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Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization
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Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization [Format Kindle]

Spencer Wells
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Chapter One

Mystery in the Map

 . . . the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by humankind.-president bill clinton,

 Announcing the completion of the draft human genome sequence

On June 26, 2000

A map is not the territory it represents. -alfred korzybski


My cab wove through the midafternoon traffic, tracing an arc along the frozen shore of Lake Michigan. On my right, the buildings of one of the world's tallest cities stabbed toward the sky, steel and glass growing out of the Illinois prairie like modern incarnations of the grass and trees that once lined the lake. A thriving metropolis of nearly three million people, Chicago boasts an airport that was once the world's busiest (it's now second), with over 190,000 passengers a day passing through its terminals-including, on this particular day, me. This sprawling city prides itself on its dynamic, forward-looking culture-the "tool maker" and "stacker of wheat," as Carl Sandburg called it. Not the most obvious place to come looking for the past.

The lake took me back in time, though-way back, before it was even there. Lake Michigan is actually a remnant of one of the largest glaciers the earth has ever seen. During the last ice age, the Laurentide ice sheet stretched from northern Canada down along the Missouri River, as far south as Indianapolis, with its eastern flank covering present-day New York and spilling into the Atlantic Ocean. When it melted, around 10,000 years ago, the water coalesced into the Great Lakes, including Michigan. Looking out the window of my cab, at the strong winds ripping across the expanse of ice reaching out from the Chicago shoreline, I felt like history might be rewinding itself. The ice age could have looked a bit like this, I thought.

This wasn't just idle musing; I've spent my life studying the past, effectively trying to rewind history. I became obsessed with it as a child, and devoured anything and everything on ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, the great empires of the Middle East, and the European Middle Ages. In high school biology classes I started to think about much more ancient history, its actors playing their parts on a geological stage. I added the history of life to my passion for written history, and when I got to college I decided to study the record written in our own history book-our DNA. The field I became interested in is known as population genetics, which is the study of the genetic composition of populations of living organisms, using their DNA to decipher a record of how they had changed over time. The field originated as an attempt to piece together clues about how our ancestors had moved around, how ancient populations had mixed and split off from each other, and how they had diversified over the eons. In short, really ancient history.

 And my quest had brought me here, for the second time. My last visit to the University of Chicago-where I was headed from O'Hare-had been eighteen years earlier, in February 1989, when I was considering going there for graduate school. The lake was frozen then as well, and my early-morning walks to meetings at the university in single-digit temperatures played a small role in my decision to head to school in the somewhat warmer city of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Despite my decision, the University of Chicago was, and is, an outstanding university. Its faculty boasts brilliant researchers and thinkers in many fields, from economics to literature to physics. I had come back to visit one of them.

Jonathan Pritchard had been a graduate student at Stanford when I was a postdoctoral researcher there, and I still clearly remember his early presentations to our group. His mathematician's mind, coupled with his deep understanding of the processes of genetic change, made him a real asset to the group. We overlapped again briefly when I was at Oxford, but we lost touch over the years, although I followed his work from the papers he published in scientific journals. It was one such publication that led me to get in touch with him to discuss his findings.

This paper, published in the journal PLoS Biology (PLoS stands for Public Library of Science, a prestigious family of scientific journals available on the Web), described a new method his team had developed to look at selection in the human genome. Selection is the Darwinian force that has created exquisite adaptations like the eye and the ear, as well as most of the other really useful traits we humans have. As Darwin taught us, small changes that are advantageous in some way give an organism a greater chance of surviving and reproducing in the perpetual rat race that is life. Since all of these selected characteristics ultimately have their origin in the way our DNA is put together, it is logical to look to our genes to find out about what made us the way we are.

