Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization Hardcover – Jun 8 2010
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“Fascinating—this book has some very new ways of looking at very old issues.”
—Bill McKibben, bestselling author of The End of Nature
"Spencer Wells—explorer, geneticist, geographer, and author—takes us on an exciting tour of the last 10,000 years of our history in order to forewarn us of what we shall have to deal with in the next 50 years."
—Jared Diamond, Professor of Geography at UCLA, and Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel
"Spencer Wells's writing combines a deep knowledge of the history of human evolution with a most engaging and lively manner of making that story come alive. Pandora’s Seed draws upon compelling anecdotes and moving personal narratives to crystallize a crucial turning point in the history of our species, the point at which modern human beings stop and look back at our long evolutionary trajectory, and confront squarely its dark side, its cost. With this knowledge, Wells deeply believes, we can take the necessary steps to chart a common, humane future over the crucial next half century. Pandora’s Seed reflects Wells’s deep learning, and his deep love of our all too human community."—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University and author of Tradition and the Black Atlantic
"Spencer Wells has a provocative and timely message. He argues that we are at a critical juncture where our culture could destroy the very essence of what it means to be human. His closely argued and thoughtful essay gives us hope and a blueprint for the future that relies in part on lessons from peoples who still retain links with the distant part. Everyone with a stake in humanity’s future should read this book."—Brian Fagan, author of The Great Warming and Cro-Magnon
About the Author
Spencer Wells is an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society and Frank H. T. Rhodes Class of ’56 Professor at Cornell University. He leads the Genographic Project, which is collecting and analyzing hundreds of thousands of DNA samples from people around the world in order to decipher how our ancestors populated the planet. Wells received his Ph.D. from Harvard University and conducted postdoctoral work at Stanford and Oxford. He has written two books, The Journey of Man and Deep Ancestry. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, a documentary filmmaker.
Inside This Book(Learn More)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Little did our ancestors know that along with farming, they were also sowing the seeds of overpopulation, disease, obesity, mental illness, climate change and even violent fundamentalism. At least according to Pandora's Seed.
I enjoyed the early chanpters of this book where Wells discussed early man. His points about farming and early urbanization are clearly made, as are his ideas that the plentiful supply of food that could be grown rather than searched for set the stage for the development of diseases like diabetes. But as he delved into other topics it seemed like his ideas were less based on science and more on conjecture. I first noticed this in his chapter on mental illness, but it carried through the rest of the book.
By the time I finished the chapters on climate change and religious fundamentalism it felt like Wells was stretching his ideas almost to the breaking point. Granted, he didn't say anything I disagree with; but it was starting to feel less like science and more like an agenda.
Wells has much of interest to say. I just wish he'd be a little more clear when he's speaking for science and when he's speaking for himself.
Wells builds on the basic evolutionary idea that when the environment changes not all of the genes suitable for the previous environment necessarily remain advantageous. The greatest disruption of this sort in the past 50,000 years, he believes, was when humans began growing their own food about 10,000 years ago, the development of agriculture. Of course, our ancestors had no idea of the long-term consequences of their choices as they began to domesticate plants and animals.
Wells emphasizes those consequences that were not so good. For instance, he argues, human health suffered. For both males and females, longevity, average height, and pelvic indices deteriorated from where they were in Paleolithic times (30,000 to 9,000 years ago) and did not recover until the nineteenth century. "Ultimately, nearly every single major disease affecting modern human populations whether bacterial, viral, parasitic, or noncommunicable has its roots in the mismatch between our biology and the world we have created since the advent of agriculture," he contends.
Wells carries the argument through to current times, although he attends little to the intervening cultural history. He would like us to be more conscious of the "transgenerational" effects of the choices we make as they pertain to, for instance, the health and ethical issues involved in genetic engineering, our impacts on global warming, probable future reliance on aquaculture, and so on. With greater capacity to alter life forms and environments than ever before, "More and more, we are coming to realize that tinkering with nature can produce unintended effects, even if the tinkering seems well planned and justified."
