Spencer Wells has done some wonderful work traveling around the world searching for modern examples of ancient human DNA. His previous books are,
- The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey
- Meeting the Family: One Man’s Journey Through His Human Ancestry
- Deep Ancestry: Inside The Genographic Project
One would think this new book by Spencer Wells — Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization,would be an update of these ideas but it isn’t. Wells takes a more politically current tack into the big problems facing humanity today — obesity, information overload, human crowding. Those are the unforeseen costs of civilization and now he claims we are questing for a retreat from science and attempting to learn how to return to a life style more similar to what our ancestral DNA adapted us to.
This is a beautifully written book and full of good information but it is dipped in the publisher’s National Geographic style of honey coating everything. This style is appealing to many people and has earned that publisher an enduring place in Americana but I don’t think it is where modern decision makers should go for their core data or world views.
— ( A tiny quibble, the sources for this book are listed by chapter at the back and appear to be accurate but are difficult to trace back into the text because there are no page numbers. Pandora’s Seed is a transitional book in its documentation technique and has some web site links but the trend at present for the foreseeable future is clearly to have many more links and precise locations documented. (Actually, the future is already here online in text form and also live in-video. That is where the growing edge of intellectual debate is trending. The paper trail style of documentation may be slipping into mobile-books like Kindle and the documentation for references and quotations may get much better and quicker but at the same time harder to keep track of. The problem with that web tracking style of documentary proof is that with the online information overload there is a loss of time/space/subject orientation. Hopefully we will soon have a technical fix to help keep us oriented. (For example: Have a time line for everything you do, such as is being developed at ChronoZoom. With a program such as that you can zoom into a time, place or subject in your personal world and find, in detail, what you only generally remember.) —
Pandora’s Seed starts off with a historical discussion of human population since our obscure beginnings. On page 15 there is a graph showing human population at about 80,000 individual people at 100,000 years ago and then a gradual drop off to 2,000 people starting at 80,000 and ending 70,000 years ago. I added the line and text colored red. The cause of this population crash, he says, was the super eruption of a volcano named Toba located in Sumatra which erupted about 71,000 years ago. But, his timing is backward and absurd. The population doesn’t drop off in expectation of a volcanic eruption ten thousand years in the future; it drops off sharply when the problem occurs and shortly after because of habitat disruptions. Once the habitat is restored the re-population to previous levels or some new stable level will begin. Which it did. But, he has the population dying off before the disaster which is absurd.
On rereading parts of this book trying to write a comprehensible post about it I find myself getting annoyed because this type of illogical reasoning keeps cropping up. But what is worse, this book isn’t about anything in particular! It is a wandering through the most prominent people and articles on several subjects and skimming material off of the top of some of their ideas and then presenting them as if they are supporting his thesis. But, there is no thesis – at least not much of one. So, I go once again to the end of the book to see where he ended up in an attempt to find out what he was talking about.
At the present critical point in human history, where we have the tools to begin to solve some of the problems set in motion by the Neolithic Revolution, saving ourselves will mean accepting human nature, not suppressing it. It will mean reassessing our cultural emphasis on expansion, acquisition, and perfectibility. It will mean learning from peoples that retain a link back to the way we lived for virtually our entire evolutionary history. And it might allow us to stick around for the next two million years.
That’s the concluding couple of sentences and they sound nice and read well but it really doesn’t say anything more than we should live more like our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors. Nuts! Our current human population of 7 billion is a million times bigger than their 7 thousand. They were living in ecological balance with their habitat way back then. If we were to live as they did, all but 7 thousand of us would have to die. I am not enthusiastic about that because my goal is to maximize human happiness and to do that I want many people to inhabit this Earth for a very long time.
But it gets worse! Here we have yet another example of someone with one of the worst carbon footprints on the planet (he talks about his frequent jet flights around the world to make this book, al la Al Gore) telling the rest of us to hold our breath so we don’t exhale CO2 and pollute the air. (No he didn’t say that, – it’s a joke – well not exactly.) He doesn’t seem to have a clue that this million to one population imbalance isn’t viable and won’t work in any kind of functioning reality because, seven billion people can’t live the same life style as seven thousand. I am reminded of Joe Stalin’s infamous remark, “One man’s death is a tragedy, a million is just a statistic.” Sometimes, even intelligent well informed people are not going to help us survive better if at all.
I do believe they wanted to help!