The search for selection at the genetic level has a long history, dating back to way before Watson and Crick deciphered the structure of DNA in the early 1950s. Pioneering scientists such as Theodosius Dobzhansky, a Russian immigrant to America who helped create the modern science of population genetics back in the early twentieth century, were obsessed with looking for genetic changes that could be explained only by invoking Darwin's seemingly magical force. In the days before DNA sequences could be studied directly, though, researchers observed large-scale changes in the structure of fruit fly chromosomes. (Fruit flies being the geneticist's favorite model organism, mostly because their huge salivary gland chromosomes made their patterns of genetic variation easy to study in the days before DNA sequencing.) But while they found some evidence for the past action of selection in fruit flies, the ultimate cause of the patterns they observed remained elusive.

Once it was known that DNA was the ultimate source of genetic variation, and its structure had been discovered and methods developed to determine the actual sequence of the chemical building blocks that make up the double helix (I'm glossing over about fifty years of pioneering research here), population geneticists began to look at DNA sequences directly. In the early days (only around twenty-five years ago), because of technical limitations, they could examine just a few small regions in the genome (the sum total of the genetic building blocks in an individual), and the search for evidence of natural selection usually proved fruitless. It was only with the completion of the Human Genome Project in the late 1990s, and the massive technological breakthroughs that it spawned, that scientists could finally start to reassess the issue that had obsessed Dobzhansky and his colleagues nearly a century before: Is it possible to find evidence of selection at the DNA level and, perhaps more interestingly, can we figure out why it has taken place?


I paid the cab driver and got out near the University of Chicago bookstore, taking in the surroundings. Gothic-style edifices, constructed during Chicago's earlier building boom, toward the end of the nineteenth century, surrounded me on all sides. It had been a conscious attempt on the part of the new university-it was founded in 1890, with funds provided by the oil baron John D. Rockefeller-to connect with an older tradition of learning. I felt as though I were back among the gleaming spires of Oxford, running between undergraduate tutorials. My destination, however, was a much newer structure.

The Cummings Life Science Center was constructed in 1970; as befitted a structure meant to house scientists engaged in the advanced study of biology, then undergoing a revolution as a result of Watson and Crick's elucidation of the structure of DNA, the building's brick tower was bracingly modern, even a bit brutal. But I had come to talk to Jonathan Pritchard, who was using the most advanced techniques in genetics to look at the history of our species. The juxtaposition of this building amid a campus of older structures seemed fitting, given what I was here to discuss.

I located his office on one of the upper floors, and we chatted as he made me a cup of tea. An avid distance runner, with the intense, lanky look of a marathoner, he seemed somewhat surprised that I had made the trip just to talk to him. I asked him about his move from Oxford to Chicago, his personal life (one of his son's drawings hung above his desk), and what it felt like to have been granted tenure at one of the world's most prestigious universities at the precocious age of thirty-seven. He laughed, confident in his intellectual abilities, like so many of the mathematically gifted people I have known, and explained that his life was going well. We then moved on to the reason for my visit.

I wanted to talk shop. Or, rather, I wanted to get his take on the findings of his important research paper. In their PLoS publication, he and his colleagues had described a new method of detecting selection in the human genome. It made use of something called the HapMap, a collection of data on the so-called haplotype structure of the human genome. And to understand that we'll need to delve into the science a little.

 The long string of DNA that makes up your entire genome is broken into smaller strings called chromosomes-there are twenty-three pairs of them-containing the 23,000 or so genes that direct your body to do what it does. These genes code for things like sugar-digesting enzymes in your gut, or blood-clotting proteins, or the type of earwax you have-all of the physical traits that make you who you are. The chromosomes are linear strings of DNA, composed of four chemical building blocks known as nucleotides: A, C, G, and T. The sequence of these nucleotides-AGCCTAGG, and so on, along the entire length of the chromosome-encodes the information in your genome and determines what each gene will do in your body. The nucleotides are arrayed along the chromosomes like beads on a string, a linear orchestra of musicians, each playing their own part in the symphony that...

