The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Book Review: Pandora’s Seed by Spencer Wells

There have been a number of technological revolutions during humanity’s existence. Perhaps the most important was the stone age tool revolution, really, but that’s not one we tend to focus on, it being so far in the past. Instead, we focus on the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution.

Pandora’s Seed is about the agricultural revolution. As the title suggests, Wells thinks the agricultural revolution was something of a disaster.

This isn’t a novel argument any more, most people have heard it made, and certainly any long time reader of this blog knows I think it is essentially true.

The argument is simple enough: When we look at hunter-gatherers from before the agricultural revolution, they’re healthier and they live longer. After the agricultural revolution, and especially later, after the hydraulic revolution, we are sicker and die sooner. We have a lot more disease. We have gum disease and tooth decay. We are shorter. Women’s hips are narrower, meaning childbirth is harder and the women are less healthy (hip size correlating quite nicely with overall health in women).

Most of these metrics don’t recover for thousands of years. It is not until Hellenic civilization that most of them are exceeded, and when Hellenic civilization collapses, the growth in those metrics ends.

Women’s hip width has STILL not recovered.

And remember that average age statistics include childhood deaths. Take them out, and the average lifespans of many ancient societies look a lot better. It’s a misunderstanding of the general consensus that the natural lifespan was 35 years. The life span was actually about 70, and people who didn’t get to that age didn’t get there due to privation, disease, violence or death in childbirth.

We evolved as hunter-gatherers. It is that simple. We are adapted for that sort of lifestyle. We have made some genetic adaptations to the agricultural lifestyle, without question, but we are not fully adapted to it. The use of cultural change instead of genetic change has led us to be ill-adapted for the way we live.

This becomes, in certain respects, even more extreme post-industrial revolution. It is unquestionable, for example, that we have far more mental illness than our forbears. Humans handle living in industrial society even worse than they do in agricultural societies. We have rampant obesity, because humans are not meant to have easy access to this much sugar and empty carbohydrates all while sitting on their asses all day.

When we do perform labour, whether agricultural labor or industrial, it is generally bad for us. The human body is made for hunting and gathering, not for rote, unnatural repetitive movements, over and over and again.

So in agricultural or industrial societies we eat in ways to which we aren’t adapted, and we work in ways to which we aren’t adapted. And it makes us sick and unhappy.

That is not deny to the obvious benefits of industrialization in particular, simply to note its underside.

As for agriculture, it prevailed because those who took it up (or herding) tended to win wars. Hunter-gatherers were happier, healthier, and lived longer, but they lost wars, and because they didn’t shit nearly as much where they ate, they didn’t have the disease resistance of sedentary agriculturalists. Just going near agricultural settlements would have often been a death sentence.

The core point here is simple: Social and technological advancement are not the same things as increases in human welfare. Mistaking one for another is vastly stupid. Social or technological advancements win if they out-compete other models, and that competition is not based on “is nicer,” it is based, ultimately, on violence. (Most of the world, having been conquered by Europeans after the industrial revolution, is real, real clear on this.)

The agricultural revolution didn’t run humanity off a cliff. But the industrial revolution and our advancements in military technology (aka. nukes) offer us the ability to “win” ourselves to extinction, while making ourselves vastly unhappy doing so.

Perhaps it is time to learn how to take to conscious control of our technology and society, before our unconsciousness causes catastrophes we cannot handle.

This is an important book, to nail into our heads the facts about how advancements work, in a time period long enough ago that we can hopefully look at it with the faintest shred of objectivity.

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  1. realitychecker

    What an optimist you are, dear Ian!

    Why, we can’t even honestly come to terms with the fact that the Industrial Revolution victimized men at least as much as women, setting men up to be the scapegoats for everything in the last century that women decided they did not like, so that valid male coulda-been-complaints about the emotional catastrophe that resulted from isolating them from their families never got considered during the feminist years, so we now have had generations of relational dysfunction between the sexes, and fatherless children. We can’t talk honestly about any of that, even though most of us spent our own lives living through it.

    Sure, the agricultural revolution also had bad effects, as you validly describe above, as will anything that removes us from the natural existence we evolved in as a species, i.e., needing only an average 4 hours per day to meet our material needs for food and shelter, and spending the rest of the time playing, sexing, and sleeping.

    If we can keep our focus more recent, amigo, maybe we will have a chance to recognize the species-extinction event that is likely to be the final result of the technological revolution which is destroying us at this very moment.

