Monday, February 11, 2013

Pandora’s Seed

Spencer Wells is a geneticist who gathers DNA samples from around the world and uses them to analyze evolutionary history.  Mutations occur from time to time, and they provide landmarks in our genetic history.  Following a mutation, the new characteristic is passed along to future generations.  A region where the new characteristic is found in unusual density is marked as its place of origin.  Wells can also distinguish old mutations from recent ones, based on how common they are.  So, each mutation is marked with a time stamp and a place stamp.  Using these markers, and your DNA, Wells can go to a world map and plot the meandering journey of your ancestors’ migration out of Africa. 
Genetic historians perceive the journey of humankind in a unique manner.  Based on gene markers, they have theorized that humans nearly went extinct around 70,000 to 75,000 years ago, dwindling down to 2,000 to 10,000 individuals.  This corresponds with the huge eruption of Mount Toba in Sumatra, which spewed massive amounts of dust into the atmosphere.  Global temperatures dropped from 9° to 27° F, and the weather stayed cool for 1,000 years.
The ancestors of Neanderthals moved to Europe about 500,000 years ago, and they overspecialized for life in temperate forests.  Our ancestors migrated out of Africa 60,000 years ago, and arrived in Europe 35,000 years ago.  A few thousand years later, the Neanderthals were gone.  Europe was in an ice age 35,000 years ago, and the forests had changed to grasslands and tundra.  Neanderthals were not well suited for hunting on open ground.  The humans had better weapons, better hunting skills, and travelled in larger groups. 
Our tool-making skills increased significantly around 60,000 years ago, and we may have been pushed out of Africa by population pressure.  The arrival of the cave painting era, 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, provides clear evidence that we had acquired abstract thought.  This era of big changes has been called the Great Leap Forward.  Recent evidence suggests that this era of advance may have started as early as 70,000 years ago. 
Moving out of Africa presented us with a radically different survival game, and this encouraged us to be innovative and adaptable.  So did the wild mood swings of the climate.  Wells, who sees the world through gene-colored glasses, suspects that abstract thinking was the offspring of one or more genetic mutations.  Once we had acquired this dangerous juju, we were able to jump onto the high-speed train of cultural evolution.  Sadly, we have yet to be blessed with mutations that provide the powers of foresight or wisdom. 
So, for 60,000 years we’ve been stuck in a vicious cycle of out-of-control innovation, and this madness kicked on turbo thrusters about 10,000 years ago, with the Neolithic Revolution — the dawn of farming and civilization.  We entered into a long era of unusually warm and stable weather, which opened the floodgates to many new possibilities, and many new mistakes.
At this point, the feces hit the fan, in impressive quantities.  Everything that had worked pretty well for tens of thousands of years got blown out of the water.  The quality of our diet plummeted.  Our teeth began rotting from a grain-based diet.  Our enslaved animals generously shared their disease pathogens with us, shooting us off into an era of catastrophic pandemic disease.  Growing population led to growing empires and growing warfare.  We got shorter, sicker, and died younger.  We lost our ancient freedom and became “a group of worker bees with looming deadlines to meet.” 
Well’s book, Pandora’s Seed — The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization, does not present us with a miraculous epic of progress.  Agriculture totally changed our relationship with nature, and not for the better.  We quit finding food, and started creating it.  “Instead of being along for the ride, we climbed into the driver’s seat.”  Our numbers exploded, but our quality of life declined. 
Today, at the zenith of our tool-making juggernaut, we’re killing ourselves with a high-calorie crap diet, and an addiction to motorized transport.  A wide variety of degenerative diseases, rare in earlier centuries, have become quite popular.  We tend to be obese, and our rates of mental illness are rising sharply.  The World Health Organization predicts that by 2020, mental illness will be the second most common cause of death and disability, following heart disease. 
The book gets wobbly near the end, as it contemplates solutions.  Wells clearly understands that our current way of life is a dysfunctional disaster, and he hopes that we can find a sustainable long-term solution, but his recommendations get dodgy.  This is a normal problem with any book that attempts to sneak as much cool technology as possible into a “sustainable” tomorrow.  Many have tried, none have succeeded. 
“I’m not advocating a return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, of course….”  Why not?  At some point in our collapse, if we’re lucky, hunting may once again become a real possibility.  He doesn’t reveal how we’ll be able to indefinitely continue agriculture as water supplies are rapidly being depleted, as erosion continues the process of converting cropland into wasteland, and as the end of the cheap energy bubble is leading us toward the end agriculture as we know it.
Writing in the months prior to the Fukushima disaster, Wells thought it was time for a second look at nuclear energy, “as nuclear waste disposal methods become increasingly sophisticated and power plants become safer and more efficient.”  Better electric cars are coming out all the time.  If we don’t develop new forms of energy, our only alternative would be radical change. 
We are never more innovative than when we are up against the wall.  Maybe we’ll come up with some cool ideas.  The bottom line is that we need a new worldview, followed by a new lifestyle.  We need to live far slower, and waste far less.  Great!
Finally, Wells reveals his biggest fear, a nightmare future where fundamentalists try to take over the world.  Both Christian and Muslim fundamentalists detest modern life, and want to return to the good old days, by any means necessary.  Here on the west coast, Christian fundamentalism is far from putting a stranglehold on society.  But Wells was born in Georgia, raised in Texas, and schooled at Harvard, so his paranoia is understandable.
Wells, Spencer, Pandora’s Seed — The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization, Random House, New York, 2010. 


Anonymous said...

Wells Never delivers on his subtitle: ”Why the Hunter-gatherer Holds the Key to Our Survival.” He saves the HG for the very last pages of the book, and then seems to lose his nerve. Wells has made a place for himself within the present paradigm: he gets to be a celebrity and travel a lot; he has recognition and prestige. Is this why he tempts us with the promise of some revolutionary thinking, but ends up endorsing the failed old paradigm instead?

Riversong said...

Wow, Adrian, you read that book fast. You thanked me just last week for mentioning it and here is your book review already (I guess you already had it under your belt, eh?)

While Spencer Wells may not be able to stand sufficiently outside the dominant paradigm to see an unobscured horizon, he never-the-less offers some cutting edge scientific support for the anarcho-primitivist perspective which is otherwise vulnerable to easy dismissal by mainstream thinkers.

What Is Sustainable said...

Anonymous, you're right! I read the (earlier) hardcover version, and its subtitle was "The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization." I don't know if he lost his nerve, or if his publisher put the forks to him. Unfortunately, 2013 is a bit early for coming out of the closet with praise for hunters - if you want to get published.

What Is Sustainable said...

Riversong, it was a short book. He adds some missing pieces to the puzzle, but I didn't care for how he wrapped the book up.

Anonymous said...

Anybody who gets a handle on the truth--and wants to make money at telling it--has to quit telling it so strongly.

This blog is worth 10x any establishment-published book.

What Is Sustainable said...

Ivy Mike, in a couple months or so, a lot of the blog is going to be transformed into a paperback and Kindle book.