Dr. Spencer Wells on the Power of Genographic Data

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 the Power of Genographic Data

Spencer Wells: Why is it powerful to individuals? I think particularly in a society like the one we have in the United States, we are a nation of immigrants and, you know, I was talking to some school kids this morning, giving a talk to high school kids who had migrated here, you know, their parents had come here from all over the world, we had kids from Sri Lanka, we had kids from Korea, we had kids from Hong Kong, you know, all over the planet, Puerto Rico and everybody has kind of a vague notion that they’re a hyphenated American, I’m African American, I’m Irish American, whatever it might be and beyond that they don’t know that much about their ancestry and so I think there’s a real desire particularly in places like the US, nations of immigrants to connect with the past, to connect with the ancestral homeland. And so I think that’s why individuals at least in part are interested in testing their DNA because it allows you to go back beyond traditional genealogy and get into the kind of deep aspects of your ancestry, where you’re really deeply connected to around the globe. Scientifically, you know, this is an effort to answer a key philosophical question, I mean it’s something philosophers and people who study religions and, you know, thinkers in general have been pondering for years, for a millennia, you know, where do we all come from, how do we relate to each other, why do we speak different languages, all of these basic things and, you know, now we have the tools of science that actually start to chip away at that and answer some of these questions.



Recorded on: Mar 15 2008