“A History of Our Brokenness”
A Review of
The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization .
By Spencer Wells.
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
[ Watch two videos of Wells talking about this book… ]
The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization.
By Spencer Wells.
Hardback: Random House, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
When we, as the Church, think about the Fall of humanity, our minds tend to jump to the Garden of Eden and the familiar story of Adam, Eve, the serpent and the forbidden fruit, and undoubtedly this is an essential part of the biblical narrative. What we tend to gloss over, however, are the ways in which waves of brokenness surged forth through time and space from the epicenter of Eden toppling and subjugating not only humanity but all creation. The Fall, of course, brought on the immediate consequences of pain in childbearing and in working the Earth, but it was not long before we encounter murder, lies, and the amassing of people and power in cities, and then Creation forcefully lashing out at itself with a massive flood. The parallels between this biblical story of the Fall and its aftermath, parallels in a striking way, the scientific account of the development of early civilization presented in Spencer Wells’ new book Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization. Wells is a heralded geneticist, and “Explorer-in-Residence” at the National Geographic Society. His previous two books The Journey of Man and Deep Ancestry, probe aspects of our evolution and development as humankind, as well as our genetic history. I should be clear before I go any further that any theological parallels that I note in conjunction with Wells’ research are my own and not his.
Wells’ thesis is that our development of agriculture about 10,000 years brought with it many “unintended consequences” that have plagued humanity over the intervening millennia, and he narrates a very different story than that put forth by modernist champions of “progress” over the last two centuries. In his words: “The biggest revolution of the past 50,000 years of human history was not the advent of the Internet, the growth of the industrial age out of the seeds of the Enlightenment, or the development of modern methods of long-distance navigation. Rather it was when a few people … decided to stop gathering from the land, abiding by the limits set in place by nature, and started growing their food. This decision has had more far-reaching consequences for our species than any other.” While I realize that discussions of dates and timelines in relation to the earliest eras of human development are open to some degree of leeway and interpretation, I suspect that most people could accept 10,000 years as a possible length of post-Fall human history, so for the sake of this review let us assume that what we know from the biblical narrative as “the Fall,” occurred essentially simultaneously with the development of agriculture as Wells describes it here and see how the consequences he describes fit with those noted in scripture. Wells makes his case with chapters that focus on specific consequences, each of which begins with a relevant story from his global travels.