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 on Future Migration Patterns
Spencer Wells: Okay a nice simple question, what’s gonna happen in the next 10,000 years, okay. Yeah I mean listen what is very clearly happening to a much greater extent now than it ever has throughout human history is that people are moving around much more, the rate of migration is increasing exponentially, you know, think about the person you might be dating or married to and think about how far apart you might have been born, you know, typically these days it’s hundreds or even thousands of miles. If you go back through European church records which, you know, go back several hundred years so they’re a good place to start and you look at the distance between spouses birth places, you have to enter that in the church record when you get married, for most of recorded history, so this is starting kind of the 15th, 16th century and going up to the present. For most of that time people were born 5 to 10km so a few miles apart, you’re marrying somebody from the same village or somebody from the next village over and then in the industrial revolution around 1800 that explodes. Suddenly people are moving around and that’s happening even more today, people are moving around to a much greater extent and so everybody’s entering this melting pot and I sometimes jokingly say “We’re all becoming more like Tiger Woods” you know, we’re meeting people from all over the world and we’re mixing and, you know, the kids are mixed and their children are even more mixed and so, you know, clearly that is a prediction of what is going to happen over the next few hundred years. What is also gonna happen and this is something that comes out of the work that we’ve been doing recently in the Genographic Project and the results we’ve been getting. It’s becoming more and more clear to us that when we look at the timing of these migratory events, the big events particularly in the Paleolithic but even as we move into the Neolithic, the last 10,000 years with the advent of farming and expansion of empires and so on. Many of these migratory events, the big ones seem to have been driven by shifts in climate and, you know, this could have to do with the ice age, it has to do with the way the earth precesses in its orbit and shifts and the Sahara patterns, you know it’s wetter sometimes and drier other times, changing sea levels in South East Asia, changing sea levels, allowing the Baring Land Bridge to be created between Asia and the Americas, allowing people to populate the Americas. I mean time and time again we see these major migrations driven in large part by climatic shifts and obviously we are going into another period of climate change, you know, you can debate the extent to which humans are causing this. In my opinion yes we clearly are contributing to it but we’re also in a broader warming trend which has been going on for the last few hundred years and is probably gonna continue for many more hundreds of years and that’s gonna have a huge effect on the areas, the climate of the areas where people live and places like the Sahel region in Africa which is marginal at best, are being replaced by desert and so what are these people gonna do when they can’t grow food anymore, well they’re either gonna die or they’re gonna have to move somewhere else. What about the people living in low islands like the Maldives and Tuvalu, which I visited about a year and a half ago during some research for a book, you know, 10 feet high at the highest point and as sea levels rise, what are people gonna do, well they’re gonna have to leave or they’re gonna drown. So, you know, climate change is going to continue to influence and motivate people to migrate around the world and, you know, I think one of the big issues in the next century is going to be dealing with these climate refugees. What are you gonna do with millions of people, perhaps hundreds of millions of people driven to leave the place where they live today by a climate shift which makes it untenable to live there anymore.
Recorded on: 5/22/08