Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization

Image of Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization
Author(s): 
Release Date: 
June 8, 2010
Publisher/Imprint: 
Random House
Pages: 
256
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This is a fantastic account for both general and academic audiences. Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization is a synthesis of new evidence from human genetics and archaeology that can help us begin to address the growing and multiple crises we are now facing regarding crime, stress, pollution, and other issues.

We are richer, live longer, have more stuff, and can do amazing things that would have been considered magic just hundreds of years ago. So why are we often miserable? This well-researched, interdisciplinary study explores our inheritance as the successful descendants of the Neolithic revolution through the origins of agriculture. “Although performing a seemingly trivial act, the first person to plant a seed set all of this in motion by tying our fortunes to those of the planted fields. Food became a fuel . . . for powering social change.” This is really a book about the law of unforeseen consequences.

Wells focuses this book on the near future, the next fifty or so years, and the distant future: Two million years from now.  We are facing a global crisis that originated 10,000 years ago, when we turned from hunting and gathering to agriculture.

“If The Journey of Man [Wells’ first book] was about how humans populated the world, this book is about how we have adapted both psychologically and biologically to live in it during a period of enormous change. They form two bookends to a broad view of human history that takes us from the earliest days of our species to where we might be headed as we hurtle deeper into the twenty-first century.”

Accessible explanations of new evidence from global human DNA studies are among the highlights of this book, as are Wells’ many experiences in his travels around the world.

Spencer Wells has outstanding credentials. He is a biologist, geneticist, and anthropologist, graduating with his Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard, with additional postdoctoral work at Stanford and Oxford. He has been published in the major journals: Science, American Journal of Human Genetics, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He also did postdoctoral work with famed anthropological geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. Wells assisted in establishing the role of Central Asia in the spread of humankind around the world. His book, The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey (2002), explained what genetics can tell us about the spread of humanity across the globe. He leads “The Genographic Project” for the National Geographic Society, where he is an Explorer-in-Residence. The Project has been both popular and controversial. Wells’ 2003 companion documentary, “Journey of Man,” is an important part of the introductory class this reviewer teaches in Archaeology. Students consistently connect with this movie and its message of the essential kinship of all people. Such a message is vital in a time of national stress and xenophobia.

In this book, Wells suggests that with the adoption of agriculture, we chose the road to the control of nature rather than cooperation with nature. Although this decision to control our own food supply is what propelled us into the modern world, Wells demonstrates that such a dramatic shift in lifestyle had a downside that we’re only now beginning to recognize. It’s like the old saw: what’s good about somebody is what’s bad about somebody (and vice versa).

The chapter “Mystery in the Map” looks at human origins, how and why we transitioned to agriculture, as well as agriculture’s effect on our genetic makeup and population. Farmers were demonstrably less healthy than surrounding hunter-gatherers, yet farmers beat out the hunter-gatherers. We modified plants and animals when we domesticated them. But they also modified us.

The chapter “Growing a New Culture” starts with aquaculture as one answer to the crisis of overfishing. It then goes on to examine the climate’s effect on agricultural development in various centers around the globe, as we came up with new varieties of crops and domestic animals:

“When our ancestors created agriculture around 10,000 years ago, they had no idea of what other changes they were setting in motion. . . . They were unaware of what, by changing their fundamental relationship with nature, they were unleashing on the world. Instead of relying on nature’s plenty, they were creating it for themselves. By doing so they divorced themselves—and us—from millions of years of evolutionary history, charting a new course into the future without a map to guide them through the pitfalls that would appear over the subsequent ten millennia.”

In  “Diseased,” the author examines the consequences of our hunter-gatherer “thrifty genotype” and human domestication of animals and plants, which resulted in the development of diseases from diabetes to SARS.

In “Demented,” we learn about the connection between art and mental illness, and the effect of climate change on social sophistication, speech, and communication.  Our innate ancient freedoms of movement and choice as hunter-gatherers were replaced by a pressure to change to adapt to the new kinds of work—and all this eventually led to the anxiety and depression millions feel today. That ancient desire for freedom and variety was counter to our cultural narrative of ever increasing specialization and elaboration—which we see as personal and cultural advancement. “In the process of creating a densely populated, agricultural way of life, we were forced to subsume our individual desires . . . to suit the . . . broader needs of society . . . to being a group of worker bees with looming deadlines to meet.”

Specialization means that while we have advanced in technology and our overall effect on the world, individually we feel more and more disconnected from making decisions about our own lives. Stress, powerlessness, information-overload—all of these result in our senses being constantly bombarded. Short-term stress can be good, but long-term is not so good. We believe ourselves to be expert multitaskers, but most of us are actually trained to function in a specialized role—teacher, truck driver, fast food worker—for eight or more hours a day. This specialization is not how we are hardwired, and it can lead to some psychologically dark places. The ancient people we came from were adaptable generalists. Since we cannot be what we are wired to be, the use of drugs has mutated to mediate our psychological states in order to keep us in line with our changed way of life. “People have always enjoyed altering their states of consciousness, with the help of substances ranging from alcohol to . . . but this is the first time in history that we are routinely drugging ourselves in order to appear normal.”

“Fast-Forward” discusses how we now anticipate disease and increasingly attempt to counter it using genetic manipulation. Whether you look at the positive potential of curing and preventing disease, or worry about the implications of “playing God,” the law of unintended effects will always be with us. An accelerating trend is not only to medicate (if the boy is a little squirmy and rambunctious—as boys often are—then give him Ritalin), but also to undertake surgery (if the girl is not as pretty as her peers, fix her nose). 

