Dr. Spencer Wells on Losing Indigenous Cultures

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.

  • Transcript


Topic: Dr. Spencer Wells on Losing Indigenous Cultures

Spencer Wells: Yeah well the indigenous peoples of the world are in a way kind of endangered today for a lack of a better term. I'ts not so much that people are literally dying off; it's that the cultures are being lost. We're actually going through a period of culture mass extinction at the moment. Now we don’t know exactly the rate at which this is happening, linguists tell us that of the 6,000 languages spoken around the world today by various people, by the end of the century between half and 90% will no longer be spoken, they'll be extinct and how this typically occurs again is not that the people themselves go extinct but they, you know, they leave behind their ancient villages, they move to perhaps a growing mega city, Sao Paolo or Chennai or whatever it might be and when they do they enter the dominant culture and their kids start to speak the dominant language and they lose touch with the old ways and pretty soon that language and that culture have died, they cease to exist. The people are still there, their DNA is still there, it's entered the melting pot, you know, the molecules are still floating around but they've lost that geographic context. So in effect the trail, the genetic trail that our ancestors left in the DNA of indigenous peoples around the world is being subsumed into this global monoculture as this happens and so we actually have kind of a closing window of opportunity in which to do this work, you know, we're trying to get this genetic snapshot of what our ancestors bequeathed to us, these genetic trails that lead all over the world before they're mixed and mashed together. You this is probably a good thing, socially, everybody's coming back together and mixing up and it's gonna be harder and harder to tell one group from another but it makes our lives very, very difficult as population geneticists because we can't trace these distinct migratory routes; they're in the process of being lost.



Recorded on: 5/22/08