Messrs. Lewis-Wallace and Pearce speculate on the most difficult aspect of archaeological explanation - a people's religious beliefs - in this book th...moreMessrs. Lewis-Wallace and Pearce speculate on the most difficult aspect of archaeological explanation - a people's religious beliefs - in this book that takes a look at Neolithic art/architecture and its sources. Thankfully, unlike those who haunt shows like "Coast to Coast AM" or write books like Underworld: The Mysterious Origins of Civilization (Paperback) or construct New Age druidism, they don't claim to know what Neolithic faiths entailed but they do argue that common themes and symbols can be reconstructed based on both physical remains and (what is new) on neurological studies that reveal the common basis of human cognition.
They choose to focus on the opposite ends of the Neolithic period (both geographically and temporally). They explore the extraordinary megalithic complexes found at Catalhoyuk and elsewhere in the Middle East, built by pre- and/or very early agriculturists c. 10,000-8,000 BC, and burials and ritual sites of the European Atlantic seaboard, built c. 4,000-2,500 BC. The authors argue that common symbols and architectural features bespeak a common, human neurological origin.
One of the more startling and concept-shaking assertions Lewis-Wallace/Pearce make is that major changes in modes of thought preceded changes in subsistence. An example of this is their contention that domestication stemmed from religious motives. The traditional view holds that domestication proceeded from a need to increase production and security of food supplies. Yet, this is a view based on hindsight; how could early Neolithic hunters conceive, evaluate and carry out such a program? Animals were corralled and domesticated because they represented human control/influence over the environment and they ensured a steady supply of sacrifices. The more wide-reaching social and economic implications of herding grew out of and were capitalized upon by ruling elites but not purposed by them (explicitly stated, pp. 40-1, but implicit throughout their arguments).
In the first part of the book, the authors broadly define what they mean by "religion," and show the evidence for a common, neurological basis for religious experience and symbolism. As to "religion": They define it as three interacting dimensions. At its base is "experience," which leads to "belief" and "practice." Once established, the latter two dimensions act on experience, which further influences belief and practice in a never-ending dance. (Thus, Christians see Christ or a saint in visions while shamans see their totem animal, for example.)
Belief and practice are dependent on cultural milieux and change over time and space (the authors cite intriguing but speculative evidence for possible religious strife based on archaeological evidence). Experience, however, appears broadly similar. Visions common to altered states of consciousness or out-of-body experiences (OBEs) include:
- seeing bright, geometric patterns (spirals, vortices, dots) (see also pp. 261-2) - floating/flying - passage through something (tunnels, caves, birth canals) - transformations (human to bird) - ability to "see" hidden things or underlying patterns (p. 45)
Agriculture and pottery were not so much the revolutionary aspects of the Neolithic Revolution as was the insight that humans could actively construct their cosmos. Paleo- and Mesolithic societies were passive participants in nature but "Neolithic people eliminated the variable labyrinth and replaced it with more predictable and simpler structures of their own design. In doing so they gained greater control over their cosmos and were able to `adjust' beliefs about it to suit social and personal needs" (p. 85) and "[t]herein lies the real, innovative essence of the Neolithic; expression of religious cosmological concepts in material structures as well as in myths, rather than the passive acceptance of natural phenomena (such as caves), opened up new ways of constructing an intrinsically dynamic society." (p. 167) Which, if true, would help explain the accelerated pace of technical and social change that characterizes sedentary/agricultural societies vs. hunter/gatherers. If you can conceive of building your cosmos, you can conceive a better blueprint. As evidence of this, they point out that the dwellings at Catalhoyuk imitate caves (pp. 103ff)
Lewis-Wallace/Pearce also introduce the idea of two forms of shamanism that can broadly characterize the difference between Paleo- and Neolithic faith:
1. Horizontal shamanism: characterized by an individualized religious experience, undeveloped beliefs and practices, and a more "democratic" outlook.
