Interview with Spencer Wells

October 24, 2008

Hoot editor Alison Channon sat down with renowned geneticist and anthropologist Spencer Wells before his lecture to the Brandeis Community to discuss his start in biology, the message of his work, his thoughts on race, and his critics.

The Brandeis Hoot: What is the personal motivation for your work? What do you get out of it?

Spencer Wells: I was fascinated by history as a child, especially pre-history. I wanted to be a historian. I got interested in biology secondarily when my mom want back to school [to study biology] and I wanted to combine the two…it comes with an obsession with the past and wanting to use the tools of science to solve these riddles.

BH: What do you hope your test subjects get out of your work?

SW: I would hope they would be curious about their history…I got to tell [the African Bushmen featured in the film The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey] they’ve always been there. They thought that was really cool. [Reactions] can run the gammit. People can be upset. People feel it changes their lives…We’re not trying to replace anything. We’re trying to add to what people know about their history.

BH: What should people get from watching your film or from reading your book?

SW: The overarching message is that we’re basically all Africans under the skin. I’d hope people would gain an appreciation for these incredibly diverse cultures around the world…[In making the film], we wanted to get out and meet these people…this could serve as an inspiration for people to travel and meet different people.

BH: Your documentary doesn’t discuss race and doesn’t mention race until the end. What is your message about race?

SW: Race is a social construct. There’s been a debate in physical anthropology for five centuries about how different races are at the biological level. What we’ve shown is that the biological differences between different population groups are minimal. The whole notion that we’re all cousins separated by no more than 2000 generations – that’s what we can say about race as biologists and geneticists.

BH: How does your work fit with early 20th century race science, eugenics, and theories of polygenesis?

SW: It probably debunks a lot of that stuff. There’s this incredible connectivity. It’s about how they moved [to populate the earth]. You get back to the same tree.

BH: What is the purpose of the National Geographic Genographic Project? Why involve universities and random people?

SW: The project is a huge multi-year project to answer questions in science. Communicating results and teaching – that’s a big part of what we do. Doing things like this brings these things home. You’re actively participating in science. It’s a good way to get people interested.

BH: What do you say to your detractors who say that going into a community and saying that ‘this is where you came from’ is culturally imperialistic?

SW: If that’s what we were doing, I’d agree with them. We make an effort to explain to every group that there is a possibility that DNA will contradict their story of origin. We’re not trying to replace a sense of self but add to it. We don’t want to take that away…you have to be very culturally sensitive.

BH: The question could be whether or not contradictory narrative has the power to make a society crumble.

SW: If the sense of tradition and connection to culture is so strong, why would it be threatened by a mitochondrial result? We’re scientists and we’re using the tools of science to answer these questions.

BH: How do you respond to people who say your work is anti-God?

SW: That brings in questions of evolution. At the end of the day, I’m a biologist, everything we do is underpinned by evolution…we haven’t gotten a lot of opposition from anti-evolution groups.

BH: Final comments?

SW: Knowledge is neither inherently bad nor inherently good. It depends what you do with it. Right now, there’s a class between people who want to take a fundamental view for lack of a better word and people who want to take a rational view for lack of a better word. We’ll see what happens.

Menu Title