The Economist magazine has suggested that if humanity has a "historian-in-chief" it is Spencer Wells, one of the foremost practitioners applying population genetics to refine our understanding of distant human history. That sets a rather high expectation for Pandora's Seed.
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.