The biological perspective on history has proven bountiful in recent years. In this case Wells begins by covering new genetic evidence of the biological transformations associated with the shift to agriculture. He draws on scholarly publications not typically read by non-specialists, performing a service for general readers. But then he turns to information and points of view that many of his readers will have heard often before. A substantial part of the book relies on material previously accessible in various broadly popular works (Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Bill McKibben, James Howard Kunstler, William McNeill, and Jared Diamond, for example, feature in the bibliography).
Wells set out to delineate the costs of civilization and not the benefits. Having such a one-sided but transparent objective is fair enough, but it should not relieve the author of the responsibility for critical scrutiny of the evidence. Thus it is bothersome that he glamorizes hunter-gatherer life, suggesting that these societies met material needs, had ample leisure time, were egalitarian, were not acquisitive, and were generally non-violent -- civilization ostensibly spoiled all of this. He is aware of at least some of the important contrary anthropological findings, but he glosses over them in order to buttress his theme.
It is no surprise that Wells does not go so far as to advocate reversion to hunter-gatherer culture -- it would be shocking (and more gripping) if he did (like Paul Shepard, for instance). Instead, he is "merely pointing out that we can learn something about the state of modern society from those ancestors." Well, of course, but this conclusion seems rather tepid after all the build-up.
Wells (or his editor) deserves credit for striving to make the book reader-friendly. However, a couple of the devices employed for this purpose generate at best only mixed results. Each chapter begins with an account of Wells visiting some particular place. In certain instances this works to humanize the subject, as in his story of the efforts of a Derbyshire, England couple to save their son afflicted with a serious genetic disease. But certain of these vignettes come across as merely gratuitous -- his visit to Dollywood adds no particular insight to his discussion of modern obesity, for example.
There are more than a dozen charts, mostly easy to interpret. Again, though, a few do not work so well (for example, legends obscured by small print and colors washed out in the transformation to black and white).
Pandora's Seed conveys commendable messages pertaining to human fate and that of our planet, though no truly fresh ones. It does so imperfectly, not quite clearing the high bar I had set for it when I first picked it up.
Mr Wells is best when he is talking about genetic science, which he knows in depth. However, he also tackles issues such as our contemporary environmental challenge, psychiatric disorders and religious fundamentalism. I found these secondary discussions interesting in terms of the questions that are raised but ultimately they remain rather shallow and simplistic. For example he writes at length about the conflict between science and religion (or as he terms it mythos vs. logos) but he ends up sitting on the fence. I accept the dilemma that humans seek meaning as well as knowledge. But we need to take a position so as to sift away the myths of the past that frequently impair rather than enhance our capacity for adapting to the challenges of the contemporary world. Ultimately, as Karen Armstrong has written, humans will always tell myths just as they produce art. But the beauty of art (pun intended) is that art can provide meaning and depth to our lives without the risk of confusing it with knowledge or truth. Again Mr Wells analyzes the problem but leaves us stranded without direction.
In the final chapter the author summarizes the issues which suggest humanity is on an unsustainable and catastrophic course. He then proposes a `solution' by suggesting that we need to learn to `want less.' As a rallying call this slogan makes sense. But again it is a rather hollow call. The only realistic way we might bring about such a major change in the course of history is via regulation (and global regulation at that). The road to this goal will be arduous and will require that we build consensus, while defeating misplaced ideas and beliefs. Mr Wells has left us with just the slogan and no further practical guidance. But it is an important an important start and Pandora's Seed is an important book despite my few critical comments.