2. Vertical shamanism: characterized by hierarchy (priests) and defined knowledge based on belief and practice. (pp. 86-7)
The cosmos conceived by the human brain is tiered - it moves from an underworld to our world to one above. Often, death is not the end of life but the beginning of another stage in life. Seers, shamans, however you name them, are intermediaries between worlds and hold both religious and political power in this world based on that relationship. The iconography and architecture of Neolithic complexes all reflect this and are evidence of a rich, sophisticated and probably contentious religious/political life whose details are lost (though that loss provides fodder for endless historical novels, happily).
The rest of the book is devoted by the authors to an admirable marshalling of the evidence. I'm not going to attempt to recapitulate that argument here; if you're interested in this topic, this is a must-read whether or not you're sympathetic to the authors' point of view. If you're not interested - why have you read this far?
No matter, I enjoyed reading this book. Lewis-Wallace/Pearce present a measured argument against accepting the impossibility of knowing how ancient humans perceived their universe, and offer plausible interpretations of that Weltanshauung (apologies: I get to use this word so little). I have far too many volumes on my To-Read and Wish lists as it is, but should I stumble upon their prequel about Paleolithic art and religion, The Mind in the Cave, I will not disdain to pick it up.
This is a short monograph (50 pages) that synopsizes Colin Tudge's argument that pre-Neolithic Revolution humans (and, indeed, hominids in general) ha...moreThis is a short monograph (50 pages) that synopsizes Colin Tudge's argument that pre-Neolithic Revolution humans (and, indeed, hominids in general) have been modifying their environment for hundreds of millennia, and this includes "farming," of which Tudge identifies three types:
1. Horticulture: Or, more prosaically, "gardening." 2. Arable farming: The stereotypical image of the wheat or rice farmer toiling in a field. 3. Pastoral farming: Which mixes arable and/or horticultural farming with stock raising.
Arable farming is not the unmitigated blessing that mythology makes it out to be - it involves backbreaking labor, leads to malnutrition because it narrows the varieties of food in the diet, and it increases disease amongst both human and domesticated animal populations. Despite these, the advantages of increased population, an ensured food supply and greater return on investment made arablist cultures more successful than horticulturalists or pastoralists.
The last point about the return on investment refers to the fact that a hunter can invest ten hours or two to hunting and, in the long run, won't get any more food out of it. That's why predator species and hunter/gatherers look like no-good layabouts - there's no percentage in exerting themselves. Arablists, on the other hand, do get more for more effort. Their food supply increases when more labor is expended in its production.
Tudge characterizes arable farming as a vicious circle: Greater food supply means a greater population that can only be sustained with further arable farming. Once embarked on the arablist path, a culture is locked in - it can't affort to go back to the Edenic existence of its past. (Tudge makes this explicit with reference to the Cain/Abel myth in Genesis, where Cain - the arablist - murders Abel - the pastoralist - and is cursed. Further, God casts Adam and Eve out of Eden to specifically farm:
Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life.... In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground.... (Genesis 3:17-19, NKJV))
Tudge also ties proto-(arable) farming to the Pleistocene overkill, when large numbers of megafauna genera went extinct around the same time humans moved into the vicinity, and to the end of the Neanderthal, who simply couldn't adjust to the more efficient use of the environment modern humans were capable of.
As to the "why" of arable farming, Tudge believes the catalyst was climate change. With the end of the last Ice Age, food supplies were threatened in the Middle East and previously periodic arable farming became the norm, locking cultures into the arablist cycle and allowing the development of urban cultures like Sumer, Mohenjo-Daro and Shang China.
