Annually in conjunction with First Citizens Bank, UNC Charlotte hosts a ceremony to present the First Citizens Bank Scholars Medal. According to UNC Charlotte’s Office of Provost’s website, the medal “recognizes outstanding scholarship, creativity, and/or research among senior full-time faculty members.
This year Dr. Jonathan Marks, professor of anthropology, was awarded the First Citizens Bank Scholars Medal.
“It’s nice,” said Marks. “[The Department of Anthropology is] competing against very highly funded people in engineering and health and human sciences and all the other colleges in the university. So it’s a great honor to be judged at the university wide level and recognized as a great scholar.”
According to Marks, academia is a world of great scrutiny. Through a process called peer review educators basically “beat each other up, usually anonymously.” Professors will observe their colleagues during class and write comments. Commonly the reviews aren’t positive in academics.
It’s a field where we get a lot of knocks, and not a lot of pats on the back,” said Marks. “It’s very gratifying when you do get a pat on the back.”
Marks is known for his award-winning book “What It Means to be 98% Chimpanzee: Apes, People and their Genes” which was published in the early 2000s. In his book Marks analyzes how we make sense of genetics. He acknowledges that it is a well-known fact that monkeys and humans are very close in the gene pool but he seeks to find out what that really means.
“Similarity and difference is fairly obvious. It runs from 0 percent similar, which is really really different, to 100 percent similar, which is exactly the same,” said Marks. “But the fact is [deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)] doesn’t work that way.”
He goes on to examine in the book how DNA is a long sequence made up of four different strands – A, C, G and T – and that because there are only four, two random sequences of DNA are probable to match up at least one every four strands.
“By the same measurement that you’re 98 percent genetically identical to a chimpanzee, you’re at least 25 percent genetically identical to a daffodil. But obviously you’re not a quarter daffodil,” said Marks.
Marks is currently studying the history of the study of race and the application of eugenics. Eugenics is the study of self-directing of human evolution by discouraging those with undesirable inheritable traits from reproducing and encouraging those with desirable traits to reproduce. In the 1930s this idea became associated with the Nazis and the since has gained a less than favorable view in the eyes of many.
Marks is taking a look at eugenics from a different angle, examining its validity as a science.
“When you’re studying who we [humans] are and where we came from, you want to do it objectively. But there is no objectivity possible if you’re studying your own diversity and your own ancestry,” said Marks. “We’re stuck being humans studying humans.”