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Book Review: Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization by Spencer Wells

Review by Nathan Seppa

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At first glance, it’s hard to see the downside of being civilized. Compared with Stone Age living, an office job doesn’t look too shabby. Throw in the Internet, leisure time and dessert, and all this culture looks like a win-win.

But there’s a catch, says Wells, an anthropological geneticist. Civilization grew out of a gradual switch 10,000 years ago from hunting and gathering to farming, and, he says, “more food produced more people.” The result is a planet with 6.8 billion human grazers.

The rise of farming meant that adults’ leading health threat, trauma, gave way to infection over the past several millennia as animal domestication and city living spread disease. Now humans enter a new phase of threats, also tied to agriculture. Wheat, rice and corn supply more than half the calories consumed by people worldwide, and high-carbohydrate, processed foods have spawned epidemics of obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Exacerbated by a sedentary lifestyle, the modern diet represents “a profound shift in the causes of disease,” Wells writes. “More and more, we are causing our own deaths.”

Wells isn’t advocating a return to hunting and gathering. He points out that farming settlements fostered common language and innovation, and these positive trends continue. Farming took thousands of years to spread, he notes, but the industrial revolution needed only a few generations. The information age is even faster.

But Wells wonders whether technological advances can solve today’s health and environmental problems — if gene research will counteract disease and if nuclear or renewable energy will make up for oil shortages. And then there’s climate change and species loss. “It is time,” Wells writes, “to take stock and realize that with great desires come great consequences.”

Random House, 2010, 230 p., $26.

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