In 50 pages, of course, none of these propositions can be adequately argued but Tudge and others have written numerous works on the subject. A few recommendations from my own reading would include:
Tudge's own The Time Before History: 5 Million Years of Human Impact Charles Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus Ian Wilson's Before the Flood: The Biblical Flood as a Real Event and How It Changed the Course of Civilization Steve Mithen's After the Ice: A Global Human History 20 000-5000 BC
Despite its length (188 pages in my edition), Cynthia Eller manages to thoroughly destroy the idea that a "matriarchy" ever governed the affairs of me...moreDespite its length (188 pages in my edition), Cynthia Eller manages to thoroughly destroy the idea that a "matriarchy" ever governed the affairs of men and women. And she argues this based on three obstacles:
1. There's no evidence that woman ever held the dominant position. There's evidence that woman could hold relatively high status in some cultures but in even the "poster child" of matriarchalism, Minoan Crete, the evidence turns out to be far more ambiguous and open to interpretation.
2. There's no reason to assume that human cultures before about 3000 BC, which the matriarchalists claim to have been matriarchies, were such.
3. There's no compelling reason to explain why things changed.
Essentially Eller argues that the "matriarchy" is a feminist myth that's meant to address the needs of some modern-era feminists and harken back to an era when women did hold power and their contributions were valued. The reality is far more complex and, for those looking to find a matriarchy, depressing since male domination appears to be universal. There are (were) plenty of cultures that gave women a relatively high status but apparently there are none who gave her equal or preeminent status.
I read the book because I was interested in the evidence marshalled to support the "matriarchy" and Eller's rebuttal to it but for those more interested in the feminist/feminism aspects of the subject, Eller argues that inventing a fantasy of female rule is irrelevant, if not downright harmful, to efforts to create a more equal society. One doesn't need to have a woman-ruled past to know that denying them equal rights today (or at any time) is wrong. She likens it to American slavery: While there's importance in knowing that Africans were kidnapped and brought to America, it's truth is irrelevant to the knowledge that slavery was wrong and that it could be changed.
Rather than paraphrase, I'll quote her final paragraph:
"Feminist matriarchal myth does not actually recount the history of sexism.... It may provide us with a vision of what it considers to be socially desirable and the hope that it can be attained. But we do not need matriarchal myth to tell us that sexism is bad or that change is possible. With the help of all feminists...we need to decide what we want and set about getting it. Next to this, the 'knowledge' that we once had it will pale into insignificance."(less)
**spoiler alert** I've marked this as containing "spoilers" largely because this is an "open" site and the subject matter may offend some.
Who's Been S...more**spoiler alert** I've marked this as containing "spoilers" largely because this is an "open" site and the subject matter may offend some.
Who's Been Sleeping in Your Head is a bit of a departure for me. Most of my nonfiction reading tends toward the historical or the "hard" sciences (astronomy, evolutionary biology, etc.) but one of my GoodReads friends marked this as a "to-read," I read the publisher's blurb and a few of the reviews, and it looked intriguing. Fortunately, one of my libraries possessed a copy and the inevitable ensued: I obtained and read it.
Brett Kahr is a Freudian psychoanalyst who's realized that there is a dearth of studies of what constitutes sexual fantasies - what's "normal" (if that can be measured) and what's "perverse" (also a slippery concept) - and how those fantasies might affect people in their lives.
Being a Freudian, Kahr believes that most, if not all, of our fantasies arise from childhood traumas. "Trauma" here does not necessarily mean something horrible like being raped by your father when you're 10 years old or having a group of boys sodomize you in the public restroom when you're 13. It can mean relatively unfortunate events or circumstances in an otherwise good childhood. Circumstances like an emotionally distant father or an overbearing mother or (as in the case of one woman) the loss of an older brother in a car accident. Kahr argues that "trauma functions as a key ingredient in the genesis of adult sexual fantasies" (p. 393) and that these fantasies help master "trauma through eroticization, rendering the terrifying and unprocessable into something sexy and manageable." (p. 383)
A "perverse" fantasy is one that eroticizes hatred (p. 418) and that "requires sustained perpetration of sadism toward oneself or one's 'love object'" and "becomes so all engrossing it prevents one from forging intimate relationships." (p. 420)
There are a number of conclusions he arrives at (if some are only tentative):
1. What is a sexual fantasy? An image, thought, drama, usually thought about during sex (coital or masturbatory) and that results in orgasm. (This makes it a different phenomenon than the sexual dream.)
