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Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization 1st Edition

44 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1400062157
ISBN-10: 1400062152
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

More food but also disease, craziness, and anomie resulted from the agricultural revolution, according to this diffuse meditation on progress and its discontents. Wells (The Journey of Man), a geneticist, anthropologist, and National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence, voices misgivings about the breakthrough to farming 10,000 years ago, spurred by climate change. The food supply was more stable, but caused populations to explode; epidemics flourished because of overcrowding and proximity to farm animals; despotic governments emerged to organize agricultural production; and warfare erupted over farming settlements. Then came urbanism and modernity, which clashed even more intensely with our nomadic hunter-gatherer nature. Nowadays, Wells contends, we are both stultified and overstimulated, cut off from the land and alienated from one other, resulting in mental illness and violent fundamentalism. Wells gives readers an engaging rundown of the science that reconstructs the prehistoric past, but he loses focus in trying to connect that past to every contemporary issue from obesity to global warming, and his solution is unconvincingly simple: Want less. B&w photos. (June 8)
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From Booklist

A geneticist and author of two general-interest titles (The Journey of Man, 2002; Deep Ancestry, 2006), Wells in this work concentrates on the beginnings of agriculture some 10,000 years ago. Intrigued by traces of the transition from hunter-gatherer times that can be interpreted from the human genome, Wells chats with researchers on this topic and translates their methods and findings into jargon-free language. Combining the DNA discussions with descriptions of archaeological evidence, Wells maintains that putting away the spear and taking up the plow have not been unalloyed boons to humanity. Ascribing obesity, diabetes, malaria, dental decay, and other maladies to the carbohydrate- and sugar-rich diet unboxed by Pandora and the agricultural revolution, Wells further indicts another product of agrarian society, civilization, for contributing to mental illnesses. Pursuing this line of argument to modern anxieties about genetic selection in human reproduction and about climate change, Wells will appeal to a variety of science readers, including those interested in genetic anthropology, health, and the future course of human evolution. --Gilbert Taylor

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1 edition (June 8, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400062152
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400062157
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 0.9 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #821,929 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More 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 three books, The Journey of Man, Deep Ancestry, and Pandora's Seed. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife, a documentary filmmaker.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

102 of 105 people found the following review helpful By W. V. Buckley on June 28, 2010
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I have to hand it to Spencer Wells. He's a master at explaining scientific data and making a subject that might seem dry and academic come alive. In Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization he takes on the topic of early man's transition from hunter-gatherer to an argicultural basis 10,000 years ago during the Neolithic revolution. Using his background in population genetics, Wells makes the case that in opting for the settled lives of farmers our early ancestors set us on a path toward civilization.

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.
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52 of 56 people found the following review helpful By Jay C. Smith on June 27, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By David Hillstrom on July 5, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The enormous change brought about by the invention of agriculture is well documented. As Spencer Wells says in his book, Pandora's Seed, the transition to permanent settlements led "from villages to cities, which joined in empires with written records to pass on to future generations. What before was lost to posterity or decayed into vague myth was now written in stone." Numerous authors have dealt with this historical transition and its impact. (Probably one of the best such books is Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.) Mr Wells however has added a significant new dimension to the analysis. Humans guided the evolution of the plants and animals that they domesticated, but there is now genetic evidence that shows that humans were in turn themselves affected by these changes. Geneticists have now discovered numerous recent mutations to the human genome which resulted from the abrupt change in our environment and our diet. The story which the author develops explains in detail both the scope of these changes and the fact that the impact of those genetic mutations and the dramatic shift in the human environment is still unfolding. He goes on to consider the potential future impact of the tools which geneticists have now developed, which could permit designer children as in the movie Gattica. Thus the initial chapters of the book are powerful and enormously important.

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.
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