at its essence, Pandora’s Seed is a cautionary tale regarding the history of the human race and the paths we have taken. Author of the popular The Journey of Man, Spencer Wells’ newest book encompasses a wide scope, all the major forks we have come to in our cultural evolution. The book attempts to cover how the choices made millennia ago deeply affect every thing from obesity and mental illness to climate change and religious fundamentalism. The scope is vast. The depth is, unfortunately, is not. While the book in its smaller scale is admirably comprehensible for the general reader, the in-depth study I wished for is missing. There really should be no diving signs posted around most of the chapters because I can easily see the bottom. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, but I would have preferred to plumb the depths of this topic more thoroughly. There is plenty of good solid information. I just rue the fact that there is not more.
The book wraps itself around the premise that human evolution selected for many characteristics in humanity that we no longer need, characteristics that are, in fact, detrimental to our current well being. It’s a story we have heard many times before. Millions of years of evolution shaped us to be hunter-gatherers, to live off complicated carbohydrates and meat, to survive in small social bands where everyone knew everyone else, where diseases were rare and not readily spread from clan to clan. Our self-alteration into an agricultural-based society rapidly changed these constants and thereby altered humanity forever — for good and for ill.
Sensibly, Mr. Wells never advocates a return to a primitive lifestyle. His work suggests more of a careful study of how our cultural evolution is affecting our health and well being today as individuals as well as the health of society in general and the planet we live on. Starting with diet, Pandora’s Seed marches us through humanity’s difficulty in adapting our biology to modern diets and behaviors. The rise in many chronic health concerns like diabetes, obesity and heart disease can be attributed to the change to agriculture some 10,000 years ago. The prevalence of many of our infectious diseases today was caused by our long association with domesticated animals and hence their diseases and our need as a farming society to settle in larger and larger groups allowing new diseases to spread easily and rapidly. These conclusions are well supported by the evidence and Wells does a fine job of arguing this case.
As the book progresses, however, it seems to become less scientific and more conjectural. I understand that this is due to the author’s entire purpose of the book which is to show how our decisions today will affect not only our children but our descendants for thousands of years. The purpose is admirable and lofty but the execution is less than stellar. I felt the need to remind myself of this purpose periodically while reading, but that thread should have been woven obviously and bluntly throughout the narrative. For instance, when he tells the tale of Mount Tambora exploding in 1815 ( A great tale which he tells well.) and drastically cooling the planet for the next year, I shouldn’t have to wonder why he’s relating this story. It should be more obvious.
I agree with the concept that decisions made 10,000 years ago affect who we are. And, of course, decisions we make today will influence our descendants for dozens, if not hundreds of generations. This theme should be central in the choices we make today, and Wells does try to get this across but with too loose of a narrative and questionable results.
It is not that I didn’t agree with what he was saying, or that I didn’t learn anything. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is just that each individual segment is well written, but taken as a whole, the work is not cohesive enough. It’s almost more of a series of essays than that a single work. A stronger thread should have tied these widely disparate sections together. Compared to Jared Diamond, the master of grandly unifying separate ideas, Wells’ book comes up as a distant second. Cohesion is difficult for many authors, myself included. I understand. But in works of this scope, differences in cohesion is the difference between average works like this and masterworks like Gun’s Germs and Steel and Collapse.
I give it six Blessed A’s out of ten.
As an aside, I must relate a discovery I made here. In the chapter on disease, Wells mentions a researcher at the NIH by the name of Deirdre Joy. This name rang something in my poorly contrived mind and after a few pages I had to turn back and look again. I knew a Deirdre Joy in the Peace Corps in the Central African Republic where I served. She was an amazingly competent and funny woman with a blistering wit which could wash away most opponents in a few short words. To be fully honest, I had a complete crush on her and followed her around rather pathetically until it was stated to me in a politely blunt fashion that she wasn’t interested. That did cool my ardor but not my admiration. Searching on Google (what in the hell did we ever do before that arrived on the scene?) rapidly proved to me that there is only a single Deirdre Joy of note and that I certainly knew her.
At the risk of looking like a stalker, I also must admit to looking for a picture of her. Now! Now! It’s not what you think! As hard as I tried, I just couldn’t picture her. Struggling mightily with my own brain gave me nothing. I could see her gestures and hear a few witticisms she threw out. But… Damn! This is a woman who I… lusted after… yet aside from blond hair, my mind was completely empty. Upon looking at her photo, however, the mental images came rushing back, but I must ask. Where the hell were they all that time? Obviously, the neurons holding that information in an iron grip had not died. Were they misplaced, sleeping, being coy? Were they shy? Sigh! If I could only call up all the shit I have stored in my head when I need it, I’d be a genius. But no, I end up wandering warped and twisted cerebral hallways for days looking for the mental equivalent of lost sock. If there is any better proof of not being designed by God, I have yet to hear it.
Anyway, I know it’s a bit rednecky but this is the first time I have read a book and found someone I actually knew in its pages. I’m so happy.