Spencer Wells: Are All Human Beings Related?

Oct 24, 2014
Originally published on April 14, 2017 5:34 pm

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode How It All Began.

About Spencer Wells' TED Talk

Geneticist Spencer Wells describes how he uses DNA samples to trace our individual origins going back 2,000 generations.

About Spencer Wells

Spencer Wells is an author, documentary filmmaker, population geneticist and director of the Genographic Project from National Geographic. His fascination with the past has led him to the farthest reaches of the Earth in search of populations whose DNA unlocks the secrets of human history.

Since the Genographic Project began, Wells has collected DNA samples from more than 700,000 people all over the world. He recently published his second book, Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genographic Project.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. A couple weeks ago, I got a small package in the mail, and inside there was a kit. It was a couple of plastic test tubes, there were a few plastic scrapers, some Ziploc bags and my instructions were to scrape the inside of my cheeks, up and down, for about 30 seconds.

SPENCER WELLS: And how was that for you?

RAZ: It was great.

And then send those sticks back to this guy.

WELLS: My name is Dr. Spencer Wells and I'm a card-carrying explorer at the National Geography Society.

RAZ: Wow.

WELLS: And I'm the director of the Genographic Project there.

RAZ: The Genographic Project, at National Geographic, has collected cheek swabs from about 700,000 people around the world. And in each of those swabs embedded in the DNA, there's a story.

So what did you find? Who, like, where do I come from?

WELLS: Well, I'm looking at your results right now.

RAZ: OK.

WELLS: And so we're analyzing several pieces of your genome. On your mother's side, you type is T1B3. It's mostly found in Southeastern Europe and the Middle East. And your subtype is more common in Turkey than elsewhere.

RAZ: Wow.

WELLS: And on your dad's side, you also have a group that's more common in the Middle East. So your particular combination is closest to Lebanese and Romanians.

RAZ: That's amazing.

WELLS: So again, pointing to kind of the region around Turkey. So your ancestors would've encountered the Neanderthals in the Middle East, between 45 and 50,000 years ago. And they bred with them and you, today, are caring 2.7 percent Neanderthal DNA, which is slightly higher than average.

RAZ: Huh.

WELLS: Average is about 2.1 percent.

RAZ: You know, it's funny you say that because I do have some characteristics that I think would confirm that finding.

So we're all curious about our roots, right? And they seem so personal. But Spencer's chasing a much bigger story, a story that connects every single one of us to a common origin.

WELLS: You know, this is one of those basic human questions. You know, like Einstein said I want to know the thoughts of God. All else is detail. This is one of those deep human questions that I feel like we as a species should be trying to answer. You know, as the only species that, in the history of the universe as far as we know, that has ever evolved the capacity to start to answer these sorts of questions. By God, we need to be trying to do it.

RAZ: OK. Challenge accepted. Our show today, How It All Began, stories and ideas about our origins, who we are, what came before us and where we're going as a species. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.