2. What is a "normal" fantasy? There is no normative fantasy. People who appear quite "normal" might have some of the most sadistic, misogynistic, bestial fantasies but as long as they avoid the two criteria for "perversion" I mention above, they're no more abnormal than fantasizing about making love to one's partner that never departs from the missionary position.
3. Why fantasize? Kahr doesn't really know. From an evolutionary point of view it may help arousal and, hence, propagation. In terms of human psychology, it eroticizes and makes harmless traumas in our lives.
4. Does everyone have fantasies? Despite some negative responses in Kahr's survey, he feels that everyone has a fantasy of some sort even if they don't recognize it as such.
5. Should we share fantasies/act them out with our partners? Maybe. He recounts cases where exposing and/or acting out a fantasy did wonders for a relationship; alas, sometimes they torpedoed a relationship.
6. Are fantasies dangerous? Sometimes. See above about what a "perverse" fantasy is. Actually, in relation to this subject, Kahr gets into some potentially scary "Big Brother" stuff where he envisions mental-health experts "tagging" potential rapists, pedophiles, etc. based on their sexual fantasies - sort of a "Minority Report" world without the ESP.
7. If we don't fantasize about our partner is that a "bad sign"? Maybe; maybe not. Since a fantasy is a defense mechanism from past trauma, the absence of one's current partner is not unusual.
8. If we fantasize about something illegal (i.e., rape, pedophilia, incest, murder, etc.) will we eventually act it out? Probably not. Most - the overwhelming majority - even if their fantasies involve raping the cheerleading squad or murdering their partner don't go through with it. As Kahr wants to emphasize, even the most vile fantasy is a defense mechanism against some childhood trauma. Now, fantasizing about gang rapes or murder probably indicates a fairly serious trauma and the person should seek some form of therapy and it may make a person's intimate relationships ultimately unsatisfying but it doesn't mean we have a future "Ted Bundy" on our hands.
9. Can we control our fantasies? Always a good Freudian, Kahr doesn't believe so. At least not to any great extent.
One of the best aspects of this work is that Kahr doesn't try to create an all-encompassing theory of sexual fantasy. He tries to identify some broad generalizations but doesn't apply them to explain fantasy.
Though I don't have the background to assess just how valid psychoanalysis is or what competing theories may be out there, I found this book fascinating and interesting.(less)
While none of the entries are terribly extensive, this is an interesting little reference book showing just how many ways humans have attempted to com...moreWhile none of the entries are terribly extensive, this is an interesting little reference book showing just how many ways humans have attempted to come to terms with their universe.(less)
If I had read Children of the Ice Age 12 years ago when it was first published it probably would have garnered four stars. In 2008, many of the topics...moreIf I had read Children of the Ice Age 12 years ago when it was first published it probably would have garnered four stars. In 2008, many of the topics Steven Stanley takes up are now accepted wisdom, such as the idea that hominids arose out of australopithecine populations isolated from their native forests in east Africa by drastic climatic change. Or that the hominid lineage is more a bush than a tree, with a host of branchings and not enough fossil evidence in most cases to make more than an educated guess as to the relationships among them.
Stanley is also (at least when he wrote the book) a strong advocate of Eldredge and Gould's theory of punctuated equilibrium (briefly: Evolution occurs in relatively brief spurts of intense change brought on by isolation or drastic environmental changes; species equilibrium is punctuated by evolutionary change). I gather from my reading that the theory is not universally accepted; certainly not as the sole mechanism of evolutionary change. As we are discovering, the mechanisms that direct evolution are myriad and, at the moment, unfathomably complex (but knowable - take that "intelligent" design!).