Author of The Bridge
The premise is that the shift from hunter-gathering to farming had a deep impact on humanity's future. So far, so good. The primary contribution of this book is to summarize contemporary research about population genetics in support of its main idea. I found the idea of Goldschmidt's 'macromutations,' the FOXP2 sequence conferring language abilities, the changing 'waves' of disease burden over 15,000 years, selection pressure for lactase digestion, and other specific factoids very interesting. The book would have worked fine as a general summary, but the author overreaches. He takes these building blocks and tries to create an edifice that he wants to call 'transgenerational power'--the ability of one generation to affect others down the line-- but in the end the author doesn't make much use of it; it's just sort of a metaphorical umbrella hanging over the proceedings, and ends up either explaining too much, or too little.
The problem is that there isn't that much research to summarize, so most of the essay becomes speculation. The reader, for example, will spend alot of time wallowing through anecdotes about the Lower Austrian Psychiatric Hospital and Tuvalu in order to reach conclusory assertions such as the 'psychological mismatch between the densely populated, noisy agricultural world and the sparsely populated hunter-gatherer is almost certainly on of the reasons for the psychological unease felt by many people.' This may be plausible, but there is no research to show that this is true. As a result, all too many sentences end with a question-mark, as in the sense of 'could this be true?' Well, sure.
The author's gratuitous travel anecdotes are annoying; if his publisher paid for these 'research' trips it was exceedingly generous. Each chapter has the author visiting some location around the globe--Chicago, Tuvalu, Norway, England--usually to investigate some trivial detail or have a 'conversation' with somebody which could have as easily been accomplished by telephone. I knew I was in trouble from the first sentence in the Foreward, where he describes himself typing on his laptop, sipping wine at 36,000 feet, flying above the Arabian Sea.
The only thing more annoying is the number of sentences which begin with a variant of "As those of you who have been paying attention will realize..." as if the author was condescending to tutor a group of dunderheads.
Pandora's Seed is primarily a vehicle for a author to pad his resume a 'global adventurer'; along the way the reader gets treated to a few interesting crumbs of research and anecdote laced with condescension, which are, nevertheless a worthwhile expenditure of time to consume despite the poor taste left on the palate.
I'll just have to wash that down with a glass of wine while typing on my laptop (five stories above the ground in Detroit, Michigan.)
This book suffers from two big flaws: (1) the author wastes too much time describing his travels around the world, his relationships with colleagues and other distractions that add little value to the book; and (2) the author bounces around from one idea to the next but rarely explores any concept long enough to develop any ideas before he's off to the next segment.
An example of first flaw can be seen at the beginning of the first chapter. He devotes more words to describing the history of his relationship with a colleague at the University of Chicago than he does to discussing the relevance of that colleague's work to this book. This together with his very lengthy and very unnecessary travel anecdotes take up far too much of the book's pages. I'm not sure if this is just bad editing or a deliberate attempt to stretch a short book out to a fill 200 pages.
An example of the second flaw can be found in the third chapter about disease. The chapter begins with a discussion of obesity and it appears that Wells is about to dive into a discussion of how the choice of certain grain crops is a factor in this disease. But before he explores the topic of obesity he cuts the discussion short and quickly moves on to the next segment, which is a discussion of how viruses spread from animals to humans and how they quickly spread across the world. Instead of a geneticist's deep analysis of the topic of nutrition based illnesses we get a very brief, very superficial observation about obesity being correlated to income and then he's off to his next segment about some other disease. Aside from the parts of the book where the author discusses his speciality (population genetics), which are in depth and interesting, most of the insights he offers on topics like medical and social issues are brief and don't really offer much in the way of in-depth analysis. It would have been better if Wells had stuck to 3 or 4 subjects and done a deep dive analysis of them rather than visit 10 subjects and breeze through them in this half-hearted manner.
I really wanted to like this book, the subject matter is interesting and it looked like it had such great promise but the unnecessary travelogue that takes up half of each chapter coupled with the lack of in-depth analysis of key topics make this book a disappointment. If you want some meatier analysis of the impact of the agricultural revolution on human health try reading Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma". If you want to focus on the environmental and social aspects of the rise of agriculture try Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel".
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