Spencer Wells is a leading population geneticist and director of the Genographic Project from National Geographic. 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.
A National Geographic explorer-in-residence, Wells is spearheading the Genographic Project, calling it "a dream come true." His hope is that the project, which builds on Wells's earlier work (featured in his book and television program, The Journey of Man ) and is being conducted in collaboration with other scientists around the world, will capture an invaluable genetic snapshot of humanity before modern-day influences erase it forever.
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. Beginning in 1994, Wells conducted postdoctoral training at Stanford University's School of Medicine with famed geneticist Luca Cavalli-Sforza, considered the "father of anthropological genetics." It was there that Wells became committed to studying genetic diversity in indigenous populations and unraveling age-old mysteries about early human migration.
Wells's field studies began in earnest in 1996 with his survey of Central Asia. In 1998 Wells and his colleagues expanded their study to include some 25,000 miles of Asia and the former Soviet republics. 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.
Since the Genographic Project began, Wells's work has taken him to over three dozen countries, including Chad, Tajikistan, Morocco, Papua New Guinea, and French Polynesia, and he recently published his second book, Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genographic Project. He lives with his wife, a documentary filmmaker, in Washington, D.C.
Hear an interview with Spencer Wells on National Geographic Weekend .
How far back can you trace your ancestors? Spencer Wells. director of the National Geographic Genographic Project. joins Boyd in the studio to talk about the project’s latest discovery: It turns out that most people from around the Mediterranean are descended from the Phoenecians, a group of seafarers and traders who founded colonies all over the Mediterranean until they were completely obliterated by the Romans in the second century B.C.
Wells is leading the farthest reaching human-migration study ever conducted.Our Explorers in Action
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Spencer Wells studies human diversity — the process by which humanity, which springs from a single common source, has become so astonishingly diverse and widespread.Why you should listen
By analyzing DNA from people in all regions of the world, Spencer Wells has concluded that all humans alive today are descended
from a single man who lived in Africa around 60,000 to 90,000 years ago. Now, Wells is working on the follow-up question: How did this man, sometimes called "Ychromosomal Adam," become the multicultural, globe-spanning body of life known as humanity?
Wells was recently named project director of the National Geographic Society's multiyear Genographic Project, which uses DNA samples to trace human migration out of Africa. In his 2002 book The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey , he shows how genetic data can trace human migrations over the past 50,000 years. as our ancestors wandered out of Africa to fill up the continents of the globe.Spencer Wells’ TED talk
Wells grew up in Lubbock, Texas and started college at age 16.
He wrote the book The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey (2002), which explains how genetic data has been used to trace human migrations over the past 50,000 years, when modern humans first migrated outside of Africa. According to Wells, one group took a southern route and populated southern India and southeast Asia, then Australia. The other group, accounting for 90% of the world's non-African population (some 5 billion people as of late 2006), took a northern route, eventually peopling most of Eurasia (largely displacing the aboriginals in southern India, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia in the process), North Africa and the Americas. Wells also wrote and presented the PBS/National Geographic documentary of the same name. By analyzing DNA from people in all regions of the world, Wells has concluded that all humans alive today are descended from a single man who lived in Africa around 60,000 - 90,000 years ago, a man also known as Y-chromosomal Adam. [ 1 ]
Since 2005, Wells has headed The Genographic Project. undertaken by the National Geographic Society. IBM and the Waitt Family Foundation. which is adding to our knowledge of human history by analyzing DNA samples from around the world, thereby creating a picture of how our ancestors populated the planet.
He is quoted as saying: "As often happens in science, technology has opened up a field to new ways of answering old questions—often providing startling answers."
As director of National Geographic Genographic Project he said this about the possibility of two Human species living today together: "We don't know how long it takes for hominids to fission off into separate species, but clearly they were separated for a very long time" [ 2 ] This question may be estimated by comparing other species with similar speed of reproduction, media have own deductible methods. [ 3 ]
Wells lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife, documentary filmmaker Pamela Caragol Wells. He has two daughters, Margot and Sasha, from his first marriage.
Around 60,000 years ago, a man—genetically identical to us—lived in Africa. Every person alive today is descended from him. How did this real-life Adam wind up as the father of us all? What happened to the descendants of other men who lived at theMore Around 60,000 years ago, a man—genetically identical to us—lived in Africa. Every person alive today is descended from him. How did this real-life Adam wind up as the father of us all? What happened to the descendants of other men who lived at the same time? And why, if modern humans share a single prehistoric ancestor, do we come in so many sizes, shapes, and races?
Examining the hidden secrets of human evolution in our genetic code, Spencer Wells reveals how developments in the revolutionary science of population genetics have made it possible to create a family tree for the whole of humanity. Replete with marvelous anecdotes and remarkable information, from the truth about the real Adam and Eve to the way differing racial types emerged, The Journey of Man is an enthralling, epic tour through the history and development of early humankind. LessGet a copy Friends’ Reviews
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L.A. Starks rated it it was amazing
This nonfiction book from 2002 summarizes Wells' and others' research into the human path traced by Y-chromosome and mitochondrial-DNA from Africa outward.
It is fascinating work for those interested in human genetics and anthropology.
