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A New Perspective on the Historical Transition to Agriculture,
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This review is from: Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization (Hardcover)
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. 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