Brett Williams's Reviews > Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization

Pandora's Seed by Spencer Wells
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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 and extinction. Wow…Enjoyable are the connections Wells makes between seemingly unrelated issues: needs of our physical biology vs. opposing mental desires for certainty; agricultural civilizations vs. morality; how cultures of dependence on nature would become cultures controlling nature, robbing humans of a spiritual dimension we seem to be born with.

For me, Wells’ book stalled in chapters 5 & 6, but his final chapter 7, “Toward A New Mythos” grabbed my brain with such ferocity, my eyes scorched the page in at least a half-dozen places. (Because so much of my own creation – albeit a fiction – deals with these same issues, thus why I fell out of my chair during this last chapter). It was there Wells nailed together the lumber he’d arranged in previous sections to erect the final structure he planned. And it boils down to this: Out of necessity for survival, we humans have created benefits and one hell of a mess. Not only for our very bodies built on genes in accord with a natural world, but also for the social organizations created as a result of the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago; governments to follow; the planet and our moral / religious / spiritual selves, whipsawed by modernity with all this change we relentlessly insist on.

Virtually every major disease affecting humans, says Wells, results from both the mismatch of our biology with agricultural, and domestication of animals where pathogens were delighted to have such close proximity to hop back and forth, testing their mutations on us. Leading cause of death evolved from trauma (spearing animals is dangerous), to microbial invasions, to self-induced chronic disease of diabetes and – believe it or not – mental illness. What we made has folded back on us, making some of us unstable in response to modernity – including, Wells claims, fundamentalists (religious, and I would add, political). It’s not that “natural man” is good or evil (per Wells’ Plato vs. Socrates, Hobbs vs. Locke arguments), but humanity makes itself one or the other by the system we built to live in – one that fosters harmony or greed. I was reminded of other authors along similar tracks: Marcel Gauchet’s spellbinding “A Political History Of Religion,” Richard Gregg’s “Voluntary Simplicity,” Joseph Campbell’s “The Power Of Myth.” Wells joins them in helping make sense of ourselves.

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Reading Progress

April 11, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
April 11, 2014 – Shelved
April 29, 2014 – Started Reading
May 25, 2014 – Finished Reading

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