Revue de presse

“Fascinating—this book has some very new ways of looking at very old issues.”
—Bill McKibben, bestselling author of The End of Nature

"Spencer Wells—explorer, geneticist, geographer, and author—takes us on an exciting tour of the last 10,000 years of our history in order to forewarn us of what we shall have to deal with in the next 50 years."
—Jared Diamond, Professor of Geography at UCLA, and Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel

"Spencer Wells's writing combines a deep knowledge of the history of human evolution with a most engaging and lively manner of making that story come alive. Pandora’s Seed draws upon compelling anecdotes and moving personal narratives to crystallize a crucial turning point in the history of our species, the point at which modern human beings stop and look back at our long evolutionary trajectory, and confront squarely its dark side, its cost. With this knowledge, Wells deeply believes, we can take the necessary steps to chart a common, humane future over the crucial next half century. Pandora’s Seed reflects Wells’s deep learning, and his deep love of our all too human community."—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University and author of
Tradition and the Black Atlantic

"Spencer Wells has a provocative and timely message. He argues that we are at a critical juncture where our culture could destroy the very essence of what it means to be human. His closely argued and thoughtful essay gives us hope and a blueprint for the future that relies in part on lessons from peoples who still retain links with the distant part. Everyone with a stake in humanity’s future should read this book."—Brian Fagan, author of The Great Warming and Cro-Magnon

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5.0 étoiles sur 5 Our genes and our future 12 décembre 2012
Par Suzy
Format:Relié|Achat vérifié
What a timely message. Spencer Wells illustrates the legacy of our genes starting slightly before the beginning of proto-historic times and following it through to our present times with all their consequences and arsenal for potential self-destruction. With two very minor reservations concerning the art production of the Cro-Magnon, I wish to say that this is an important book and anybody to whom nature and humanity are meaningful, should read it. I loved it and it is very easy to read, even for a layman.
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5.0 étoiles sur 5 Pacte avec le diable 14 juillet 2010
La caractéristique de l'homme, c'est sa capacité à "l'innovation culturelle". Il utilise la société pour créer, mais aussi pour se protéger. C'est à elle qu'il doit de ne pas avoir disparu, et d'avoir conquis le monde. Or ce don a un prix - énorme : la société modèle l'homme. Elle le transforme, lui et son génome, en marche forcée. Et elle est à l'origine des fléaux qui l'ont décimé : la plupart des épidémies viennent de la cohabitation animal - homme. Aujourd'hui le marché exploite ses faiblesses génétiques systématiquement, d'où hypertension, diabète, obésité. Et le stress social, qui met son système immunitaire en état de siège, fait la fortune de l'industrie pharmaceutique ("pour la première fois dans notre histoire, nous nous droguons pour paraître normaux"). Et voici qu'arrive le génie génétique...
Une histoire de la société depuis ses origines, bien écrite, très argumentée, fort cohérente, facile à lire, et inquiétante.
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Commentaires client les plus utiles sur (beta) 3.7 étoiles sur 5  43 commentaires
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4.0 étoiles sur 5 Interesting, but not exactly what I was expecting 28 juin 2010
Par W. V. Buckley - Publié sur
Format:Format Kindle|Achat vérifié
I have to hand it to Spencer Wells. He's a master at explaining scientific data and making a subject that might seem dry and academic come alive. In Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization he takes on the topic of early man's transition from hunter-gatherer to an argicultural basis 10,000 years ago during the Neolithic revolution. Using his background in population genetics, Wells makes the case that in opting for the settled lives of farmers our early ancestors set us on a path toward civilization.

Little did our ancestors know that along with farming, they were also sowing the seeds of overpopulation, disease, obesity, mental illness, climate change and even violent fundamentalism. At least according to Pandora's Seed.

