Pandora’s Seed: Investigating Our Agricultural Roots

Spencer Wells’ sprawling new book Pandora’s Seed, which ruffled Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s feathers a few weeks ago, is ripe with fascinating theories and intriguing claims. The overarching theme of the book is the climate crisis we now face and what we as a species are going to do to survive. To get to this point, Wells takes the reader on an epic journey starting with an understanding of our Paleolithic ancestors and the transitions and adaptations we’ve made. In Wells’ view this hasn’t been a linear march forward — instead he argues that with all of our technology and progress we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves and are careening down a path towards devastation. Wells believes that the pace of our human innovation and progress has been so fast — speaking in evolutionary terms — that our biology has simply not had time to adapt to the changes in our diet and lifestyle. This, he says, has its root in the advent of agriculture some 10,000 years ago — a mere blink of the eye in the scope of human history.

When Homo sapiens first appear in the fossil records around 195,000 years ago we existed as hunter-gathers, moving from places where food and resources were scare to places of more abundance. Not coincidentally, it was also 10,000 years ago that human beings experienced a massive population growth, which took us from a few million worldwide to over six billion today. Wells argues that when humans settled in one place and began growing food and domesticating animals, this forever changed the course of human history which had unforeseen effects on human health and the state of the planet.

These effects can be seen in a myriad of circumstances — from the skyrocketing rates of chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and mental illness to wars over territory, and ultimately our current climate crisis. The common thread, according to Wells, is that they all have their root in our agrarian lifestyle, and indeed, he argues a persuasive case.

As Neolithic agriculturists, we were forced to specialize in one task with the purpose of serving the broader needs of society. “In effect, minds that had once been free, with the endless territory of the Paleolithic globe in which to realize their musings, were now caged, limited in both geography and focus,” Wells writes. He links this dramatic shift in lifestyle to the high rate of mental illness seen around the world, citing the World Health Organization statistic that by 2020 mental illness will be the second most important cause of disability and mortality worldwide. He writes, “The psychological mismatch between the densely populated noisy agricultural world and the sparsely populated hunter-gatherer one is almost certainly one of the reasons for the psychological unease felt by many people.”

Wells then quickly debunks the idea that human health has steadily improved with modernity. Dental cavities — a good indication of overall health — were basically non-existent in Paleolithic teeth. But nearly one quarter of teeth from the period after the adoption of agriculture are afflicted, “a shocking increase,” according to Wells. He attributes this to the dramatic increase of starchy carbohydrates in the diet. While the Paleolithic diet was diverse and consisted of a wide variety of unprocessed animal and vegetable foods, the agrarian Neolithic diet was more limited with high amounts of processed, starchy seeds of cultivated grasses.

As for war? In Paleolithic times, conflict among groups was minimal since it didn’t make evolutionary sense to engage in dangerous fighting. And with no territory to protect or claim as one’s own, if trouble arose, the hunter-gatherer impulse to move on was a simple solution.

All of these maladies are really secondary to Wells main point of contention — the current climate change we now face. Our ancestors faced climate changes in the past and Wells describes in detail the adaptations we were forced to make at those perilous times. Now, Wells argues, we face an even more catastrophic change if we don’t alter our lifestyles by lessening our appetite for oil and changing our wasteful approaches to other natural resources. Wells offers many solutions for finding alternative sources to fuel our lifestyles but ultimately he shows that what’s really required is a change in our worldview — one that encompasses a true appreciation for the natural world and an understanding of how humans have existed on this planet for the past 200,000 years.

To illustrate just what he means he takes the reader to Tanzania where he lived among one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer societies on Earth. Here he focuses on the issue of morality and how this has been compromised with modernity. Wells wonders what we can learn from people who choose to live outside mainstream modern society. He aptly points out that in a hunter-gatherer society there can be no excess and accumulating more than one needs makes no sense.

What’s most powerful about Pandora’s Seed is that it puts into perspective just how recent our modern society is. Wells asks us to look to those people who have a link back to the way we lived for “virtually all of our entire evolutionary history.” He is struck by the hunter-gatherers in Tanzania who see themselves as inseparable from the land — this he argues, is the true notion of sustainability. This is not so for the agriculturist, who sees the land as something to be controlled and made productive. Wells instructs us to “want less,” as continued expansion is not possible with our limited resources. And finally, Wells asks us to accept human nature, not suppress it, because despite all the changes we’ve seen in human culture, all we have in the end is the essence of ourselves — our biology.

5 thoughts on “Pandora’s Seed: Investigating Our Agricultural Roots

  1. Thank you so much for the review. I’m excited to check this out. Reminds me of a great book I read many moons ago called Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn.

  2. Wow! Even the review of this book contains a wealth of thought-provoking ideas. Certainly the admonition to “want less” is timely, even if few of us have managed to heed it in any significant way. Meanwhile, it’s becoming more and more apparent that we’d better do just that if we want to continue to live on our beleaguered planet.

  3. “it becomes ever increasingly clear for many students of man and of the contemporary scene that the crucial difficulty with which we are confronted is that the development of man’s intellectual capacities has far outstripped the development of his emotions. Man’s brain lives in the [21st] century; the heart of most men lives still in the stone age. The majority of men have not yet acquired the maturity to be independent, to be rational, to be objective. How can mankind save itself from destroying itself by the discrepancy between intellectual-technical over maturity and emotional backwardness?” Erich Fromm ‘Escape From Freedom”

    This book raises many questions to the critical thinker, i personally would like to ask Spencer Wells a few of my own.

  4. As to Mr. Vilsack’s feathers, these are not new ideas, even though I agree it sounds like a great read. (and..I actually can give Mr. Vilsack some props for his support of beginning farmers)

    Wes Jackson wrote in his 1987 book Alters of Unhewn Stone, “From the moment humans first touched plow to soil, exchanging hunting and gathering for domestic agriculture, we committed ourselves to ultimate decline. It is a tragedy in Alfred North Whitehead’s sense of tragedy, the remorselessly inevitable working of things. Given the current human population now dependent on till agriculture, we will need to continue to till the earth even though such activity had historically and prehistorically undercut the very basis of our existence.”

    Corporations and the few mega conventional farmers see the writing on the wall which is why they don;t want us all to see it too. It too greatly diminishes their bottom line, which is in way sustainable.

  5. Aldous Huxley expressed sympathetic views in Ends and Means, published, I believe, sometime in the 1930’s. It’s a great, contemplative read- little wonder then that it’s out of print. And I unfortunately cannot find my copy, leaving me with no choice but to paraphrase. Technological innovation, says Huxley, is frequently cited as evidence of society’s progress, of our relentless march forward into a more civilized world. Huxley, of course, has a different view, claiming that “technology without charity only provides us with a more efficient means of moving backwards.” Powerful stuff- especially when one considers it was written BEFORE the innovations of humanity were used to perpetrate the various atrocities of WWII.