That said, this is still a well written, comprehensive account of human evolution whose ideas may no longer be "cutting edge" but have become the new standard (it's not as if you're reading an anthro textbook from 1920...). Namely:
1. The large hominid brain is the product of an abrupt geological transition that radically altered the landscape of east Africa.
2. The hominid genus is the result of a fortuitous (for us) environmental catastrophe (the Ice Age).
3. That climate change can be traced to a specific geological event (the rise of the Panama isthmus and subsequent alteration of ocean currents in Stanley's view.
4. The human species is a result of evolutionary compromises to accommodate an enormous brain and rapid neonatal development, among other problems unique to our species.
There are a couple of sections where I actually did learn something new. Stanley has a good explanation about brain evolution - why it happened and how the brain developed, and he brings up a theme that I had nevered encountered before: "The big brain of Homo came into being not because such an organ became useful for the first time but because its evolution became possible for the first time." (p. 143f.) He also has one of the clearest & most comprehensive explanation of the various hominid species that we've discovered. (p. 188f.) Finally, he posits that the emergence of Panama (which cut off the Atlantic from the Pacific and altered ocean currents) brought on the current cycle of ice ages and, ultimately, engendered humans. (p. 180f.)
Of course, Stanley can't address the wealth of new information that's developed over the last decade (particularly in relations to genetics and language) but I would still recommend it to anyone who's newly interested in the subject, and, as I discovered, even those well versed might learn something new or be asked to look at old data in a new way - never a bad thing for a book to achieve.(less)
Barbara King argues in this book that humans evolved a need to believe in something that transcended physical reality and the concrete bonds between i...moreBarbara King argues in this book that humans evolved a need to believe in something that transcended physical reality and the concrete bonds between individuals within family and tribal groups, and that this need is expressed as “religion.” “Religion” is a fairly slippery term but for purposes of her argument, King defines it as “a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” (based on Clifford Geertz’s definition) (p. 18) Thus, it’s possible to encompass the first evidence of ritual in hominid life as well as the most involved theology of a literate, urban, 21st century civilization.
Much of the book is taken up with finding evidence for the four cognitive abilities that King believes form the basis from which religion springs: the primate need to belong (expressed by the awkward “belongingness”).
“Empathy” – the ability to walk a mile in another’s shoes – is the first characteristic, and King points to many examples (not just among primates) in the animal kingdom. The second ability is “meaning-making,” which is an animal’s ability to convey meaning through gestures, vocalizations, posture, etc. Primates are quite good at this – humans most of all. Not only do we make meaning about immediate events (e.g., “stop messin’ with my girl,” “I’m hungry,” “ha, ha, ha, that’s funny”) but we impute deeper purposes to things (e.g., “this ring means he loves me,” “God caused our crops to fail because we failed to obey the Law”). The third factor is the ability to make and enforce rules. Humans are, again, masters at this but King presents evidence for rudimentary rule-making in our ape cousins. The final pillar upon which “belongingness” (and hence religion) rests is the capacity to imagine. There’s some really fascinating information here about chimpanzees imagining companions and toys that reveal just how narrow the gap between us and other animals is. (pp. 56-58) All these come together to make us (primates) the quintessential social animal.
At this point in the book, King is on pretty solid, if still largely theoretical, ground. She’s extremely careful not to overly anthropomorphize nonhuman behavior – after all, can we really know that a chimp is “imagining” a toy or “mourning” the death of a group member? – but it’s unlikely human cognition is so qualitatively different from other animals that similar behaviors don’t reflect similar responses. (Here let me inject a personal anecdote: I have cats. Usually, they treat me as one of their own – curling up with me, napping with me, even grooming me. But when I’m sick, they leave me alone. They don’t abandon me but they refrain from the usual jumping on my stomach or grooming or kneading until I’m better. Granted this may not be empathic compassion but it does appear to reflect a cognitive parallel.)
