Spencer Wells is a leading population geneticist and director of the Genographic Project from National Geographic and IBM. His fascination with the past has led the scientist, author, and documentary filmmaker to the farthest reaches of the globe in search of human populations who hold the history of humankind in their DNA. By studying humankind's family tree he hopes to close the gaps in our knowledge of human migration.
Wells's own journey of discovery began as a child whose zeal for history and biology led him to the University of Texas, where he enrolled at age 16, majored in biology, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa three years later. He then pursued his Ph.D. at Harvard University under the tutelage of distinguished evolutionary geneticist Richard Lewontin.
His landmark research findings led to advances in the understanding of the male Y chromosome and its ability to trace ancestral human migration. Wells then returned to academia where, at Oxford University, he served as director of the Population Genetics Research Group of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at Oxford.
Following a stint as head of research for a Massachusetts-based biotechnology company, Wells made the decision in 2001 to focus on communicating scientific discovery through books and documentary films. From that was born The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, an award-winning book and documentary that aired on PBS in the U.S. and National Geographic Channel internationally. Written and presented by Wells, the film chronicled his globe-circling, DNA-gathering expeditions in 2001-02 and laid the groundwork for the Genographic Project.
Topic: Dr. Spencer Wells Cross-Disciplinary Science and the Genographic Project
Spencer Wells: You know, every region we study has interesting tales to tell, genetic tales to tell and it’s piecing together the details of all of this and then kind of stepping back and looking at the broader picture, doing a kind of meta analysis and that’s where, you know, taking into account other fields of scientific endeavor like Paleoclimatology and seeing those correlations, that’s what really excites me right now, it’s, you know, the genetic data, yes we’ve got it and it’s gets more and more fine grained and, you know, we get more and more details and then we start to ask the how and the why. So we’ve got the who, where, when over on the genetic side and then the how and the why is where we have to start to kind of fit in these other areas of research and that cross disciplinarity is what gets me so excited right now, it’s not any particular genetic result in isolation, it’s the sum total of this amazingly complex story we’re flushing out and then trying to explain it, trying to explain why people were moving from a certain point to another point at a certain point in time. Well linguistics is a really good example, you know, we tend to get the language that we speak from our parents, 80, 90% of the time perhaps and so languages in a way are inherited almost like genes. So a priori you would expect there to be a correlation between linguistic patterns and genetic patterns and we typically see that so, you know, in a broad scale, language, families tend to occur in the places where the genetic data would suggest they would occur and show similar relationships to what the genes are telling us. Sometimes they don’t and that’s when things get really interesting, you have a language moving into a place without the spread of genes or vice versa, tells you something about the, you know, the mode of cultural change, you know, why people are moving and how they moved and all of these things. But in general linguistics is a really important field of research to make sense of the genetic data. Archeology obviously, you know, the other fields of, you know, human history and pre history so archeology, history, paleoanthropology for things that happened prior to the archeological era if you will so, you know, hundreds of thousands of years ago. What else, Paleoclimatology, clearly, you know, the climate changes again as I’ve said several times here, you know, climate change is often the motivating factor for people to move. Not just because you have to move, because a desert is chasing you out and there’s no food and no water. But also because it opens up new opportunities so it creates a land mass out of the, you know, 18,000 islands in Indonesia and South East Asia which allows you to populate New Guinea and move to down to Australia. Okay wow, so that opens up a new route of migration or literally you are chased out, you are chased out of North Africa, 45,000 years ago or so as it shifts back to desert, as it comes out of that wetter phase and you’re forced to move further afield, perhaps that’s what forced some people into Central Asia around 40,000 years ago because you literally couldn’t live there. So yeah it’s both a carrot and a stick in a sense, so climatology very important. Other fields, god, you know, something I would like to study a little bit more and look at in more detail as we get further into the project and we have time to kind of sit back more and look at the broad patterns would be other cultural attributes. So more cultural anthropology, musicology, do musical styles tend to track the spread of particular genetic lineages. If you have particular weaving patterns that, you know, link groups, you know, people in Turkmenistan, the carpets they make, the particular design motifs are very specific to the tribal groups. But perhaps you could find similarities that reflect a shared origin, does that track the genetic patterns, perhaps. That would be an example of something that I’d like to incorporate into the work we’re doing, you know, it’s really in some ways almost an excuse to be a dilettante, after you do the basic work in genetics, which is, you know, obviously my area of expertise that’s what the project is grounded on, you then get to sit back and start drawing on all these different fields, drawing on experts in all these fields and say “Listen we’ve got this cool pattern over here, we can’t really explain why it is the way it is, this is, you know, what we think was happening, what was going on, do you have any similar pattern in your field of research, in archeology or, you know, a study of embroidery, whatever it might be.” Yeah I mean that’s part of the fun of doing this work, being a multi disciplinary scientist.
Recorded on: 5/22/08