans Gruneberg the first to use mutations in mice to understand the basis of human developmental abnormalities, Harry Harris who revealed the massive extent of human genetic diversity, Kenneth Kermack, the discoverer of one of the earliest pre-mammalian fossils and the marine biologist Sir Ray Lankester, who became Director of the Natural History Museum. Lionel Penrose was one of the first to work on the genetics of mental retardation. Sir Edward Salisbury was a pioneer in plant ecology and became Director of Kew Gardens. Francis Wall Oliver established the first ecological research centre in the UK at Blakeney Point, Norfolk, which is still being used by our students today and D M S Watson played an important part in early work on plant and lizard fossils.

More recently, several luminaries have contributed fundamental insights to evolutionary biology, John Maynard Smith pioneered the use of game theory in understanding the evolution of selfish, selfless and spiteful behaviour in animals, W D Hamilton set out his ideas about inclusive fitness and the evolution of altruism, George Price  developed his interpretation of Fisher’s fundamental theory of natural selection now known as the Price equation.  Anne McLaren was a leading figure in reproductive biology who helped establish the principles that led to in vitro fertilisation and Avrion Mitchison was instrumental in disentangling the complexities of the human immune system. Robert Race and Ruth Sanger made the first maps of the distribution of the human blood groups and elucidated the genetics and biochemistry of the Rhesus groups and others, while Cedric Smith invented some of the mathematical methods used to map human genes.

We have, then, a noble past – and, we like to think, the future looks pretty bright as well.

de Beer Comfort Fisher Galton
Gavin de Beer
Alex Comfort
RA Fisher
Francis Galton
Grant Gruneberg Haldane Hamilton
Robert Grant
Hans Gruneberg
JBS Haldane
WD Hamilton
Harris Lankester Maynard Smith McLaren
Harry Harris
Ray Lankester
John Maynard Smith
Anne McLaren
Medawar Mitchison Oliver
Peter Medawar
Avrion Mitchison
Francis Oliver
Pearson Penrose Price Race & Sanger
Karl Pearson
Lionel Penrose
George Price
Robert Race & Ruth Sanger
Salisbury C_A_B_Smith.jpg Watson Weldon
Edward Salisbury
Cedric Smith
DMS Watson
FR Weldon

A copy of The Penrose Symposium can be downloaded here

Galton Professors

Karl Pearson 1904-1933
Ronald Fisher 1933-1943
Lionel Penrose 1943-1965
Harry Harris 1965-1976
Elizabeth Robson 1976-1994
Nicholas Wood 2009-present

Page last modified on 18 aug 14 15:59