The rest of the book is an examination of hominid evolution, looking for evidence of “belongingness” and religion. As one might expect, there’s precious little that even hints at this before Neandertal. And even this is extremely late. From my readings elsewhere, I gather that evidence of ritual among the Neandertal is sketchy and often found in temporal and/or physical proximity to modern humans. (So Neandertal were excellent mimics but not innovators. Even if they did assimilate sapiens technology, it’s anyone’s guess who they interpreted it.)
The following are some interesting and, I think, important insights found in the book:
Despite a relative lack of imagination and innovation, there is evidence that Neandertal and other pre-sapiens hominids had diverse cultures: bear cults at Regourdou, deep-cave activities at Bruniquel or cannibalism at Moula-Guercy. (pp. 122-126) There’s evidence for this among modern chimps, as well – some of whom use a particular toolkit while others in similar environments do not.
Sedentism and communal living preceded agriculture but when human societies began that fundamental switch to farming, a qualitative change occurred that transformed religion. King only touches on this, mentioning the enormous temple complex found at Gobekli Tepe in Turkey that’s at least 10,000 years old.
The relationship between socialization, religion, “belongingness” and all the other components that make up human cognition and culture is not linear but a complex interaction that involves a little understood system of feedback and mutually reinforcing relationships.
In her chapter “Is God in the Genes,” King makes a very strong case that there is no “God gene.” There isn’t even a package of genes that make us religious. At most, our genome predisposes us to act and perceive in certain ways expressed spiritually and in religion.
Ultimately, though, King doesn’t push her argument into speculation about the separate reality of a god-gods-spirits. I get the impression that she personally wants to believe in something beyond mere existence and fears pushing her evidence to the logical, scientific conclusion. I believe King makes a good case for the four bases of “belongingness” (heck, Aristotle argued the same thing 2-1/2 millennia ago) but she hasn’t convinced me that they ultimately form the basis for religion. Nor has she answered the question “Is religion our brain’s attempt to understand a universe where god-gods-spirits really exist or is it the byproduct of our need to belong carried to an irrational and unjustified extreme?” (viz, Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos, where he fictionally tackles the same question)
I’m more convinced by the arguments of David Lewis-Williams in Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness Cosmos and the Realm of the Gods, where he argues that the brain processes sensory input that our consciousness interprets and organizes into insights, ritual and religion. That is to say, religion is an outgrowth, an accident, of cognition reflecting no external reality. (I don’t know if Lewis-Wallace believes this personally but that’s all that we can conclude based on presently available evidence.)
In sum, this is an interesting book and definitely recommended to those interested in the “religious” sensibility and human evolution.(less)
Bozo Sapiens isn’t bad but it isn’t very interesting. That’s not because the topics aren’t interesting, and it’s not because there aren’t factoids of intriguing information. It’s largely because it is – at best – a superficial treatment of a wide-ranging topic: Why do humans appear to be so ill suited to their environment? Their eyes – their primary sense – deceive them. Their other senses are comparatively dull. Their conscious minds are unaware of 90% of what goes on in the brain, and tendentiously edit what little is perceived. And those unconscious machinations govern some decidedly self-destructive behaviors, ranging from environmental rape to unhealthy eating habits to dysfunctional relationships.
Often I felt like I was watching one of those popular science shows (e.g., “Beakman’s World”) that pop up on cable TV. The book barrages you with a fusillade of facts with little integration – all flash and glitter and whizzing things. This would be a perfect primer if you wanted to become a real-life Cliff, the know-it-all character from “Cheers.” (To be fair to the Kaplans, most of the info derived from them has some basis in reality.)
Two examples illustrate my point. The first is the Kaplan’s treatment of the human mind’s response to complexity. Essentially, we simplify and try to establish patterns that can carry us through without conscious application. They recount the story of a Boeing aircraft that crashes because its crew – thoroughly trained and competent with the previous model – hadn’t integrated the different procedures of the newer aircraft. When an engine catches fire, they responded with the old, ingrained SOP and crash the plane.* Then we get two more anecdotes in a similar vein, and move on to a section on frames of reference.
