Interview with geneticist Dr Spencer Wells
 
"The present served as the starting point from where we traced our steps backwards"
 
Posted on 21 November 2002
The National Geographic Channel is slowly but surely trying to carve a niche for itself by introducing different genres of programming.

The latest initiative challenges the very nature of the evolution of man. In order to promote its intriguing new documentary
Journey of Man which airs on 15 December at 9 pm, the channel has brought down the brain behind the enterprise geneticist Dr Spencer Wells to India.

Indiantelevision.com correspondent
Ashwin Pinto caught up with Wells who spoke about the discovery, his work and progress being made in the field of genetic engineering.
 

How did you get involved with National Geographic and 'Journey of Man'?
When I decided to make the film, National Geographic was a natural choice. National Geographic Channel is about going out and seeing what the world is like. The idea took shape around nearly 10 years ago and I soon found out that filmmakers have a different approach to their work as opposed to scientists. Firstly, it is important to use the best possible gear. One should also try and be able to sleep anywhere no matter the type of environment. When you travel from Central Asia to Australia to Alaska, it is important to travel light. The other alternative was Discovery, which I did not go with as their approach to filmmaking is different in that they concentrate more on imaging.

When starting out, there were two basic issues to deal with. Where exactly do our origins lie, and how did we come to be in every single corner of the globe. One of my most remarkable findings came in Kazakhstan. A man Niyazov is the descendant of the Central Asian man who populated Europe and America.

 
How much money did you spend on the project? Where did funding come from?
Oh! Millions of dollars and we got funding from various sources. National Science Foundation US, Grants from local universities, NATO, National Geographic Society. Ten years ago, the process of securing funds was more difficult than it is today primarily because Americans were sensitive towards race. Now they are more gradually becoming more open in their attitude. I would also like to stress that racism is not just silly but also scientifically incorrect. I mean President Bush could be closely related to a member of the Taliban.

This has been a collaborative effort with scientists from all over the world including India. Our method is to make contact with local regions especially indigenous tribes. Folk tales that they have to tell about their ancestors are also important.
 
"Our method is to make contact with local regions especially indigenous tribes. Folk tales that they have to tell about their ancestors are also important"

 

What old theories of evolution does 'Journey of man' throw out of the window and is Darwinism one of them?
The Multiregionalism Theory which states that we evolved depending on the region our ancestors settled in. This we now know to be untrue. Our ancestors came from Africa and we used the Y Chromosome of human DNA to uncover secrets. Earlier, for tracing family trees, we used to dig up bones from the ground. The problem with this is that there are different fossils and so it doesn't give us an idea as to who our direct ancestors are. When we study DNA sequences any changes form a line of descent.

The advantage of the Y Chromosome is that it is handed down only by the male parent unmingled with a woman's DNA. So it can stay the same from generation to generation. It can only change with a mutation which is an accidental but natural change in the genetic code. This can happen to strengthen the immune system from newly emerged diseases.

 
From your research in the 60,000 years, how rapidly did man's intellectual and physical traits developed?
The most rapid development took place around 10,000 years ago. This was the upper paleolithic transition. We went from being hunter-gatherers to being able to mould the environment. The arts like music, painting came into being and man made a conscious decision to stop constantly travelling whenever the conditions became unfavourable.

60,000 years ago the world was in the grip of an ice age. So a lot of land mass was uncovered which is now buried in the sea and that is how I believe our ancestors travelled. This was the first migration wave. I believe that the ancestors of Australian aborigines come from here. The second wave took place 45,000 years ago. Southern Indians trace their ancestors from here. What is remarkable is that they survived although temperatures could reach minus 100 degrees.
 
How did men, women of different colours come into being if we all come from a black man?
The skin colour explanation accepted is that we first evolved in a tropical region in Africa. The sun is strong in that region and so the skin had to act as a protective layer. When we started moving into the Northern Hemisphere 60,000 years ago the sun power was not as great. The sun helps us form Vitamin D without which one get the Rickets disease. So we feel that our ancestors made deliberate attempt to reduce the amount of melanin in the system.
 
Has your theory generated a lot of controversy and heated debate among the scientific community?
The main problem people in scientific circles have is with the date. For the average man 60,000 years is a long time. I for one cannot remember what I did last week. However scientists when talking of discoveries think in terms of millions of years. However archaeological evidence supports our study of the first fully modern man who does not hunch and behave like an animal
 
Over the last five years, has the amount of coverage that television channels devote to genetic and scientific discoveries, research, studies gone up?
Yes it has. The interest among people all over the world on the latest scientific advances is rising. This is healthy as participation is important if we are to progress rapidly. Science creates the future and I see the present as nothing more than a thin membrane separating what lies ahead from what has already gone by. I agree with poet T S Eliot saying "What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from." For us, the present served as the starting point from where we traced our steps backwards.
 
"Ten years ago, the process of securing funds was more difficult because Americans were more sensitive towards race"
 

For how long have you been a geneticist?
For 15 years. I got interested in the field when I was doing my undergraduate studies in History at the university of Texas in the mid 80s. In the beginning, I had to a lot of lab work and my PhD was rather tedious. Now I spend more time on the field. In fact around 30-40 per cent of work in Journey of Man was done on the field. My interest stems from the desire to know where exactly do we come from? Darwin got it right when he said that the differences between human beings were exaggerated. He also correctly pointed out that we come from Africa.

Now we are working a new project on the Journey of Man microsite on the National Geographic site. This is a global project in order to obtain a genetic snapshot. We will create a place on the site which will allow visitors to digitally create an attractive face they would like to get sexually involved with. This is then fed into a database. Through the regional average we hope to get an insight into how races evolved. The global average will give us a glimpse into Adam and Eve. Speaking of this I look at the Bible with its
stories of the Garden of Eden, Noah's Ark as a parable seeking to explain a diverse strand of elements and circumstances.

 
What kinds of advances have been made since you started out?
Plenty. The whole complexion and nature has changed. Now a lot of progress has been made in the area of mapping the human genome. This involves getting and deciphering the DNA sequence of man.
 
Besides 'Journey of Man', what other important research projects have you been involved in?
I have written two books. Journey of Man has just been published in India. I have also done a study on the origins of the Aryan race and studied the Silk Route in-depth. I will be making a sequel to Journey of Man looking at the last 10,000 years, where rapid strides were made and also taking a glimpse into the future. In addition, I am doing genetic research to find out more about the Phoenicians. These were sea faring people who lived in one million BC and then were conquered and destroyed by the Romans. They were spread across the Mediterranean creating trade groups. I want to know who they were, how far they travelled….
 
Is the extinction of animal species in the future still a huge concern when one considers the advances in cloning?
Yes, it is a concern. Right now, once a species disappears it is gone forever. Cloning is a complicated process and right now there are a lot of technical difficulties. Cloning Dolly the sheep took 100 attempts and even then she is not keeping good health. In the near future though, when the problems get ironed out then perhaps the issue could be a possibility.
 
Finally do you see a bright future for biotechnology research in India?
Yes I do. The potential for quality work is huge because of the advances India has made in the field of Information Technology. Genetic sequences can now be generated. We have to be careful about genetic manipulation however lest a strain of virus is created.
 

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