An (old) interview with Warren Ewens

1 minute read

I ran across an interview between Anna Plutinski and population geneticist Warren Ewens.

I cannot say enough about Ewens’ book, Mathematical Population Genetics. If you can work through it, you can do population genetics. It doesn’t cover every au courant topic, but those will change next week anyway. And it’s on Kindle now. Which I suppose probably looks pretty good on the DX, assuming the math displays well – the book’s format is just the right size for it.

Anyway, this interview from 2004 was probably conducted around the time the book was released. It covers pretty much the gamut of his career. I have to select some part to quote for you, so I’ll select the passage that would be most likely to come out of my own math in my genetics class:

WE: Of course there is a strong possibility that the neutral theory is assumed not because it is appropriate but because the math of that theory is so very simple compared to the math applying for any selective theory.
AP: Can I follow that up? Do you think that that has lead to models of phylogenetic change that is not very well supported by the evidence?
WE: I think that that is quite possible. However, here we enter into another question. In mathematical population genetics theory you know from the very start that you are making big simplifying assumptions. You are in a very different position from a physicist, who might believe that his mathematical models describe reality exactly. No sensible population geneticist would make any claim along those lines. He or she is forced to simplify, because reality is so complicated that you dont know it in any detail, and even if you did know it and used math describing it faithfully, the analysis would be impossible to carry through. So simplification is unavoidable. I do not know whether the use of the neutral theory is too much of a simplification and has lead us to incorrect and distorted views about the true evolutionary tree, its shape and dimensions, but I suspect that there has been quite a significant distortion.

There is much more at the link, some history of association testing, genetic draft, a lot on Ewens sampling theory, and a touch about his work here in Madison.