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Brandeis to participate in National Geographic Genographic Project

Published: March 28, 2008
Section: Front Page

Beginning in April, Brandeis will participate in National Geographic’s Genographic Project. The Brandeis project, known as Brandeis Explores the Journey of Humankind, will allow students in select courses to trace their “migratory ancestry path,” explained doctoral student and the Brandeis project’s administrative coordinator Miranda Waggoner.

According to a university press release, the Genographic Project, spearheaded by scientist Spencer Wells, “seeks to chart new knowledge about the migratory history of the human species and answer age old questions surrounding the genetic diversity of humanity.” The Genographic Project hopes to answer these questions through genetic testing.

Jules Bernstein ’57, a sociology and anthropology major during his time at the university, helped bring the Journey of Humankind Project to Brandeis.

He explained his discovery of Spencer Wells’ book and documentary, The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, in a statement to The Hoot. “I was astonished by both,” he said.

One of the most astounding aspects of Wells’ work, said Bernstein, is his theory that all human beings are descendents of a small clan of Africans.

Wells’ work tracing ancestral migration paths has “profound implications for our thinking about race, history, and other related matters worldwide,” said Bernstein.

In order to trace their own migratory history, students in participating classes will receive a DNA testing kit. They will then be able to take a cheek swab of their DNA, which will be analyzed by the Genographic Project’s lab, the press release explained.

Prof. Peter Conrad (SOC), faculty coordinator for the project, explained that students will receive a map of either their paternal or maternal migratory history dating back thousands of years. Conrad added that the test does not purport to provide an analysis of racial history.

Students will receive a confidential confirmation number in order to access their personal data, Waggoner said. “Students have the option of adding their results to the [National Geographic] Genographic database,” she added.

“I think this is the cutting edge in understanding how we came to people the earth,” said Conrad. He continued, “since we do a lot of teaching about migration, anthropology, and genetics, a number of faculty agreed this would be a good project to bring to Brandeis.”

Conrad will provide an introduction for a screening of Wells’ documentary Apr. 8 at 7 p.m. in the Faculty Club.

Waggoner commented, “I think [the Journey of Mankind project is] really important because it allows students who are already engaging in course material relevant to this type of endeavor to critically engage with it.”

“The human implications of these tests are important for students to engage with,” she said.

Berstein echoed the importance of the Genographic Project and the Brandeis Explores the Journey of Mankind Project.

The university’s “commitment to social justice and ‘Truth Even Unto Its Innermost Parts,’” he said, “would seem to require that this particular ‘truth’ get a full and fair airing at Brandeis.”

Furthermore, old anthropological beliefs claiming that different races originated independently have in part caused “enslavement…holocausts, ethnic cleansing and wars,” Bernstein said in his statement to The Hoot.

Were people to accept Wells’ theory, Bernstein stated, “perhaps even our ‘tribal’ tunnel of vision would be enlarged to see us truly…as a ‘Family of Man.’”