Every once in a while I put down my work long enough to look at where we are. It’s often a frightening experience. Not many of us would be equipped to survive the collapse of civilization, despite the many television shows that depict such future anarchy. I suppose that’s why Spencer Wells’ Pandora’s Seed: Why the Hunter-Gatherer Holds the Key to Our Survival was such a compelling book. The more anthropological studies I read, the more clear it becomes that “civilization” has changed us about as much as evolution has. If not more. We have turned into something else, a creature of our own making. Wells demonstrates throughout the pages of this book how, with the first development of agriculture, we began on a track that has made us less healthy, less happy, and more dependent on technology than we have ever been. True, life as hunter-gatherers was never easy. Still, it is telling that they have much more free time than agriculturalists. And, as far as we can tell, they are better-adjusted. They are doing what we evolved to do.
Addressing issues as diverse as from how our diet has changed to genetic engineering, Pandora’s Seed is a wide-ranging and fascinating book. It does show that technology far outraces ethics and our ability to figure out the proper response to complicated questions. We often lack the time to reason things out. And yet, we live in a world where mental illness is set to become the number two natural cause of death within this century. We are profoundly unhappy. We deny climate change although it’s evident all around us. We’ve put into place a global warming that will take a millennium to dissipate even if we stopped using fossil fuels today. We deny that it’s true, we go to dehumanizing jobs, and we eat food that’s not nutritious because it’s the kind we can afford. We lack time and motivation for exercise and disease takes hold. Such a lifestyle even affects our religion.
Tellingly, Wells’ last chapter deals with Fundamentalism. Noting that humans use both logos (logical) and mythos (mystical) thinking for a balanced view of things, fundamentalisms utilize a logos system to try to explain mythos. Violence often ensues. In order to be fully human we have to admit that rationality alone does not solve all our problems, or meet all of our needs. Some of what we require is simply not material. While Wells does not suggest reverting to hunter-gatherer lifestyles, he does suggest that the only solutions to a world of limited material goods (food, fossil fuels, fresh water) that the only way to make civilization sustainable is to learn to want less. Evolution predisposes us to gather more than we need, and certainly, to hear college career counselors talk, we have to want jobs that will bring in more, more, more. The world is becoming smaller, and people are demanding that the greed come to an end. Until that day perhaps the best solution for us all would be to take a walk in the woods and to remind ourselves how we came to be where we are.