I enjoyed the early chanpters of this book where Wells discussed early man. His points about farming and early urbanization are clearly made, as are his ideas that the plentiful supply of food that could be grown rather than searched for set the stage for the development of diseases like diabetes. But as he delved into other topics it seemed like his ideas were less based on science and more on conjecture. I first noticed this in his chapter on mental illness, but it carried through the rest of the book.

By the time I finished the chapters on climate change and religious fundamentalism it felt like Wells was stretching his ideas almost to the breaking point. Granted, he didn't say anything I disagree with; but it was starting to feel less like science and more like an agenda.

Wells has much of interest to say. I just wish he'd be a little more clear when he's speaking for science and when he's speaking for himself.
51 internautes sur 55 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Did humans take a wrong turn? 27 juin 2010
Par Jay C. Smith - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Achat vérifié
The Economist magazine has suggested that if humanity has a "historian-in-chief" it is Spencer Wells, one of the foremost practitioners applying population genetics to refine our understanding of distant human history. That sets a rather high expectation for Pandora's Seed.

Wells builds on the basic evolutionary idea that when the environment changes not all of the genes suitable for the previous environment necessarily remain advantageous. The greatest disruption of this sort in the past 50,000 years, he believes, was when humans began growing their own food about 10,000 years ago, the development of agriculture. Of course, our ancestors had no idea of the long-term consequences of their choices as they began to domesticate plants and animals.

Wells emphasizes those consequences that were not so good. For instance, he argues, human health suffered. For both males and females, longevity, average height, and pelvic indices deteriorated from where they were in Paleolithic times (30,000 to 9,000 years ago) and did not recover until the nineteenth century. "Ultimately, nearly every single major disease affecting modern human populations whether bacterial, viral, parasitic, or noncommunicable has its roots in the mismatch between our biology and the world we have created since the advent of agriculture," he contends.

Wells carries the argument through to current times, although he attends little to the intervening cultural history. He would like us to be more conscious of the "transgenerational" effects of the choices we make as they pertain to, for instance, the health and ethical issues involved in genetic engineering, our impacts on global warming, probable future reliance on aquaculture, and so on. With greater capacity to alter life forms and environments than ever before, "More and more, we are coming to realize that tinkering with nature can produce unintended effects, even if the tinkering seems well planned and justified."

The biological perspective on history has proven bountiful in recent years. In this case Wells begins by covering new genetic evidence of the biological transformations associated with the shift to agriculture. He draws on scholarly publications not typically read by non-specialists, performing a service for general readers. But then he turns to information and points of view that many of his readers will have heard often before. A substantial part of the book relies on material previously accessible in various broadly popular works (Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Bill McKibben, James Howard Kunstler, William McNeill, and Jared Diamond, for example, feature in the bibliography).

Wells set out to delineate the costs of civilization and not the benefits. Having such a one-sided but transparent objective is fair enough, but it should not relieve the author of the responsibility for critical scrutiny of the evidence. Thus it is bothersome that he glamorizes hunter-gatherer life, suggesting that these societies met material needs, had ample leisure time, were egalitarian, were not acquisitive, and were generally non-violent -- civilization ostensibly spoiled all of this. He is aware of at least some of the important contrary anthropological findings, but he glosses over them in order to buttress his theme.

It is no surprise that Wells does not go so far as to advocate reversion to hunter-gatherer culture -- it would be shocking (and more gripping) if he did (like Paul Shepard, for instance). Instead, he is "merely pointing out that we can learn something about the state of modern society from those ancestors." Well, of course, but this conclusion seems rather tepid after all the build-up.

Wells (or his editor) deserves credit for striving to make the book reader-friendly. However, a couple of the devices employed for this purpose generate at best only mixed results. Each chapter begins with an account of Wells visiting some particular place. In certain instances this works to humanize the subject, as in his story of the efforts of a Derbyshire, England couple to save their son afflicted with a serious genetic disease. But certain of these vignettes come across as merely gratuitous -- his visit to Dollywood adds no particular insight to his discussion of modern obesity, for example.