The second example shows up in the penultimate chapter, “Fresh off the Pleistocene Bus,” where the authors discuss the basis for male-female, long-term relationships and the utility of romantic love. They imply that the difficulty of maintaining relationships rests on the conditions of modern social life: Men and women don’t need each other in the same supportive, complementary way our ancestors did. Once the period of limerence passes and romantic passions are spent, why remain together? Don’t ask me to elaborate; the Kaplans certainly don’t. The next paragraph explores overeating.
Perhaps what irritated me more than the superficial nature of the book was the writing. I’m tired of reading books aimed at an adult, general audience written at a sixth-grade level. If I wanted to read a sixth-grade science book, I’d seek out a sixth-grade science book. It’s frustrating that a book wanting to expand people’s horizons writes down to the lowest common denominator.
And one final, if minor, quibble: The “Notes” section is thorough and interested readers can mine it for further reading but it would have been nice to have a bibliography and/or a “suggested reading” section.
I’ve been swaying back and forth but can’t recommend the book, certainly not for purchase. If you’re at the library or browsing a bookstore shelf, you might kill some time leafing through its chapters or, better, mining the Notes for more focused literature.
* I can’t pass up the opportunity to insert a further example of why all life’s answers can be found in “Star Trek” – In “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” the refitted Enterprise gets caught in a wormhole with an asteroid that’s going to collide with it. Kirk orders Chekov to fire phasers, and Decker countermands the order. It turns out that the new phasers route power through the warp drive; firing them would have blown the ship up. Kirk, a master of the old Enterprise’s capabilities lacked the unconscious familiarity with the new one’s and nearly destroyed the vessel.(less)
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 lea...moreSpencer 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 shift. Archaic humans, who had been around for c. 100,000 years at the time and had expanded as far as the Middle East, were reduced to less than 10,000 individuals in Africa. This population bottleneck exerted enormous selective pressure that resulted in modern humans, men and women like ourselves both physically and mentally. The qualities selected for in those fraught generations after Toba were so successful, modern humans had spread to nearly every continent and into nearly every environment by 10,000 years ago, when the second event occurred – the Agricultural (or Neolithic) Revolution.
Ten thousands years ago (give or take a few millennia – these dates are approximate) the world was in a warming trend and glaciers around the planet were melting. In the Middle East, the climate was bountiful and its human population was large for a hunting-gathering culture. In fact, for several thousand years, these tribes had been opportunistically harvesting grains and fruits, and semi-sedentary and sedentary villages developed in many areas. This Garden of Eden, however, was not fated to last. In North America, the Laurentian glacier melted, unleashing a catastrophic flood that washed down over the Great Plains and the Northeast and into the Atlantic. The influx of cold water shut down the Gulf Stream that kept (and today keeps) Northern Europe’s climate warm and temperate. The Middle East became drier and colder, and food resources scarcer. In previous eons, humans would have adjusted: Populations would fall, tribes would split up, numbers would eventually stabilize at a sustainable level. But populations were too large and too far removed from their hunting-gathering roots to easily return to their ancestors’ way of life. But they had been harvesting those grains for generations – modifying consciously or unconsciously many plant species – and it was a small step from that to deliberately planting fields that could ensure a more reliable food source. What came about was “civilization” – a culture of scarcity that gave rise to hierarchies, organized war, classes, specialization, as well as organized religion, philosophy, writing, technical progress, etc.
A few weeks ago, I finished Derrick Jensen’s Endgame: Volume 1: The Problem of Civilization and Endgame: Volume 2: Resistance. Anyone familiar with Jensen’s work (or who’ve read my review) will know that he believes humans made a serious mistake when they turned from the lifestyle they had enjoyed and to which they were adapted for tens of millennia to one that forced them into a never-ending spiral of expansion, exploitation and violence, and for which their bodies and minds were ill-equipped to handle. Civilization will inevitably fall, and soon despite any stopgap measures we try to sustain things. For Jensen, humans will be infinitely better off in the long run the sooner we abandon modern life.
