Our species today is rich with diversity – but how did this diversity evolve over such a short period?
HERI’s Deputy Director Professor Rebecca Ackermann addressed that question and others while presenting the fourth Vice Chancellor’s Inaugural Lecture of the year.
The lecture engaged with her research into the evolutionary process of how gene flow, drift and selection have interacted to influence human diversity.
“I wanted to share how I have contributed to shifting a narrative away from a simple, linear model of human origins to something more complex and nuanced,” says Ackermann.
She describes the popular image in human evolution of a branching tree, and questions whether it should be reimagined.
“This branching tree traces the success of a single lineage, ultimately leading to the evolution of our species in Africa a few hundred thousand years ago, where other branches either go extinct before we evolve or soon after through replacement,” she explains.
“Yet we look around us and see so much diversity in the single living product of this evolution – us. How did this diversity evolve in such a short period? Or is this narrative incorrect?”
The lecture also provided insight into deeper questions around race and global trends of nationalism.
“Our history for a very long time has been one of migration, interaction and exchange. As a result, we are not easily parcelled into discrete units and never have been,” she says.
“This is an important lesson in today’s world filled with racism and white nationalism. I wanted to help people realise that we are interesting as a species, and as a lineage, because we are diverse.”
Diversity is the heart of Ackermann’s work with HERI, where she is the the Founding Director. “Diversity, inclusivity and excellent science are at the core of what we do in HERI,” she says.
That philosophy is being carried into the University of Cape Town (UCT) Science Faculty with her, where she’s taken on the role of Deputy Dean of Transformation (DDT) for the faculty.
“This is a new portfolio in the Science Faculty and was put in place to elevate issues of transformation to the executive level,” says Ackermann.
Her work as DDT will include: facilitating dialogues between the executive, the faculty transformation committee and departments; creating policy and monitoring employment equity policies; organising transformation-related activities; developing and implementing interventions to foster an improved understanding of diversity and inclusion.
The goal is to drive a department that is passionate about science and transformation, she says.
“I want UCT’s Science Faculty to be a more inclusive space, where everyone understands that diversity is essential not only for moral reasons, but because diverse teams produce better science.”