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Spencer Wells


The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
This book is a sequel to the author's The Journey of Man, in which he traced the patterns of human migration after we left Africa 50,000 or 60,000 years ago. Here he focuses on the invention of agriculture which took place more or less simultaneously in different parts of the world about 10,000 years ago. Earlier writers often hailed this as a decisive triumph that enabled the flourishing of civilisation (the Neolithic Revolution), but Wells thinks that it was in many ways a disaster and was responsible for many of the problems that confront us today.

This is not a new idea; a number of writers, notably Jared Diamond in The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, have made the same point. But Wells brings the arguments together well and cites some interesting facts along the way.

There is a long-standing question concerning the reasons for the sudden change in our way of life 10,000 years ago, when the introduction of agriculture was accompanied by the development of settled urban life and a massive expansion in human population. Some, such as Richard G. Klein, favour genetic mutation leading to a change in brain function, but Wells prefers environmental causes.

Grain-gathering and the making of flour go back to the end of the last ice age, when they were practised by hunter-gatherers in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East. As a consequence they started to live a settled life instead of a nomadic one. But then, between about 12,700 and 11,500, there ensued a cold spell known as the Younger Dryas. The food plants no longer grew in the plains, as they had in the warm phase.The people could no longer return to their earlier hunter-gatherer way of life and they had to travel farther to collect the grain from plants that now were confined to the mountains. But at some point someone—probably a woman, Wells suggests—thought of the solution: why not plant the seeds close to the village?

The result was a new way of life but not necessarily a pleasanter or healthier one. Compared with earlier hunter–gatherers, the agriculturalists had shorter lives and were smaller in stature. Only in the twentieth century did we begin to recapture some of the physical stature of the hunter–gatherers, and even then, not completely. Dental caries began to be frequent for the first time. Even more remarkable, malaria and other epidemic diseases increased after the invention of agriculture in the Neolithic. The increase in population led to the development of social hierarchies, government, and large-scale wars.

The prevalence of mental disorders today is, Wells believes, a consequence of modern life. The unprecedented expansion of the population, especially in cities, is stressful in way that we have not evolved to cope with. Increased noise levels are another cause of stress.

Looking to the future, Wells has reservations about the prospects for genetic modification of humans, which some are advocating as a remedy for disease.

Overall, the debate should be about not what we are capable of doing but what we should be doing. As we move ever more quickly to a future that is a far cry from our origins as a species, we should be careful to preserve what is important about being human. The most obvious choice in the twenty-first century may be to "pop a pill"—including one that changes your DNA—but we should always try to bear in mind what the long-term consequences might be.
Other topics covered are those one would expect—global warming, drought, large-scale migration as conditions worsen—and their implications for our future.
The twenty-first century will test much of what we take for granted about our current lifestyles, and will force us to finally come to terms with the powerful transgenerational trend we unleashed during the Neolithic period.
So what is the solution? In a phrase, it is what E.F. Schumacher was advocating in the 1970s: Small is Beautiful (although Wells does not cite this). In a world of finite resources, we have to want less. This is also quite similar to the message of the Buddha, who lived not very long after the advent of the Neolithic Revolution. Whether that is what will happen is anyone's guess.


%T Pandora's Seed
%S The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization
%A Wells, Spencer
%I Allen Lane
%C London
%D 2010
%G ISBN 978-0-99755-2
%P 230pp
%K anthropology, evolution
%O half-tone illustrations

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