There are more than a dozen charts, mostly easy to interpret. Again, though, a few do not work so well (for example, legends obscured by small print and colors washed out in the transformation to black and white).

Pandora's Seed conveys commendable messages pertaining to human fate and that of our planet, though no truly fresh ones. It does so imperfectly, not quite clearing the high bar I had set for it when I first picked it up.
28 internautes sur 30 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 A New Perspective on the Historical Transition to Agriculture 5 juillet 2010
Par David Hillstrom - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Achat vérifié
The enormous change brought about by the invention of agriculture is well documented. As Spencer Wells says in his book, Pandora's Seed, the transition to permanent settlements led "from villages to cities, which joined in empires with written records to pass on to future generations. What before was lost to posterity or decayed into vague myth was now written in stone." Numerous authors have dealt with this historical transition and its impact. (Probably one of the best such books is Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.) Mr Wells however has added a significant new dimension to the analysis. Humans guided the evolution of the plants and animals that they domesticated, but there is now genetic evidence that shows that humans were in turn themselves affected by these changes. Geneticists have now discovered numerous recent mutations to the human genome which resulted from the abrupt change in our environment and our diet. The story which the author develops explains in detail both the scope of these changes and the fact that the impact of those genetic mutations and the dramatic shift in the human environment is still unfolding. He goes on to consider the potential future impact of the tools which geneticists have now developed, which could permit designer children as in the movie Gattica. Thus the initial chapters of the book are powerful and enormously important.

Mr Wells is best when he is talking about genetic science, which he knows in depth. However, he also tackles issues such as our contemporary environmental challenge, psychiatric disorders and religious fundamentalism. I found these secondary discussions interesting in terms of the questions that are raised but ultimately they remain rather shallow and simplistic. For example he writes at length about the conflict between science and religion (or as he terms it mythos vs. logos) but he ends up sitting on the fence. I accept the dilemma that humans seek meaning as well as knowledge. But we need to take a position so as to sift away the myths of the past that frequently impair rather than enhance our capacity for adapting to the challenges of the contemporary world. Ultimately, as Karen Armstrong has written, humans will always tell myths just as they produce art. But the beauty of art (pun intended) is that art can provide meaning and depth to our lives without the risk of confusing it with knowledge or truth. Again Mr Wells analyzes the problem but leaves us stranded without direction.

In the final chapter the author summarizes the issues which suggest humanity is on an unsustainable and catastrophic course. He then proposes a `solution' by suggesting that we need to learn to `want less.' As a rallying call this slogan makes sense. But again it is a rather hollow call. The only realistic way we might bring about such a major change in the course of history is via regulation (and global regulation at that). The road to this goal will be arduous and will require that we build consensus, while defeating misplaced ideas and beliefs. Mr Wells has left us with just the slogan and no further practical guidance. But it is an important an important start and Pandora's Seed is an important book despite my few critical comments.

David Hillstrom
Author of The Bridge
41 internautes sur 47 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
3.0 étoiles sur 5 Pandora's Seed: A Forseen Cost of Civilization 23 juillet 2010
Par Nicholas Nahat - Publié sur
Pandora's Seed is a light, almost trite, treatment of a subject which proceeds from a slender insight. In this respect it is a typical book--one might say pamphlet--of the times.

The premise is that the shift from hunter-gathering to farming had a deep impact on humanity's future. So far, so good. The primary contribution of this book is to summarize contemporary research about population genetics in support of its main idea. I found the idea of Goldschmidt's 'macromutations,' the FOXP2 sequence conferring language abilities, the changing 'waves' of disease burden over 15,000 years, selection pressure for lactase digestion, and other specific factoids very interesting. The book would have worked fine as a general summary, but the author overreaches. He takes these building blocks and tries to create an edifice that he wants to call 'transgenerational power'--the ability of one generation to affect others down the line-- but in the end the author doesn't make much use of it; it's just sort of a metaphorical umbrella hanging over the proceedings, and ends up either explaining too much, or too little.

