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Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization

By establishing the facts of evolution – the where, when, why, and how of human, animal, and plant genetic selection, survival, and extinction – Wells proves that we are pretty much done with theories

Reviewed by Ed Baker, Fri., July 9, 2010

Book Review

Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization

by Spencer Wells
Random House, 256 pp., $26

The subject matter of Pandora's Seed – the co-evolution of man, beast, and food plants since the beginnings of agriculture a thousand years ago in Mesopotamia – will be familiar to anyone who has taken a class in anthropology or evolution. The big difference now is that the genome mapping done by Spencer Wells and others over the past two decades has pushed the discussion of evolution past the theoretical phase.

Wells, a Lubbock native and one of the world's first and foremost genetic anthropologists, explains how we have changed the planet and vice versa, in effect creating a worldwide machine producing food for human consumption. By analyzing genetic change rates, he can pinpoint the specifics of how humans genetically modified foods through simple selection. He can also isolate where our human genome had to change to allow us to move beyond hunting and gathering. In other words, by establishing the facts of evolution – the where, when, why, and how of human, animal, and plant genetic selection, survival, and extinction – Wells proves that we are pretty much done with theories of evolution.

Wells concludes that planetary evolution in general has been sped up in recent years and will likely continue at a rate that increases as we change the planet. These feedback loops continue on and on and perhaps are gathering speed as we create the latest of several "planetary extinctions." As an example, consider that shortly after farming appeared, famines increased. Therefore people who needed little food survived. Now in an era of plenty, that same gene that allowed us to survive on a little grain now contributes to the deaths of millions through obesity and diabetes.

The point is well explained. We have changed our planet even faster than our genome, and one day there will be a reckoning with this imbalance – and from where in this cycle of human, animal, and environmental change, we cannot tell. But Wells shows us that we've been in deeper doo-doo before in terms of the survival of our species. All is not lost. You or I may harbor, or we may very well create, the gene sets that get us and our modified plants and animals through to the other side of the mass extinctions going on today.

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