In the homo ecos: library, you can find a whole range of ‘green classics’. These books (and magazines/films) are available to browse and borrow for any bookworm who considers themselves a friend of homo ecos:. For those people who do not enjoy the art of reading, our EVS volunteer Janny will read and review one sustainable page-turner every month.
This month: Pandora’s Seed by Spencer Wells.
“We have better and more comfortable lives in the Western world than we did a few generations ago. So why aren’t we happier, or healthier?”
In Pandora’s Seed, geneticist/anthropologist Spencer Wells traces the answer to this question back 10.000 years, when the first human decided to plant a seed and grow his own food, instead of gathering it from his surroundings. Mankind no longer tried to survive in nature, but rather tried to control it. Wells argues that our genes, which evolved over billions of years, are terribly mismatched with this agriculture-based lifestyle, which has only been around for a blip on the evolutionary scale.
In seven easy-to-read chapters, Wells links a whole array of current societal problems to this historic move from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural one. Like with Pandora’s Box, “when our ancestors created agriculture around 10.000 years ago, they had no idea of what other changes they were setting in motion. (…) They were unaware of what, by changing their fundamental relationship with nature, they were unleashing on the world.” Diabetes, sickle cell anemia, obesity, mental illness, burn-out and even fundamentalism and terrorism – Wells links them all back to this one all-defining change in human lifestyle.
Wells presents some surprising evidence which shows that, contrary to what most people might think, humans did not immediately become healthier and more successful because of agriculture. In fact, excavation data show that average life expectancy and height actually dropped during the first couple of thousand years after this shift to a more reliable but rather one-sided, carbohydrate-rich diet. Combine that diet with our current sedentary lifestyle, and our genes are completely out of their depth, resulting in welfare diseases such as diabetes and heart failure.
So are we supposed to give up our factories and farms? Should we run off into the woods with only a bow and arrow to sustain ourselves? Rest assured. Spencer Wells is a scientist, not an activist. His book is an analysis of the world, not a manual or a manifest for a different society.
However, in his last chapter, he does raise some concerns related to the Pandora’s Box we call Progress. Scientists are learning more and more about our biology, but still they cannot predict what consequences their actions (be it genetically modifying cattle, nuclear energy, or a new treatment for AIDS) will have on humanity in the long run. He thus ends with a cautionary note:
“We are at a critical juncture, a time unlike any other in the history of our species, when our culture threatens to destroy the essence of what it means to be human. It is vital that we take lessons from our past in order to better know ourselves, and to guess at where we should go tomorrow.”