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 leaSpencer 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....more
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....more
In The Faith Instinct, Nicholas Wade argues that religion is a gene-based adaptation that allowed those groups that had it to survive where those withIn The Faith Instinct, Nicholas Wade argues that religion is a gene-based adaptation that allowed those groups that had it to survive where those without perished, “religion” being defined as “a system of emotionally binding beliefs and practices in which a society implicitly negotiates through prayer and sacrifice with supernatural agents, securing from them commands that compel members, through fear of divine punishment, to subordinate their interests to the common good.” (p. 15) Religion developed to promote group survival; and just as the human brain was built up from pre-existing structures, so too was religion built up from a foundation of (almost certainly innate) behaviors that includes a capacity for music and rhythmic movement, a moral instinct, and language; it wasn’t designed but is an agglomeration of adaptations that worked better than others. The first half of the book focuses on the evolutionary role of religion, and Wade builds a strong case for its adaptive utility (though not necessarily for its existence as a genetically determined characteristic; see below). The second half is practically another book as the author takes us on a historical overview of religion – chiefly the Abrahamic monotheisms though he manages to sneak in the Aztecs – which seems oddly out of place in the context of the preceding pages. I have sympathy for the theories that the book of Exodus is as much a myth as the labors of Heracles or that Pauline Christianity triumphed because its Jerusalem-centered rival perished in the Roman sack of AD 70 or that Muhammad is a fictional character who arose from a misreading of a Christian Arab inscription on the Dome of the Rock but these are not scientific theories about the genetic basis of religion or even its expression, they’re analyses of historical events.
I’ll discuss that aspect of the book in more detail below. Here, I’ll briefly give an overview of Wade’s contention that religion has a genetic basis, beginning with chapter two, where he discusses the “moral instinct.” Wade distinguishes between “moral intuition” and “moral reasoning.” The former is a person’s ability to make an instinctual judgment about the rightness or wrongness of something; a classic example is the almost universal abhorrence of incest. The latter is the conscious’ ability to articulate reasons for a choice, and plays no role in natural selection. Some form of moral intuition has evolved in the higher primates (& other mammals) “to provide the unity required to enable the group to compete successfully with other…groups.” (p. 32) With the advent of self-awareness in humans, we obtained the capacity to act against that intuition. To prevent these now-self-aware human groups from tearing themselves apart, evolution had to find a way to reinforce the moral sense and Wade believes that this was religion.
Chapter three explores the behaviors that characterize religion (or more properly what Wade calls the “ancestral religion”; in chapter six he talks about the transformation of practice that occurred with the rise of sedentary cultures). The author distinguishes five universal (or near universal) traits found in all religious practice:
1. Music/dance 2. Rites of passage 3. A way to communicate with the supernatural/divine and to influence its/their behavior 4. An afterlife (of some sort) 5. God(s) control(s) events
He then speculates that specialized structures exist in the brain that mediate religious behavior though he admits that there’s no evidence for such. (p. 43) This – for me – raised a red flag: That the bases for music, rhythmic movement, morality, language and the other components of religion are genetic, I can accept. But if no physical evidence of a “religious” area of the brain can be found then that suggests that it’s an artifact of cultural evolution rather than a biological imperative. And Wade tacitly admits this later when he discusses the success of other cultural institutions (such as the military or the nation-state) that exploit the same genetic foundations to create group cohesion, loyalty and self-sacrifice.
Chapter five, “Ancestral Religion,” speculates on what form the ur-religion may have taken. As we can’t go back in time to study Stone Age hunter-gatherers, we must rely on extrapolating from the cultures of the few surviving hunter-gatherers in the modern world, including the !Kung San of Africa and the Aborigines of Australia. Thus “[t]he earliest religion seems to have taken the form of sustained communal dancing that invoked supernatural powers and promoted emotional bonding among members of the group.” (p. 98) And the following characterized it:
1. The whole community participated. There was no priestly caste, though there may have been shamans with special abilities re contacting the gods/spirit world. 2. The focus of worship was on communal activities. The modern idea of a personal relationship to God would have been foreign; there was no private spirituality (at least none that could be expressed or mattered to the community). 3. Sacred narratives (myths) conveyed both moral and practical lessons to their hearers. 4. There was also a focus on practical matters of survival over modern concerns of theology/dogma. It is perhaps ironic that religion’s strength – its survivability – lies more in the arbitrary rituals that create the “in” group than in the dogmas that priests devise.
“The Transformation” discusses the changed nature in practice and belief of post-agriculture religion. The most important changes being the development of a dedicated priestly caste and the consequent restriction of full participation to a smaller group and the suppression/control of the more ecstatic forms of worship (e.g., for the Roman Church, Theresa of Ávila was OK but the Spiritual Franciscans were beyond the pale).
As I wrote above, the second half of the book (chapters 7-12) turns from examining the genetics of religion to how different cultures expressed that behavior. There are interesting arguments concerning how religion makes possible (or eases) trade, regulates sex/reproduction, and both encourages war and ameliorates its effects but there’s nothing that really bolsters Wade’s thesis that humans have a gene-based instinct that we call “religion.” If anything, the latter half of the book reinforces the opposite – the idea that religion is a product of culture that builds upon common human instincts. The objectives and desires that religion satisfies can be accommodated by other means and have been, though he makes a strong case that religion has been the most successful mechanism produced so far.
Having read the book, I remain an agnostic at this point. The evidence and our understanding of how evolution works are still too meager to confidently claim that humans have a genetic predisposition to religion rather than that religious behavior is a cultural expression based on disparate factors of human nature. I lean toward the second explanation but The Faith Instinct remains an interesting survey of the current state of knowledge and provokes the reader into considering the possibility that god(s) is (are) in our genes....more