Pleitropy is a term relating to the law of unintended consequences, namely the many effects of a gene on the phenotype (physical expression of the organism’s genetics) apart from the actual function of the gene. Not only does this lead to increasing litigation (as in a case of a boy suffering from Down’s syndrome, whose lawyer sued the boy’s own mother for knowing about his defect and not aborting him), and higher costs of health care, but also affects the essence of what it means to be human. “Heated Argument” tackles climate change and the energy crisis.

The last chapter, “Toward a New Mythos,” examines our moral compass: How did we get to be a culture of corruption? In many cases, at the level of the individual, it can be to our individual advantage to be unethical, as noted in an example using game theory and the betrayals of prisoners informing on each other in order to serve less time. But that advantage eventually fails.

Whereas the mythos of hunter-gatherers is sustainability and merging with the land on its terms, the mythos of agriculture is one of production and extraction (an analogy extended to throughout our culture, as in the energy sector) and control of the outcome on human terms. And if that doesn’t work out, then one just moves on to new lands.

But there aren’t any new lands to go to anymore. The Neolithic revolution that brought agriculture to us taught us to plan for and acquire surplus; competition and conflict over surplus replaced our quest for the necessities of daily living. The old adage—take only what you need, as you need it—has been replaced by going out and catching everything you can before the other guy can beat you to it. The result of self-centered private and market-oriented fishing to corner “surplus” has been the decimation of fish populations through overfishing and waste.

Wells makes one of his interesting side trips on the rise of Fundamentalism, both Islamic and Christian. Fundamentalism is essentially reactionary; it is a rejection and retreat from the main narrative of secularism and science (logos) developed since the Enlightenment. Fundamentalism rises when people feel left out of the future and sense that morality and ethics are taking a backseat. Logos is great for explanation but not as good as mythos is for finding meaning. Wells has an interesting take on logos and mythos in this case, in that he argues that fundamentalists favor applying a logos approach of rationality, science and technology, to a mythos end (the one true way of meaning and salvation). This is a common factor between fundamentalist Muslims and Christians: “Both movements, while rooted in their desire to return to what they see as a golden age of religious mythos, are making ever-greater use of the methods of logos in their mobilization.” Trouble arises when each side is certain that God is on their side and not the other guy’s—so the results indicate the validity of one’s belief that God picked their side (even moreso if the other guy is dead). Not advocating either side, Wells just asks if this is not a good time to step back no matter where you stand, and look at one’s underlying assumptions.

Today’s crises include Wall Street, the BP oil spill, and numerous government, religious, and political conflicts. Wells notes we are at a place where our culture has the possibility of destroying not only humanity, but also what it means to be human. Addressing these problems is not a matter of education, knowledge, and skill. The problems lie more in the realms of ethics and wisdom. Wanting more than you need is central to modern life, and it is the driving force of market capitalism, as in Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good.”

Wells isn’t just a doomsayer though. He offers some ideas on how we might begin to change—and that starts by changing our worldview.  Notably, Joseph Campbell talked decades ago about the essential need for a new mythos, and Wells suggests something very simple as a starting point.

As with the original Pandora’s Box filled with disaster and evil, in the bottom of this box there is something that resembles hope. And this tiny hope begins with an innocuous, yet incredibly challenging premise to begin to put the brakes on the rush to hit the brick wall, rather than simply slamming into it. Counter to everything our culture and hundreds of generations have taught us, we must somehow learn to want less. If it all started with one person planting a seed, the answer can also start with each one of us.

How do we learn to want less? Social engineering does not work. Utopia has turned out to be a harmful sort of mythos in the final analysis. Wells suggests that answers come not only from places like Washington, D.C., or Kyoto, but from the people who still practice our oldest way of life, such as the Hadzabe of Lake Eyasi in Tanzania. Wells is not parroting the romantic view of hunter-gatherers from the anthropology of the 1960s and 1970s, but he also does not believe in the “nasty, brutish and short” revival of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. He is most certainly not advocating a return to hunting and gathering as a way of life—there are too many of us for that now—but simply pointing out a balanced way to look at modern problems using an ancient yardstick developed by humanity’s ancestors.

Though no Pollyanna, Wells’ inherent optimism and humanism is evident everywhere in this book. It does have a meandering style, more of an essay than an argument, which may rankle the more linear-minded at times. Pandora’s Seed will not be a comfortable read for those invested in the status quo. But many of us know in our bones that we can’t go on as we have been. It isn’t working anymore. Our love affair with technology and materialism brings with it some very troubling diseases. “. . . Saving ourselves will mean accepting human nature, not suppressing it. It will mean reassessing our cultural emphasis on expansion, acquisition, and perfectibility. It will mean learning from peoples that retain a link back to the way we lived for virtually our entire evolutionary period.”

This is an important book for our times, to be ranked with such books as Jared Diamond’s books Collapse and Guns, Germs and Steel.  If Spencer Wells continues producing books like this, he has the potential to become a pop anthropology guru like Margaret Mead, whose work engendered much good. The world needs to know not only how to want less, but also about the how to want the things that will take us into the next ten millennia.

Reviewer Lance M. Foster is an anthropologist and artist, an enrolled member of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, and the author of The Indians of Iowa.