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Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization

3.75  ·  Rating Details ·  833 Ratings  ·  132 Reviews
This new book by Spencer Wells, the internationally known geneticist, anthropologist, author, and director of the Genographic Project, focuses on the seminal event in human history: mankind's decision to become farmers rather than hunter-gatherers.

What do terrorism, pandemic disease, and global warming have in common? To find the answer we need to go back ten millennia,
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Published June 8th 2010 by Tantor Media (first published January 1st 2010)
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Will Byrnes
In a 2006 interview with Conservation Biology, geneticist, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, and head of NatGeo’s Genographic Project, Spencer Wells said that in various ways people today
are mismatched with the culture we’ve created in the last 10,000 years. And where are we going in the future?
When asked what he meant by “mismatched,” Wells replied
I mean things like the obesity epidemic, increasing diabetes, children on Ritalin, high levels of suicide and depression — ever-increasing
Spencer Wells argues in Pandora’s Seed that there are two critical events in humanity’s (relatively) recent past that have pushed us onto the path leading to modern civilization. Two cusps that have led to the marvels we enjoy today, as well as the horrors (which explains the book’s subtitle: “The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization”). The first took place 70-80,000 years ago when Mount Toba in Sumatra erupted, throwing millions of tons of ash into the atmosphere that caused a catastrophic climate s ...more
This is definitely one of those books where you're reading and you have to stop yourself and ask WTF the main premise was again. He is seriously all over the place. And the writing? Irritating. His choice of wording is often questionable and irritated me as a reader. For instance, calling Dolly Parton buxom was somehow warranted? In a book supposedly about "the unforeseen cost of civilization" huh? I also thought it was a bad choice to have so many tangents and back and forth style of writing. H ...more
Apr 28, 2013 Ben rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This is one of the most disappointing books I've ever read. The version I read has the subtitle "Why the Hunter-Gatherer Holds the Key to Our Survival", though it seems that only lesson Wells has taken from H-G cultures is that adaptation is good and necessary. But this lesson could be learned from pretty much any culture, and even from other non-human creatures. The first bit of the book had a few interesting tidbits, but the analysis was incredibly shallow. Nearly every paragraph for a bit had ...more
Jun 07, 2013 Carlos rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really enjoyed this book. Especially the center chapters where he was discussing the social issues that came from the development civilization. In the chapter "Demented", his brief treatment of mental illness was one of the most compelling from an evolutionary perspective that I have read, in that it stripped the need to find a "point" or a "benefit" to issues like depression and anxiety, which others writing from that standpoint attempt to find. His chapters on the future I thought did not qu ...more
Richard Reese
Mar 23, 2015 Richard Reese rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
May 14, 2011 Elaine rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ebooks
As the title portends, Wells chronicles the troubles a Pandora unleashed on humankind when first she planted some of the grains she had gathered for food. This occurred long before humans gave up their ostensibly wonderful hunting and gathering societies to live permanently on their farms. So, for thousands of years, Homo sapiens grew small plots of grain and pounded into flour, depite their seasonal movements. During those years, apparently, nobody owned the land they grew wheat on. It was only ...more
Mar 17, 2011 Joseph rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
The author expounds some interesting ideas about how even the earliest transition of humans (homo sapiens) from a hunter-gatherer culture to a fixed farming culture has put us at odds with our evolutionary genetics; a disconnect that has grown substantially since the industrial revolution. He presents a very compelling argument for this during first two thirds of the book when discussing how humans are not genetically engineered for the high carbohydrate diet and relatively sedentary life style ...more
Absolutely nothing new in here. It's chapter after chapter of today's headlining topics: health crises, global warming, cultural malaise, etc. This time, brought to you by your friendly geneticist and (amateur?) biological anthropologist who should probably brush up on the cultural anthropology (because referencing Lewis Morgan's social structures in a positive light, or like, as "correct," is sort of disgusting). There's a lot of moralizing throughout and it ends with the same trite liberal cli ...more
Jun 01, 2015 Donna rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This book was not what I thought it was but I enjoyed listening to his theories. It was definitely thought provoking. With books like this, I always feel cautious about the regurgitation of facts. Everyone seems to assimilate it differently and then they produce their own opinions. Whether I agreed with his bullet points or not, it was interesting to hear his spin on where we've been, where we are, and where we might be going as a civilization.
Dweezil Everaerts
Food for thought op de akkers van Pandora. Dit boek biedt veel stof tot nadenken. Het is een verzameling van wetenschappelijke feiten, speculatie en wilde ideeën. Spencer Wells laat zijn geest lekker breed uitwaaien, van welvaartsziekten tot terrorisme, maar daardoor vergeet hij soms een punt aan zijn betoog te breien. En dat is jammer want de man heeft wel degelijk iets te vertellen. Wells hoopt dat wij als mondiale soort kunnen voorbij zien aan de oppervlakkige verschillen die ons verdeeld hou ...more
May 09, 2014 Athena rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
Whatever we do to mitigate global worming by setting caps and trading carbon credits, the forces we have set in motion will radically change the world we live in over the next millennium.

