Assistant Professor of Biology, IU Bloomington
As a computational biologist, Matthew Hahn is used to pulling meaning from dauntingly big mounds of biological data. Usually, though, Hahn's business is genes and genomes.
A recent paper that he had published in the Public Library of Science: One -- an interactive open-access journal for the communication of all peer-reviewed scientific and medical research -- took a novel approach to discerning the genetic distance between humans and chimps by doing something other estimates do not do -- take into account genes lost from either lineage. Hahn suggests humans and chimps are really about six percent different, genetically speaking.
It may surprise readers of Hahn's past publications on population genetics and genomics to see "Drift as a mechanism for cultural change: An example from baby names." (Proceedings of the Royal Society London B, Biology Letters, 2003).
Hahn and University College London sociologist Alexander Bentley applied genetics and evolutionary principles to 20th- century American baby names and found the popularity of certain names is random. "Many people think names get popular because someone famous had that name," Hahn said. "That's hardly ever true."
Instead, Hahn said, it is far more likely the famous person -- Britney Spears, for example -- was born during a particular name's upsurge in popularity.
"I don't actually believe parents choose their kids' names randomly," Hahn said. "But if you look at the whole population, there's a randomness associated with which names become popular. Why 'John'? Why 'Jennifer'? Those names don't hold any intrinsic meaning."
Hahn's occasional dalliances into the world beyond genetics and genomics reinforce a theme that manifests in his formal projects.
Humans like to ascribe meaning to things," said Hahn. "But I don't think we have a really good grasp of just how important randomness is. As strange as this sounds, random chance is a huge force in biology -- and life in general."
Oh, and in case you were wondering, Hahn named his son, Tristan.