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: What is the Genographic Project?
Spencer Wells: Genographic is really a concerted scientific effort to make sense of what is in many ways a deceptively simple basic human question, where did we all come from, you know, I think everybody asked themselves at some point, you know, how did we get here, why are there so many different types of people, languages, spoken around the world, why do we look so different and so on. And we’re using the tools of science, in particular the tools of molecular genetics to answer that question, to tell the story of our species in effect, how we started off as a small group of hunter gatherers in Africa, 60 to 70,000 years ago and how within the last 60,000 years we’ve scattered to the wind to populate the world and in the process increased to 6½ billion people.
Question: Where did it all begin?
Spencer Wells: Well, it depends on how far back you wanna go, I mean when I was a kid I was fascinated by history, I saw the King Tut exhibit that toured the states back in the late 70s and, you know, came away from that just totally obsessed with the past and the idea that maybe I could travel back in time and imagine myself at the time of King Tut 3500 years ago. And read everything I could on ancient history and the middle ages and all sorts of other things and was convinced that that was the direction I was headed in and around the time I was 9 or 10 my mother went back to school to get her PhD in biology and as you do sometimes, you know, your kids go into work with their parents, I went to lab with her and I discovered that science is really kinda cool, it’s really fun, you know, it’s about solving puzzles on a daily basis and what kid wouldn’t like that. And so I decided that I, you know, I was interested in science but I didn’t wanna give up history either and I wanted to combine the two so I used science as a tool to study the past and that led me to study genetics in college which is kind of the historical branch of biology if you will, we get our DNA from our parents, they get it from their parents and so it traces this lineage back in time and uhm.. studied population genetics which is the study of genetic variation in natural populations for my PhD and by the time I was finishing up my PhD, was convinced that this was gonna be, you know, the main tool for studying human origins and how we populated the world and went out to Stanford and did a post doc there and ran a research group at Oxford and followed a typical academic path and then ended up making a film, “The Journey of Man” which aired on PBS in 2003 and off the back of that film which was a co-production with the National Geographic Channel I started talking to National Geographic, not the media people but the missions people, the people who funded over 8000 research grants, who funded the Leaky family, who funded Jane Goodall, all these people over the years about the work we were doing. The scientific work and they literally asked me this open ended question, if you could do anything next, what would it be and I said “We need more samples, we need to sample the world’s DNA, we need to increase our sample size by at least an order of magnitude, study hundreds of thousands of people around the world in an effort to figure out how we populated the planet” and that was the genesis of the Genographic Project.
Recorded on: 5/22/08