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 makes a scientifically literate citizen?
Spencer Wells: Yeah, are we scientifically literate, I think that would be a resounding no overall, I hope that it’s getting better and I see some evidence that it is among the high school kids that I talked to. But we live in a society that historically has favored the humanities and the trades over science, science is thought of as being something esoteric that goes on behind closed doors, guys in white coats speaking a secret language, it doesn’t affect our everyday lives. In fact science has much more of an effect on everyday life than any other realm of human endeavor because the stuff that we do in the lab ultimately makes its way out into the market place or it changes people’s notion of who they are and how they’re related to each other, whatever it might be. Science does have a very profound effect on human life and, you know, the pace of scientific change is accelerating, you know, we’re discovering more these days than we ever have in history, scientific history, human history and, you know, the pace of change is so high that even scientists can’t keep up with it, so we can’t expect the public to know everything but I think people should be somewhat literate in science, they should be able to, you know, tell you something about the way the universe works, about the way the earth orbits around the sun, describe DNA and actually be able to define what it is and what it does, you know, know what a mutation is, know the basics of medicine, the diseases that you come down with that most people will come down with and how they work so that you can keep on the lookout for them. I mean I think that a certain basic level of scientific literacy is simply necessary in the same way that, you know, we learn to do addition and subtraction, we can balance our check books, I mean to me these are just basic everyday things that every citizen needs to be aware of, in part because of that incredible pace of change at the moment and the idea that science is becoming so powerful now that the debate is really not about can we do this anymore, it’s more about should we do this. Should we be making these choices, discovering these things, using the technology in this way or that way? These are broader social questions, they’re not simply things that should be left up to the scientists, there’s something every citizen has a stake in, genetically modified foods, do we want that as a society, you know, there’s a lotta debate and I think there’s a lot of misinformation on both sides, some people who oppose it, they don’t really understand it and people who, you know, perhaps have a vested interest and think that it’s completely safe, but it is a debate that we need to have as a society and to have a debate you need to have some background knowledge to be able to discuss things.
Recorded on: 5/22/08