  2. nihil obstet

    It’s not just the availability of carbohydrates and couches that leads to obesity and related problems. The “improvements” in agriculture, culminating in the 20th c. green revolution, produced food that our bodies didn’t evolve to handle. Our industrial farms grow crops and animals to maximize the size of their bodies and to minimize the time it takes them to grow. You can see the result in lumber products — salvaging logs that sank as they were being floated down to the sawmill more than a hundred years ago is profitable because of the tight, rich grain patterns which today’s fast growing trees from impoverished land can’t match. Same with food. We’re not getting the tight, rich nutrient patterns that we evolved on. The result appears to be a hunger regulating system that doesn’t give correct feedback, so we stay hungry and eat more empty food. We breed for rapid growth. We pump animals full of antibiotics for rapid growth. We use poisons in ways that don’t seem to be thought through. And so on.

  3. bruce wilder

    There’s an element of “what goes up, must come down” in the agricultural and industrial revolutions, but this kind of sweeping view into an nearly infinitely receding past doesn’t acknowledge just how large those ups and downs have been, or the role of social and technical adaptation in “fixing” what went “wrong”. It is an important perspective to realize that sometimes human civilizations seem to have stumbled onto “solutions” to the problems their array of technologies have created.

    The early agricultural revolution seems to have created a population explosion as well as, with a lag, a big increase in adolescent mortality. The agricultural revolution’s population boom was followed by a pronounced population crash and an apparent settling into a new equilibrium at a level of population density much lower than the early peak. The Greek Dark Age ended around 800 BCE with the adoption of a new economic order combining a new agricultural, artisanal and trade regime that was vastly more productive and healthy. The population of Greece increased by an order of magnitude and Greek civilization spread thruout the Mediterranean as they founded the colonies of Magna Graecia and others imitated them. And they were pretty healthy, these Greeks, who conquered so much of the world under Alexander. In imitation, Roman soldiers who marched in the Punic Wars were fairly tall, muscular and quite energetic. It didn’t last, of course; the Roman Empire crumbled centuries later as trade declined and the tradeable agricultural surplus squeezed from latifundia dwindled into local famine and epidemic disease, culminating in the Plague of Justinian.

    This is true on small scales as well as large: nutrition and management of disease have seen some major advances over the course of the 300 years of the industrial revolution, just as one example. Solving the problem of pellagra in the American South was a big deal, the struggle against smallpox and diseases of hygiene like cholera or typhoid.

    The critical thing to recognize about technological progress is the feedback of black swans can be a while coming, and speeding up the cycles of technical change does not give us enough time to recognize consequences and course correct. In the 19th century already, extinction events and near-extinction events, such as the end of the American Buffalo or the passenger pigeons should have been fair warning. Forest management barely emerged ahead of trends that might well have exhausted the forests. Ocean management does not look like it will mature before the major extinction event already underway reaches a climax. We humans, habit-bound and arrogant, do have a tendency to run off the edge of cliffs.

    It is amazing really that someone noticed that lead in gasoline was poisoning children or that the freon in hairspray was punching a hole in the ozone. We do not have time for 30 years of tobacco-style denial from Exxon-Mobil about global warming or Monsanto about whatever franken-agriculture they are foisting on us, before we recognize a diffuse externality as a acute problem requiring an intervention.

    The accelerating pace of technical change means we don’t have time to discover the implications of technologies like cellphones and Facebook that we roll out to literally billions of people over the course of no more than a decade. The bees could be not just dead, but extinct before the science of neonicotinoids is semi-adequately understood by experts.

    There’s a good case to be made for slowing down and constraining the sheer size and scope of human activity. I think we need some fairly drastic constraints on all energy use, to reduce multifarious entropy to levels that capacity of the earth to assimilate can cope with. Similarly, we need to find ways to pace technical advance, or at least shift resources massively into monitoring and trying to understand consequences.

  4. Herman

    Would people ever agree to restrictions on technology? Modern people increasingly worship technology. For some it takes the place of religion entirely complete with promises of immortality and an afterlife of some sort (see the transhumanist movement). For most people it is the “gee whiz” factor and the desire to not be left out of popular trends. Hence millions of people are on social media platforms that they know are spying on them and can be utilized by employers and the government to oppress them if need be but still people persist in being on these platforms, even putting out detailed personal information and photos. Eventually these technologies become so widespread that most refuseniks have to give in and use the new tech in order to not be left behind and alienated in their own society.

    Even if there are people ringing alarm bells before certain technologies become widespread there will always be tech boosters who will emphasize the benefits and downplay the negatives. For example if microchipping humans ever takes off it will likely be promoted first as a way to prevent or solve cases of child abduction. Then that argument will be extended to keeping track of people with criminal records. Then it will be making sure people with dementia won’t get lost. Any critique of chipping will be met with “what, do you hate kids and want them to be kidnapped? Do you love criminals and hate people with dementia?” Eventually everyone will be chipped because it is “what everybody does” and nobody wants to be an uncool weirdo.