Wells would agree that civilization has led to many unforeseen, unfortunate consequences. He would also agree that current civilization is unsustainable. And he would agree that physically and mentally, humans are not well suited to modern life. Wells is not a Luddite; however, he doesn’t believe we should return to a pre-modern lifestyle. Nor does he think civilization is irredeemable as Jensen does. In his view, while civilization has brought us to the dire straights the world finds itself in today, it also has brought us miracles of medicine and technology and holds the potential to develop the answers that will resolve our myriad crises.
Assuming enough people recognize the problems and act appropriately.
An assumption that makes this book unwarrantedly optimistic (IMO). Wells identifies the problem with the assumption in Chapter 2 where he defines and discusses what he calls “transgenerational power,” the capacity to affect future generations by our contemporary actions. And the mother of all acts was the development of agriculture. Humans have been scrambling to keep up with the problems caused by solutions reached to immediate dilemmas (like food scarcity in 10,000 BC) ever since.
Pandora’s Seed is a short book and a weakness is that it loses focus, particularly at the end. As long as Wells stays in the past, he makes a good case for the largely unintended effects of moving from a hunting-gathering existence (for which 2 million years of evolution had adapted us) to an agricultural one (for which we’ve made some adjustments but not nearly enough to make us comfortable in our self-imposed environments).When Wells moves to the present and contemporary responses to our maladaptations, he writes in vague, feel-good language about the exciting options ahead of us or equally vague bromides about what we must do, as in his concluding paragraph:
“(A)t 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.” (p. 210)
Two other examples from the book illustrate his odd disconnect between sunny optimism and the logical conclusions of his argument. In “Growing a New Culture” (Chapter 2), Wells starts off discussing the growing aquaculture industry in Norway, which seeks to replenish the fish stocks that have been destroyed in the wild by egregious overfishing. The “poster boy” of his brief digression is a farm in Stavenger that raises salmon. It relies on an elaborate and expensive technology that herds salmon and fools them into thinking restricted pens are their natural habitats. We’re doing this here and elsewhere, as Wells notes, because the natural, sustainable supply of cod, tuna, and other fishes is running out in the face of humans and their need for food. As a final irony – the Norwegian “fishermen” are forced to supplement their farmed salmons’ diets with the artificial astaxanthin. This replicates the pink flesh so prized by consumers but which is naturally brought about by the salmons’ diet in the wild, and (if that weren’t enough) it’s derived from petroleum.
In “Heated Argument,” Wells begins the chapter discussing the situation of Tuvalu, a nation of nine coral atolls in the South Pacific. Because the seas are rising, Tuvalu will no longer exist by the end of the century. Because of civilization, Tuvalu’s economy has shifted from a reasonably sustainable one of subsistence agriculture to one of exportable crops and cash. The population relies on food imports, the waste products of industry are piling up, and tidal surges are making the ever-shrinking land too salty for agriculture. Yet, “I was beginning to get the impression that there were a fair number of people who hadn’t given up on Tuvalu” (p. 158).
This isn’t a bad book, by any means. Wells is a good writer and presents his case well, and if he had stuck to the evidence for our biological adaptations to the environment and the consequences of consciousness and the Neolithic Revolution, this would have been a very good book. But he loses focus and goes off on tangents that deserve books all on their own, or (worse) he brings up a relevant consequence of our “transgenerational power” but wanders off into vaguely optimistic opinions about how wonderful things will be once we put our minds to solving the problem.
I still recommend the book with a clear conscience. It brings together a lot of accumulated information about our past in one easy-to-read source, and I did learn a few interesting things, as in Chapter 4, “Demented,” where I learned about “sympatric speciation” (read the book to find out for yourselves). Or in “Fast Forward,” where I learned about the unintended (and revealing) consequences of our interference in the natural lifecycles of acacia trees.(less)