“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.
The first unintended consequence of the shift to agriculture that Wells describes in Pandora’s Seed is a population boom, which led to the development of cities. Humanity’s seizing control over the food supply meant not only more food but also that the people living in any given place did not have to rely solely on the sources of food in that place and could live in more dense populations. Of course, we see parallels here to the biblical narrative, not only in the flourishing of human populations, but also in the emergence of cities, which we are told appeared not long after the Fall. A second unintended consequence, Wells observes, is the appearance of human governments. Again, this observation parallels the biblical narrative, although perhaps more indirectly, as we find therein stories like Israel’s demanding a king in I Kings, which remind us that God did not intend for humanity to have kings and masters who lorded their power over their subjects, but rather governments emerged as a means of keeping a modicum of order in a fallen world.
A third unintended consequence of the development of agriculture is the appearance and rapid acceleration of all sorts of disease. Watts makes the bold statement that: “[N]early every single major disease affecting 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. Malaria, influenza, AIDS, diabetes – all could only exist as significant global scourges in the modern world, with its high population densities, large populations of domesticated animals and high levels of mobility” (90). Wells also argues compellingly that the rise of agricultural civilization has lead to the propagation not only of diseases of the body, but also of the mind.
With the bulk of evidence about the fallout of our decision to become agricultural civilization in mind, Wells also inserts a chapter cautioning us to be very careful in the choices we make regarding genetic technologies. He makes the frank admission, particularly for a geneticist, that although we are learning rapidly about genetics, there is a significant “gap in our knowledge [in regard to] how the genome is translated into a living system.” He cautions that moving forward too quickly in the areas of genetic manipulation, might unleash a storm of unintended consequences, which could have the potential to rival those initiated by the development of agriculture.
As a final example, Wells observes that the abundance of food that we were able to generate through agriculture, and the parallel abundance of goods made possible through the industrial revolution has triggered in us an exponential desire for consumption, particularly the consumption of energy. Furthermore, our consumption of goods and energy, he says, is wreaking its own sort of unintended consequences on our planet in the form of global warming and shortages of fresh, potable water.
In the book’s last chapter, Wells finally gets around to the question that dances around the reader’s mind throughout the whole of the text: how do we respond to these broad propagations of brokenness set in motion by our choice to shift to agriculture some 10,000 years ago? Wells’ brief treatment of this question shows that for all his skill in reading and expositing the scientific record and the narrative of our human fall, he is no ethicist. His response can be boiled down, in fact, to two words: “Want less.” And, of course, despite the brevity of this answer, he is undoubtedly correct. Even the Gospel narrative calls us to repentance and the transformation of our desires from selfish longings and ambitions to those that nurture the healing and reconciliation of all creation. However, the Gospel narrative, unlike that of Wells, provides a clear vision of how we are to become a people who want less: namely by committing to following in the loving, sacrificial way of Jesus and in so doing joining with others in communities (churches) that demonstrate in our life together a way that stands in stark contrast to the self-indulgent, diseased, over-consumption of mainstream civilization.
The genius of the account that Wells spins in Pandora’s Seed, is that in narrating the wide-spread effects of our brokenness, he has unintentionally opened a portal through which we, the Church, might catch a glimpse of a rich vision of the undoing of these sins and the ultimate reconciliation of all creation. Speaking as a scientist, his layered presentation of the depths of our brokenness emerges more clearly and with more insight than the work of many theologians over the centuries who have tried to tackle similar topics. May we be moved by the poignancy of his work and may we be driven deeper into our calling as communities of people whose desires are being divinely transformed from selfishness to the well-being of not only of our particular places, but also of all creation!
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com