As with the power of genetically modifying our offspring and, before that, domesticating plants and animals during the Neolithic period, we have set in motion transgenerational forces whose ultimate effects we simply cannot predict. Although much of the debate around global warming centres on models and predict
Actually a rather fast read, maybe just because the subject of ancient human origins interests me so much. The final chapters of the book are the ones that talk about the unforeseen costs of civilization, but the sections I enjoyed more were the earlier ones, giving more of a review of our ancient human prehistory, but that is just my bias. I guess his conclusion can be summed up thusly: "We need to want less: less commuting, smaller houses, more energy-efficient forms of transportation, food th ...more
Feb 02, 2012 Lazygorillas rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A definite "must read" for 2012, I found myself unable to put this book down until I finished it. The writing style is fluid and accessible, and the science and anthropology is conveyed in an easy-to-read format for the layperson. I had never really thought the profound impact that cultivating our own food had on our species, as opposed to hunting and foraging, and how it led to the establishment of government and specialization. An impressive work.
Jun 09, 2010 Mlg rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating book about the ways in which humans evolved and the implications of that evolution and Wells' predictions for future evolution. Choosing to grow crops instead of staying hunter-gatherers had a downside that we are only now beginning to recognize. The chapters on tinkering with our genes are really interesting.
May 17, 2011 Zachary rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
This book was all right, although what the book sets up as the turning point for humanity--the transition to agriculture 8,000 years ago, which set the stage for war, disease, overpopulation, and other malaises--wasn't really explained to my satisfaction. I wished the author would have spent more time exploring the reasons why that transition took place.
Dec 01, 2014 Dy-an rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The resonant buzz of our lives is stressing us out.
Oct 14, 2012 Brad rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
“The true lineage of the historic Arab people (so mainly from Jordan and Saudi Arabia) is J1-YSC235 and its subclade, J1-P858. The other subclades of J1 cannot be considered to be the paternal descendants of first speakers of Arabic. These other J1 lineages were Arabicized alongside other haplogroups (J2, Q1b, etc.) during the Islamic expansion from the 7th century onward.
It is true that these more genuinely Arabic J1-P858 lineages are found everywhere in the Arabic-speaking world today, but the
Stephanie (
Review @

After reading Wells’ The Journey of Man and loving it, I couldn’t wait to dig into Pandora’s Seed, which promised to illuminate how “advanced” the hunter-gatherer societies were and what modern man can learn from these times for sustainability. Where there were a plethora of interesting ideas and facts, I must admit the book never grabbed me for a couple of reasons.

As I said, there are fascinating ideas and much to learn from this book for sure. Who wouldn’t be inte
Brett Williams
Apr 11, 2014 Brett Williams rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Is human balance impossible?

