There are those who say that the development of agriculture was a bad idea. It’s about 12,000 years too late to do anything about it, and as I sit here in an artificially lit room late at night with my laptop connected to the wide world and my stomach pleasantly full of smoked salmon and petite syrah, both of which come from far away (not to mention my blood pressure nicely under control due to medication), I have to say that the civilization that sprang from agriculture is not altogether undesirable. On the other hand, earlier this evening I looked at a heartbreaking series of recent photos from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s enough to make me wonder if even the greatest achievements of the human mind, which have been possible only through the development of a way to accumulate our knowledge from generation to generation (i.e., civilization) are worth the destruction we have wrought.
Those reservations have to do with our effect on the planet, though. The arguments about agriculture being a bad idea have to do with its effect on humans, and that is the central point of a new book by Spencer Wells, Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization. Wells, a geneticist, directs the Genographic Project, which uses DNA samples from humans worldwide to trace the story of our migrations out of Africa and across the planet.
I haven’t read Pandora’s Seed yet, but an essay Wells wrote for Seed Magazine sparked my interest. After noting the current rapid pace of change and describing some of the ills of westernized societies, which are on the rise in developing countries, he writes:
This seemingly inexorable march toward western unhealthiness made me wonder why it happened in the first place. Is there some sort of fatal mismatch between western culture and our biology that is making us ill? And if there is such a mismatch, how did our present culture come to dominate? Surely we are the masters of our own fate, and we created the culture that is best suited to us, rather than the other way around?
I would really like to know the answer to this question, or even an explanation that might hint at an answer, but I guess I’ll have to read the book, because the article doesn’t really give one. He talks about how we adapted biologically to the changes in our lifestyle, mentioning the accelerated rate of change in our DNA in the last 10,000 years compared to the previous 500,000, which is interesting stuff. I’m assuming the point here is that cultural evolution moves so fast that it outstrips the capacity of biological evolution to keep up because the latter moves much more slowly even at this accelerated pace. Wells mentions a cycle that repeats over and over again in human history but doesn’t really explain what it is and how it is relevant to this problem.
The essay focuses on three challenges we face that evidently are discussed in the last section of Wells’s book: our ability to engineer our genes, climate change; and the fact that we live in a networked world that has, as he describes it, resulted in the loss of “the traditions that guided much of humanity over the past several thousand years.” Regarding this last problem, he says: “Providing an inclusive mythos for the modern age will be a significant challenge of the next century.”
My hackles rose when he described the down side of secular rationality as the “loss of faith and certainty.” I was reminded of something Richard Feynman said: “I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.” And as I wrote recently, I consider the loss of faith to be a step forward. On the other hand, Wells has traveled to remote corners of the world to gather DNA samples, so I’d like to know more about how he sees this loss of faith and certainty playing out in the lives of people around the world, and whether he has any thoughts on how that “inclusive mythos” might be crafted. There certainly are growing pains involved in growing out of faith-based certainty and into a more nuanced, reality-based view of human knowledge about the world, in individual lifetimes and in the lifetime of the species. I hope he’s not saying that these growing pains are not worth the resulting process of maturation.
In short, the essay generated more questions than answers for me, so I will have to read the book and see what it’s all about. Another book on the pile, oh boy!