Friday, November 2, 2012

Pandora's Seed Book review: It all started going horribly wrong about 10,000 years ago

Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of CivilizationPandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization by T. Spencer Wells
My rating: 3 of 5 stars Back in the dark ages I studied communication in college, but I also minored in anthropology. I was fascinated by the one class in archaeology I took, and even subscribed to Archaeology Magazine briefly before I realized that I never get around to reading magazines.

It turns out I didn't really have a knack for piecing together the story of human history based on the items our predecessors left behind though. Our professor would draw a picture of a dwelling on a whiteboard, pointing  out different features. This is where bedding was found. This is where shards of pottery were uncovered. Remnants of food were dug up here. That sort of thing.

When he asked the class to identify what functions different areas served, I invariably thought the toilet was the kitchen, and vice versa.

Although I didn't pursue a career as an archaeologist, it's always been interesting to watch the field progress as researchers get better and better at uncovering the past.

Archaeologist Spencer Wells goes an extra step in Pandora's Seed goes a step further and tries to figure out what our past tells us about our present and future. Over the past few decades archaeologists have added tools to their arsenals that help tell the story in new ways.

When I was in college, most archaeological research started at dig sites. Now a lot of it starts in a lab where scientists can compare DNA of human populations in different parts of the globe to figure out how far back in time you have to go to find common ancestors.

What scientists have found in the dirt and in our bones tells us that the world changed pretty dramatically starting about 10,000 years ago. That's when humans started domesticating plants and animals for food. This didn't just change our diets. It led to a population boom, the birth of cities, governments, laws, and much more.

It also led to changes in our genetic makeup. For instance, the ability to digest milk from cows and goats became advantageous, so humans with a genetic mutation that let them do this were more likely to survive. It's likely that most of our ancestors were lactose intolerant.

But here's the strange thing: Not every change actually made humans healthier. The advent of agriculture made it possible for humans to shape the land to meet their needs instead of living or dying based on the amount of food they could find. But the average lifespan of a human didn't change much once we started planting food in the ground, and the average height of humans actually declined.

Things only really started to turn around in the 20th century, and it's not because we started eating organic food or anything. Medicine just got better.

In the early chapters of Pandora's Seed, Wells traces some interesting lines between the foods we started cultivating and health problems such as obesity and diabetes. It's pretty easy to see direct correlations... although solutions are a little trickier to come by.

Later in the book he touches on issues such as mental illness, genetic manipulation and global warming... things that are a bit trickier to trace back to the roots of our agricultural society. I get the feeling that in order to flesh out the book, Wells just started writing about things that were on his mind rather than topics he could tie to a central thesis.

But Wells does have a way with words and he does a pretty good job of explaining complex scientific issues so that they can be understood by non-scientists. While Pandora's Seed feels a bit scattered at times, it presents some interesting ideas in an easy-to-read format.

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