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Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization
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Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization

3.72 of 5 stars 3.72  ·  rating details  ·  653 ratings  ·  115 reviews

Ten thousand years ago, our species made a radical shift in its way of life: We became farmers rather than hunter-gatherers. Although this decision propelled us into the modern world, renowned geneticist and anthropologist Spencer Wells demonstrates that such a dramatic change in lifestyle had a downside that we’re only now beginning to recognize. Growing grain crops ultim

Paperback, 256 pages
Published September 13th 2011 by Random House Trade Paperbacks (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
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
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
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
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
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
JS Found
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Brett Williams
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
James Lamp
Essentially, this book is about the paradigm shift in human evolution from the hunter-gatherer diet and lifestyle to the agricultural diet and lifestyle. Much of it deals with domestication of plants and how this artificial selection has affected our health and life expectancy as well as our social habits. In a nutshell, human evolution has not kept up with the change in our diet (he blames starch and carbohydrates), leading to obesity, disease, social unrest, etc. At the end he makes some dark ...more
Andrea Paterson
I would give this 3.5 stars if that was possible--very readable history of the rise of agriculture over the past 10,000 years and the wide ranging repercussions moving away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle has had. Focuses on genetics and anthropology. Sometimes claims are made that are not fully supported--scientific evidence is sometimes glossed over too much for the sake of reader accessibility. And I completely disagreed with the author's short analysis of the useful functions of facebook an ...more
Lots of info, scientific details, jumps around the entire planet and throughout millions of years. I did soak up loads of knowledge.
Spencer Wells explains what happened, how we (humans) transformed from a simple and perhaps content with the basics people who needed and wanted only to survive and thrive, not to acquire unnecessary possessions and the inherit oppressive workweek that comes along our new found "freedoms". He illustrates how we went from a loosely organized civil structure requiri
A combination of science (specifically genetics), anthropology, archeology, and current events, the first three-fourths of this book is an outstanding analysis of the continuing consequences (good and bad) of humanity’s switch to an agricultural society. The last couple of chapters were by no means bad but fell short of the level set by the earlier chapters: the analysis was shallow and broad, the conclusions short sighted and hasty, and Dr. Wells failed to carry through some of the themes from ...more
I liked the idea of this book. But like many other reviewers noted, once I got reading it, I realized that the premise is a bit misleading and he jumps all over the place throughout the whole book. And I know that there's a lot of controversy about the blood type diet as a weight loss diet - but i dont understand how a book that suppossed tracks our evolutionary history in terms of diet can completely ignore the evolution of our blood type and not even mention it once in the book. he doesn't add ...more
Interesting premise regarding the systematic interactions between our biology and culture and the ways in which they yield far reaching impacts. Wells successfully articulates for the general public both how and why the decisions of the last ten thousand years of human history have presented us with major problems to solve in the next few decades. His arguments about disease, genetic engineering and climate change illustrate our "self-destructive appetites" and caution the perceptive reader to c ...more
Sreejith Pp
I think the book's name as given here should be: Pandora's Seed: Why the Hunter-Gatherer Holds the Key to Our Survival

Spence Wells offers very interesting theories which seem credible. At the end however, he doesn't offer any solution to all our problems. Rather the book is about WHY these problems exist at all. Good book. 5 stars.
Jill Edmondson
This was kind of neat, and was different from my usual reading choices. I learned a bit from it, and I generally liked the author's voice. It gets into a wee bit too much detail at times, but that's not a bit deal. Wells looks at human development since the dawn of agriculture rather than being hunter-gatherers. It's kind of cool - the lenses through which he looks at humans included dental development and cavities, diabetes, and noise/light, etc. It's pretty cool.
Unforgettable, fascinating. We are truly an all-too-human community; and we need to really TRY to understand humanity's future. I understand the complete misunderstanding that colonization inflicted on this globe, i.e., all peoples must appreciate, accept, and transform to the perfect caucasian, european culture. But, we have enough time and information now to change. The hunter-gatherer in Tanzania is well-adapted, very bright, and as extraordinary as "civilized" humans. We can learn from each ...more
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The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genographic Project Deep Ancestry, 2nd Edition: How DNA Reveals the Roots of Your Family Tree Die Krankheiten Der Eierstocke Surgery, past, present, and future: Two Addresses to the British Medical Association, 1864 & 1877

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