    People will eventually have to decide whether they want to live as relatively free humans in an imperfect world or in a hyper-technologized “utopia” where we are no longer free in any meaningful sense and perhaps no longer even completely human. As much as I sometimes hate other people I do like being human and find the human experience, both the good and the bad, rewarding. I do not relish being turned into a cyborg or having my consciousness uploaded onto the Internet even if such things were possible.

  5. different clue


    Perhaps “people” will have to figure out how to round up and exterminate the communities of digital progress fundamentalists and other technotopian militants who want to prevent “people” from ever getting to be able to make that choice.

  6. someofparts

    “win ourselves to extinction”

    great, mind-bending way to put it

  7. It was much better to be alive – for the .01% who would be here..

    This has been know since the 1970’s.

    But this does not count in cost of more life for all. In the present it is the top 1% who the benefit.

  8. ” We have rampant obesity, because humans are not meant to have easy access to this much sugar and empty carbohydrates while sitting on their asses all day.”

    I believe there’s significantly more to it than ‘modern’ carbs that create insulin spikes, leading to insulin resistance, leading to diabetes. (See lectures by Dr. Jason Fung on youtube). A certain Dr. Stephen Gundry has gotten extremely impressive results in a study with largish numbers (over 900 subjects) in preventing subsequent coronary events. (Reference at the bottom). His protocol, inspired by what he calls a “pleistocene diet” (he doesn’t want to call it a paleo diet, for reasons I suspect are mostly PR; apparently, he didn’t want people to mistakenly think they should go on a 100% ketogenic “caveman” diet), is premised on humans sticking to plants that they have significant genetic experience handling. Actually, not just “us”, but our optimal microbiome, which we have co-evolved with, and which partly controls our appetites. (In his original book, he also allowed for animal proteins. I haven’t read much of the new book, but I think I heard him say he’s now a vegan.)

    In particular, lectins (a class of plant proteins) are either to be avoided, or else neutralized. So, if you must have tomatoes, don’t eat the skin or seeds. If you want to eat beans, pressure cook them, which will degrade the lectins. But if you want to have bread, which contains a well-known type of lectin that CAN’T be degraded by cooking – viz., gluten – just forget about it.

    The consequences of lectin consumption inherent in much of the current human diet is damage to intestinal wall, which allows LPS’es – technically, lipopolysaccharides, which he likes to call “little pieces of s**t” – to enter the body. The LPS’es mimic parts of the microbiome bacteria, and therefore (I suppose; I haven’t mastered his theory and don’t want to look stuff up) would be just fine if they stayed outside the body. However, once inside the body, they trigger a “fire alarm” level of immune response, and it doesn’t help things that :

    “Your immune system cannot tell the difference between a whole bacterium and a fragment of one, so it treats LPSs as a threat, just as though a true bacterial infection was present in your blood or elsewhere in your body. Your immune system then summons your white blood cells— I think of them as fighter jets and troops— into the attack, causing inflammation. But the extra bad news is that our immune cells, which are ever on patrol for these foreign bodies, can mistake the pattern of lectins for the pattern of LPSs and attack them, as though bacteria were loose in your system— further inflaming your body as a result. But the most dangerous trick pulled by lectins, which I now see on a daily basis in my patients, is that they bear an uncanny similarity to the proteins on many of our important organs, nerves, and joints. Now, in an abundance of caution, your immune system doesn’t want to make a mistake in defending your body by not attacking something important. In the days before antibiotics, you would have been in big trouble if bacteria were present in your body, which is why your immune system is hypersensitive to anything that even remotely resembles a bacterial cell wall or other foreign protein. My colleagues in rheumatology call this response autoimmune disease, but it is actually “friendly fire.””

    Gundry M.D., Steven R.. The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in “Healthy” Foods That Cause Disease and Weight Gain (p. 65). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.


    Study of 978 Gundry patients who had had coronary artery disease found less than 1% recurrence of Cardio Vascular events over 12 years, while non-Gundry patients who receive standard protocols consisting of low fat/low cholesterol diet program, exercise, and lipid lowering agents suffer 30-40% new cardiac event.

    o Source: The American Journal of Cardiology, suppl. Supplement 1115 (Mar 16, 2015)

  9. Cagliostrowned

    Ian, your commentary is insightful, but your comments are a sewer, overrun by a small but vocal population of rubes with nothing better to do than peddle bullshit conspiracy theories.

  10. realitychecker

    @ Cag

    You delight in placing yourself into that “sewer”—–WHY?

  11. > but your comments are a sewer, overrun by a small but vocal population of rubes with nothing better to do than peddle bullshit conspiracy theories.

    It means you will appreciate Ian more. Find important people and push this blog on them.

  12. different clue

    One wonders if the entire history of civilization is merely the story of mankind’s attempt to live like the social insects.

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