According to Wells, we traded longer, healthier lives in greater balance with nature (though not perfection) with less or almost no warfare as hunter-gatherers, for certainty as agriculturalists. The cause for this swap appears to have been climatic, with the help of six thousand feet of mountain top blown off as initiator of volcanic winter and its after effects. Nearly exterminated as a species, we tumbled to a mindboggling bottom of perhaps 2000 humans between us a
Jul 04, 2010 Joe rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, nonfiction
Are you aware that every major inheritable food-related illness can be linked to changes to the human genome within the last 10,000 years? Or that by the end of the century illnesses to obesity are expected to be the leading global killer by the end of the century? These are some of the topics covered by Spencer Wells in his examination of some of the darker consequences mankind's invention of agriculture, the root technology from which the rest of civilization followed.

Wells gives us a gentetic
The book is informative and opens doors to further explorations. Rather than including notes and a bibliography, Wells ends with a discursive section called "Sources and Further Readings," arranged by chapter. While I enjoyed his annotations on sources, I find the traditional notes and bibliography (with annotations adding value) more useful in that I may not have time to search through a book for material on a topic that interests me to which the current author refers without citing page number ...more
Nov 24, 2010 Colin rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting, sprawling, book which tackles ideas relating to how actions our distant ancestors took - such as with the development of a sedentary, agricultural way of life - led to our current, modern society. Tracing this action, reaction over thousands of years is no small task, and Wells does a fine job of distilling this dense, chaotic information into a digestible form.

The key idea upon which the rest of the book is predicated, is that the development of an agricultural, sedentary based li
Dec 26, 2014 Claire rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Starts off fine, with the clear point of the rise of agriculture leading to negative consequences, but I think it loses ground midway where he starts focusing on more futuristic things, such as designer babies, which is hardly the most pressing problem at the moment (although people continually reproducing is destroying the planet more than anything). I would've preferred a deeper argument for the role farming has played in humanity's downturn of... humanity. Apart from the obvious physical diff ...more
JS Found
Feb 18, 2014 JS Found rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An elegant, scientific argument that certain aspects of what we all live in in, civilization, are very bad for us. When humans went from hunter-gatherers to the creation of agriculture ten thousand years ago, we set up all the modern ills of society. Food became unhealthy and industrialized and that led to preventible diseases that have overtaken the world and put everyone in medical risk. Diseases like diabetes, hart disease. We increased cancer rates. Now most people throughout the world are o ...more
Matthew Ciarvella
Dec 14, 2016 Matthew Ciarvella rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2016
A really enjoyable book, although one that occasionally seems to be wistful for the discredited "noble savage" ideal. About halfway through the book, I really did wonder if, assuming that everything outlined in Pandora's Seed is true, we really did have a better quality of life prior to settling down in cities and such. But that's a logical trap, at least for me.

If I'd been born in a nomadic, pre-civilization culture, there's a great chance that I and my mother would have died during my birth (
So Hakim
Aug 25, 2015 So Hakim rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Popular anthropology book about the rise of agriculture and its trickling effects up to the 21st century. Wells contends that it was the watershed moment that -- for better and worse -- triggered the rise of society that we know of.

Part-critical and part-optimistic, Pandora's Seed falls to (what I call) "science-informed worldview" genre. Anthropologically speaking, where do we come from, and what kind of future do we want? How do we deal with modernity and where to go? (Some technical rundown e
Richard Williams
i like the author's writing and the work he is doing in human genetics, i'm not so sure about this book however. it's a bit odd and disorganized.

he has a really good idea. how has the genetics of human beings, shaped by nearly 200K years of evolution as a small group hunter-gatherer been changed by the neolithic revolution (growing plants and raising animals) of about 10k years? he looks at hypertension, obesity, diabetes then animal viruses, then religion.

the problem is unity around a big them
Jun 05, 2011 Khalid rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This work concentrates on the beginnings of agriculture some 10,000 years ago. Intrigued by traces of the transition from hunter-gatherer times that can be interpreted from the human genome, Wells chats with researchers on this topic and translates their methods and findings into jargon-free language. Combining the DNA discussions with descriptions of archaeological evidence, Wells maintains that putting away the spear and taking up the plow have not been unalloyed boons to humanity. Ascribing o ...more
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Spencer Wells is a geneticist, anthropologist, author, entrepreneur, adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society.
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