The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization
By Spencer Wells
Random House, Hardcover, 9781400062157, 256pp.
Publication Date: June 8, 2010
List Price: $26.00*
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In The Journey of Man, renowned geneticist and anthropologist Spencer Wells traced human evolution back to our earliest ancestors, creating a remarkable and readable map of our distant past. Now, in his thrilling new book, he examines our cultural inheritance in order to find the turning point that led us to the path we are on today, one he believes we must veer from in order to survive.
Pandora’s Seed takes us on a powerful and provocative globe-trotting tour of human history, back to a seminal event roughly ten thousand years ago, when our species made a radical shift in its way of life: We became farmers rather than hunter-gatherers, setting in motion a momentous chain of events that could not have been foreseen at the time.
Although this decision to control our own food supply is what propelled us into the modern world, Wells demonstrates—using the latest genetic and anthropological data—that such a dramatic shift in lifestyle had a downside that we’re only now beginning to recognize. Growing grain crops ultimately made humans more sedentary and unhealthy and made the planet more crowded. The expanding population and the need to apportion limited resources such as water created hierarchies and inequalities. The desire to control—and no longer cooperate with—nature altered the concept of religion, making deities fewer and more influential, foreshadowing today’s fanaticisms. The proximity of humans and animals bred diseases that metastasized over time. Freedom of movement and choice were replaced by a pressure to work that is the forebear of the anxiety and depression millions feel today. Wells offers a hopeful prescription for altering a life to which we were always ill suited, recommending that we change our priorities and self-destructive appetites before it’s too late.
A riveting and accessible scientific detective story, Pandora’s Seed is an eye-opening book for anyone fascinated by the past and concerned about the future.
“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