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.
Question: How do people of faith view your findings?
Spencer Wells: I think that science and faith, you know, do have somewhat of an adversarial relationship in that faith is based as the name suggests on faith, you’re not testing anything, you’re given the answers in a book or by your elders and it’s about accepting those answers. Whereas science is about always asking questions, it’s about testing things, it’s about assembling evidence and saying, you know, do we come down on this side of the argument or the other side and so I think there’s always going to be some tension there. Now that said I think it’s possible for people to have religious beliefs and still believe in evolution and, you know, the genetic details that we’re discussing in the lectures that I give and the books and films and everything else we do as part of the Genographic Project. I would like people I suppose, you know, if you’re talking in particular about the Judea Christian story, the story in the bible, book of Genesis, perhaps to see that as a metaphor, you know, and if you see Genesis as a metaphor the story is actually not that different from the one we’re telling using the genetics, the ideas that we all come from a common source, we trace back to a few people living in a particular location in the world. You can call it Philadelphia or East Africa or the garden of Eden, wherever you wanna place it, I mean the genetic evidence is that we come out of Africa that is our scientific garden of Eden and we scattered to the wind, you know, we are the descendents of that small group of people living in that one particular location and so, you know, it’s not that different from the story in Genesis. Now the Judea Christian story’s not the only one and there are lots of creation stories, every group around the world has some kind of a story that explains its existence and, you know, it’s probably something inherent in human beings that, you know, makes them want to provide answers and science is one way of answering that question, faith is another way of answering it and traditional stories and so, you know, we do sometimes come into conflict to a certain degree with traditional stories, traditional notions of creation, the idea that people have been living in the same location forever, you know, that they were created de novo out of the earth or out of the animals that live there, song lines in Australia, people being created out of goannas or witchity grubs or whatever it is and, you know, you have to say that yes of course you have this particular, you know, attachment to the location, the geographic location where you live and that’s very strong and, you know, in the case of Australia, you’ve been here for 50,000 years, longer than Europeans have been living in Europe. But in addition you have a deeper connection, just as everybody else does around the world to our ancestors, all the way back in Africa and so we’d like to see the stories that we’re telling using science as complimentary to the stories that people are taught by their elders. Not as a replacement but as a compliment to the traditional notions of where people came from.
Recorded on: 5/22/08