|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
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
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.
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
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
|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
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
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
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
years ago, the process of securing funds was more
difficult because Americans were more sensitive
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
stories of the Garden of Eden, Noah's Ark as a parable
seeking to explain a diverse strand of elements and
|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
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.