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Pandora's seed - The unforeseen cost of civilization

Pandora's seed

By Spencer Wells
Published by Penguin Books
Website: www.penguin.com
2010, 230pp, ISBN 978 0 71399 755 2 (Hb), £20

Mankind has travelled 200,000 years since emerging as a recognisably human species, but the most varied and eventful of those years have been the last 10,000, when the free-moving life of the hunter-gatherer was abandoned for settlement and agriculture. "What was the motive for these early agricultural revolutionaries to invest the time and resources to grow wheat and other crops while driving themselves to an earlier grave?" asks Spencer Wells in Pandora's seed. His question may surprise readers of New Agriculturist, inferring, as it does the irony that agriculture, which most will view as having been largely advantageous to human society, instead has proved a somewhat poisoned chalice.

The author, a distinguished population geneticist, guides us through the choices that faced humanity at a number of crucial episodes in its history, most of them extreme climatic challenges that transformed the face of Earth for thousands of years. The most critical time was between 70-80,000 years ago when the human population was reduced to as few as 2,000. But the most life-changing event for mankind was 10,000 years ago when someone, probably a woman, experimented with sowing the seed of food grains to supplement the diminishing harvest available from gathering wild cereals. Once again, the catalyst was climate.

Wells describes how the decision to gain control and security over food supplies resulted in deleterious impacts on physical and mental health, on society and on natural resources. Hunter-gatherers lived in small groups where status was equitable and women ranked with men. They ate a nutritionally balanced diet, developed few dental caries and suffered very few infectious diseases: their main cause of death was trauma from infected wounds, drowning and childbirth. In contrast, agriculture provided a starch-rich diet that was far less healthy, and increased caries fivefold. Working in fields took more effort and time than hunting and gathering, and the settled life necessary to practise agriculture led to unhygienic crowding, plagues of infectious diseases, the need for hierarchy and central government, and conflict over resources. The expansion of population inevitably led to increasing demands on soils, water, forests and fisheries. "Food became a fuel - a sort of primitive bio-diesel, if you will - for powering social change," muses Wells.

Wells also observes, "We modified the plants and animals that allowed us to develop growing agricultural societies, but judging from the genetic data, it seems that they could also have modified us." The most obvious 'modification' in modern man are the global 'epidemics' of non-infectious conditions: obesity, diabetes, and stress leading to hypertension and mental disorders. "According to the WHO, non-communicable diseases will account for more than three-quarters of the global health burden by 2020, up from virtually none a few hundred years ago."

The over-exploitation of natural resources is also all too evident and, as greenhouse gases inexorably raise average global temperature, civilisation is confronted with the choice of business-as-usual or making fundamental changes in lifestyles, including what we eat, how we live and how we use the natural resources that are diminishing in per capita and absolute terms. "It's as though agriculture were a virus, expanding in influence despite its negative effects on human health," observes Wells. Humans evolved over 190,000 years to be at ease with the lifestyle of the hunter-gatherer and have had to adjust their metabolism and behaviour to the very different lifestyle required and permitted by agriculture over only 10,000 years.

Spencer Wells has written Pandora's seed to reflect the legend of the eponymous Greek goddess, who having opened the box that she had been forbidden to open let loose the plagues of mankind. Closing the box too late, she retained the one good thing the casket had held - hope. And Wells remains hopeful as he concludes, "As a species that has long been accustomed to growth, expansion and consumption, we will have to use our ingenuity in new ways to create a lifestyle with long-term sustainability. First, however, must come a sea-change in our worldview." Must it take another major crisis of climate to effect such a change?

Date published: November 2010


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