The Alumnus: Spencer Wells, BS, 1998

Credit: Eduardo Rubiano

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. Interviewed by Marc Airhart.

In 2005, you launched the Genographic Project, which asks people from around the world to swab their cheeks and send in DNA samples to build understanding of how humans populated the planet. How did that project start?

The folks at National Geographic asked me, if you could do anything, what would it be, which is a cool question. I told them we needed more genetic samples. We had only a handful of genetic markers at the time, and I talked about expanding that to hundreds of thousands or even millions of people. That way, we could explore the dawn of agriculture, the journey of the Polynesians across the Pacific, and on and on. They said that’s a big idea: let’s do it. 

Now that the program is 10 years old, are there still new things to learn?

Always. People are now sharing their family stories online. So instead of telling you that you have northwestern European origins, maybe we can start to tell you down to a specific village where your ancestors came from. We can dig in and get more of the details from the stories and discover things we didn’t expect. In other areas, such as looking at genes preserved in fossils, we now know that Neanderthals and modern humans interbred. All those things drive the science forward.

Has your work in the genetics of human populations over time changed your perspective on your own place within the human community?

Yes. That’s the social message behind what we do. If you look at the world the way Linnaeus did in the 18th century, you would think there are lots of human races. We look so different in terms of skin color, eye color, hair color. The stuff you can see on the surface is so different that it seems there must be deep-seated differences. But it turns out that that’s all wrong. We all share a recent common ancestor in Africa in the last 200,000 years. All of the diversity we see is a result of migration patterns over the last 60,000 years or about 2,000 human generations. That’s a blink of an eye in an evolutionary sense. At the genetic level, we’re 99.9 percent the same. We’re all part of an extended human family. That person that seems so different from you is actually your cousin. So maybe you should treat him or her a little better.

“At the genetic level, we’re 99.9 percent the same. We’re all part of an extended human family.”

Read our extended interview to learn about Wells’ plans as part-owner of the Austin-based blues club, Antone’s, and more.