The problem is that there isn't that much research to summarize, so most of the essay becomes speculation. The reader, for example, will spend alot of time wallowing through anecdotes about the Lower Austrian Psychiatric Hospital and Tuvalu in order to reach conclusory assertions such as the 'psychological mismatch between the densely populated, noisy agricultural world and the sparsely populated hunter-gatherer is almost certainly on of the reasons for the psychological unease felt by many people.' This may be plausible, but there is no research to show that this is true. As a result, all too many sentences end with a question-mark, as in the sense of 'could this be true?' Well, sure.

The author's gratuitous travel anecdotes are annoying; if his publisher paid for these 'research' trips it was exceedingly generous. Each chapter has the author visiting some location around the globe--Chicago, Tuvalu, Norway, England--usually to investigate some trivial detail or have a 'conversation' with somebody which could have as easily been accomplished by telephone. I knew I was in trouble from the first sentence in the Foreward, where he describes himself typing on his laptop, sipping wine at 36,000 feet, flying above the Arabian Sea.

The only thing more annoying is the number of sentences which begin with a variant of "As those of you who have been paying attention will realize..." as if the author was condescending to tutor a group of dunderheads.

Pandora's Seed is primarily a vehicle for a author to pad his resume a 'global adventurer'; along the way the reader gets treated to a few interesting crumbs of research and anecdote laced with condescension, which are, nevertheless a worthwhile expenditure of time to consume despite the poor taste left on the palate.

I'll just have to wash that down with a glass of wine while typing on my laptop (five stories above the ground in Detroit, Michigan.)
25 internautes sur 29 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
2.0 étoiles sur 5 Disappointing 21 août 2010
Par JG - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Achat vérifié
The premise of this book is great and it got me to plunk down my $20 for a copy. The idea that the change from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural one paved the way for many of the medical and social ills that we face today is truly an interesting idea and worthy of its own book. Unfortunately, this very brief book does not do the subject matter justice.

This book suffers from two big flaws: (1) the author wastes too much time describing his travels around the world, his relationships with colleagues and other distractions that add little value to the book; and (2) the author bounces around from one idea to the next but rarely explores any concept long enough to develop any ideas before he's off to the next segment.

An example of first flaw can be seen at the beginning of the first chapter. He devotes more words to describing the history of his relationship with a colleague at the University of Chicago than he does to discussing the relevance of that colleague's work to this book. This together with his very lengthy and very unnecessary travel anecdotes take up far too much of the book's pages. I'm not sure if this is just bad editing or a deliberate attempt to stretch a short book out to a fill 200 pages.

An example of the second flaw can be found in the third chapter about disease. The chapter begins with a discussion of obesity and it appears that Wells is about to dive into a discussion of how the choice of certain grain crops is a factor in this disease. But before he explores the topic of obesity he cuts the discussion short and quickly moves on to the next segment, which is a discussion of how viruses spread from animals to humans and how they quickly spread across the world. Instead of a geneticist's deep analysis of the topic of nutrition based illnesses we get a very brief, very superficial observation about obesity being correlated to income and then he's off to his next segment about some other disease. Aside from the parts of the book where the author discusses his speciality (population genetics), which are in depth and interesting, most of the insights he offers on topics like medical and social issues are brief and don't really offer much in the way of in-depth analysis. It would have been better if Wells had stuck to 3 or 4 subjects and done a deep dive analysis of them rather than visit 10 subjects and breeze through them in this half-hearted manner.

I really wanted to like this book, the subject matter is interesting and it looked like it had such great promise but the unnecessary travelogue that takes up half of each chapter coupled with the lack of in-depth analysis of key topics make this book a disappointment. If you want some meatier analysis of the impact of the agricultural revolution on human health try reading Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma". If you want to focus on the environmental and social aspects of the rise of agriculture try Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel".
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