One highlight is that North and Sout. Read full review
Steve Van Slyke rated it really liked it
over 3 years agoLisa Butterworth rated it liked it
over 6 years ago
This book appealed to the geeky side of me. I really love learning about human genetics and origins, about mitochondrial eve, the mother of us all, living in africa, and trying to wrap my mind around how that could possibly be. This book was at times a little above my hea. Read full review
Avrel Seale rated it it was amazing
almost 9 years ago
I interviewed Wells for an issue of The Alcalde, the University of Texas alumni magazine. He is a geneticist who, with his colleagues, has circled the globe taking blood samples and establishing that all humans descended from a single man, who lived about 60,000 years ago. Read full review
Eliza rated it it was ok
almost 6 years ago
Spencer Wells traces the migrations of humankind from our original life in Africa through our eventual diffusion throughout the world. With genetics of the male Y-chromosome, & the accrued differences of isolated populations over time, the pattern of when human popula. Read full review
Radhika rated it really liked it
almost 8 years ago
Unlike most books which precede the movie, this one followed the PBS documentary made by Spencer Wells for National Geographic. That was a FABULOUS documentary. I expected the book to follow the documentary closely but provide more scientific details. The book is quite in. Read full review
J.D. Camorlinga rated it liked it
over 4 years ago
The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, by Spencer Wells. New York: Random House Trade paperbacks, 2003. 218 pages.
The Journey of Man was written by Spencer Wells, a geneticist with a PhD in Biology from Harvard University. Wells wrote this book in conjunction with a docu. Read full review
Nat rated it liked it
L'argomento trattato è molto interessante e ho apprezzato il libro. Certo non so se per qualcuno completamente a digiuno di genetica sia una lettura comprensibile. Anche per me, che ho studi di biologia alle spalle, è risultato a tratti faticoso e non ci sono che pochi gr. Read full review
R. P.Smith rated it it was amazing
about 1 month ago
One could say this is required reading for all, but that would make it too school teacher ish and ignore the pleasure
Katriena Knights rated it really liked it
about 2 months ago
Saturday 23 November 2002 11.20 GMT First published on Saturday 23 November 2002 11.20 GMT
The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey
by Spencer Wells
240pp, Allen Lane, £20
If you wanted to find out about human pre-history, where would you look for artefacts? The obvious answer - in the soil - will pop into the head of anyone who has watched Time Team. But a new group of archaeologists is looking for our ancestors' relics in an unlikely place - inside the cells of living people - and their findings look likely to revolutionise our understanding of where we came from and how we have travelled through history.
Most of the DNA code in our cells is shuffled confusingly before being delivered to our offspring, but some bits are copied faithfully from one generation to the next. Exact copies of the DNA inside mitochondria - structures that supply our cells with energy - are passed from mothers to daughters, while exact copies of the DNA that makes up Y-chromosomes are passed from fathers to sons. The fidelity of copying is exemplary, but errors, or mutations, do sometimes occur. Mutations accumulate over time, which means that the Y-DNA of your very distant descendants will be rather different from yours.
Under certain assumptions, similarities between DNA sequences can indicate paternity (your descendants will share your pattern of mutations), while accumulated differences can be used as a kind of molecular clock, indicating how distant your descendants really are. In practical terms, this means that geneticists can look at the Y-DNA of groups of people from different parts of the world and estimate when they last shared an ancestor. And by looking at lots of DNA they can tell which groups are ancestral, which are descendant, and, by plotting the results on a map, infer how our species has procreated itself through history and around the globe.
As for the origin of our kind, the genetic results are unambiguous: we are all Africans. Africans were the parents of everyone alive today. As a species we were very reluctant to leave our ancestral home. The urge finally overtook us only 40,000 years ago, and in a geological eye-blink we exploded out of Africa and scurried right around the world. Southeast Asia and Australia received us first, it seems, while Afro-Europeans and Afro-Americans are relative newcomers on the scene.
The Journey of Man is packed with important insights into our history and our relationships with each other. The part of the book I found most startling, however, may at first seem rather mundane. It concerns the spread of cultivation. Did agriculture spread around the globe in the heads of itinerant farmers, or did the idea jump from one human head to another without anyone having to move very far?
Geographical patterns of archaeological artefacts and genetic mutations together suggest that cultivation moved from China through south-east Asia as people moved, but that similar agricultural ideas may have spread from the Mediterranean into northern Europe largely by word of mouth. If this finding is confirmed - the data currently hint at it - what an extraordinary achievement it will represent. Scientists will have distinguished between two different ways in which our ancestors, thousands of years ago, shared an idea. If that's not smart, I don't know what is.
The Journey of Man is fascinating and oozes charm. The basic science isn't explained as clearly as it could have been -there's a lot of unhelpful analogising about soup recipes, and the important bits fly by with indecent haste - but it doesn't matter much, because Wells simply overwhelms you with enthusiasm. It's like being assailed by Peter Snow. The late Stephen Jay Gould was once like this, before he contracted a bad case of literature. In spirit, The Journey of Man reminds me a lot of Gould's inspirational first book, Ever Since Darwin. I just hope that Wells's next is another raw, gatling-gun affair, complete with dodgy grammar and unhelpful stuff about soup. Who needs literature when science is this much fun?
· Chris Lavers is the author of Why Elephants Have Big Ears (Phoenix).