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Wells emphasizes common origins

Published: October 24, 2008
Section: Front Page


National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence, Spencer Wells, speaks to Brandeis Students at the Faculty Club, on Thursday night. Wells discussed the motives behind his work, as well as his findings that the human race might very well have originated in Africa.<br /><br /><i>PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence, Spencer Wells, speaks to Brandeis Students at the Faculty Club, on Thursday night. Wells discussed the motives behind his work, as well as his findings that the human race might very well have originated in Africa.

PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence, Spencer Wells, discussed his work with the National Geographic Genographic Project last evening in the Faculty Club. Wells, a geneticist and anthropologist, has traveled the world testing the DNA of indigenous and traditional populations in order to determine how man populated the earth. His work is documented in the film The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey and in the book of the same title.

Wells began his talk by explaining his motives. “I am a population geneticist by training,” he said. “I want to explain the pattern of human diversity we see…how did we generate these incredible patterns of diversity?”

The answer to that question lies in man’s origins. “Do we share a common ancestor?” Wells asked. Charles Darwin, he said, answered the question of common origin – humans evolved from apes. “He was absolutely right…[but] I want to know about us as homo sapiens…where did we originate?”

Previously, Wells explained, this question has been addressed by “going out and digging in the ground.”

Digs, said Wells, “give us possibilities…not the probabilities we’re really looking for.” Instead, “we approach [the question of human origins] as a genealogical problem,” he said. Like creating a family tree, he commented, “we start from the present and go back in the past.”

When creating a family tree, Wells said, “everyone hits a brick wall.” He continued, “we’re all carrying a historical document” that solves the brick wall problem – DNA.

Wells described DNA as a “sequence of subunits that are the blueprint to make another you.” Mutations in DNA serve as genetic markers. Wells links groups of people and their migratory patterns through these markers. “That’s our time machine,” he said.

While these markers serve as the primary tool for Wells in his work to understand human migration, “people are nearly genetically identical at the DNA level,” he said.

Referencing the different genetic marker groups, “everybody in the world falls into one of these family trees,” Wells said.

“What’s the take-home message? The deepest split in the family tree is found among African lineages – we all originated in Africa,” he said. “It’s only 60,000 years ago that the African population left the continent to people the earth.”

Begun after the completion of his film, the National Geographic Genographic Project expands Wells’ DNA collection work to include non-traditional people all over the world. The Legacy Fund, a related project, works to preserve and document the languages and traditions of traditional populations.

Whiles Wells has focused his research on indigenous and traditional populations because “they retain a link to the past…we wanted to open this up to everyone [because] it’s the story of everybody.”

“The film is a very broad brush view,” Wells added, “we need to increase the number of samples to understand a lot more about human migration.”

Individuals can buy DNA swab kits from National Geographic and receive a map of their ancestors’ migration patterns. So far, upwards of 270,000 people have sent away for swabbing kits. Last semester, Brandeis students and faculty were able to participate in the project for free through the Brandeis Explores the Journey of Humankind Project.

Jules Bernstein ’57, a friend of Wells who helped in the creation of the Brandeis Explores the Journey of Humankind Project, said in an interview before the lecture, “we have an obligation on this critical worldwide issue to enlighten as many people as possible.”

“We need to communicate the notion that we all have a common ancestor,” Wells said.