Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization

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9781400062157: Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization

 
In The Journey of Man, renowned geneticist and anthropologist Spencer Wells traced human evolution back to our earliest ancestors, creating a remarkable and readable map of our distant past. Now, in his thrilling new book, he examines our cultural inheritance in order to find the turning point that led us to the path we are on today, one he believes we must veer from in order to survive.

Pandora’s Seed takes us on a powerful and provocative globe-trotting tour of human history, back to a seminal event roughly ten thousand years ago, when our species made a radical shift in its way of life: We became farmers rather than hunter-gatherers, setting in motion a momentous chain of events that could not have been foreseen at the time.

Although this decision to control our own food supply is what propelled us into the modern world, Wells demonstrates—using the latest genetic and anthropological data—that such a dramatic shift in lifestyle had a downside that we’re only now beginning to recognize. Growing grain crops ultimately made humans more sedentary and unhealthy and made the planet more crowded. The expanding population and the need to apportion limited resources such as water created hierarchies and inequalities. The desire to control—and no longer cooperate with—nature altered the concept of religion, making deities fewer and more influential, foreshadowing today’s fanaticisms. The proximity of humans and animals bred diseases that metastasized over time. Freedom of movement and choice were replaced by a pressure to work that is the forebear of the anxiety and depression millions feel today. Wells offers a hopeful prescription for altering a life to which we were always ill suited, recommending that we change our priorities and self-destructive appetites before it’s too late.

A riveting and accessible scientific detective story, Pandora’s Seed is an eye-opening book for anyone fascinated by the past and concerned about the future.
 

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About the Author:

 
Spencer Wells is an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society and Frank H. T. Rhodes Class of ’56 Professor at Cornell University. He leads the Genographic Project, which is collecting and analyzing hundreds of thousands of DNA samples from people around the world in order to decipher how our ancestors populated the planet. Wells received his Ph.D. from Harvard University and conducted postdoctoral work at Stanford and Oxford. He has written two books, The Journey of Man and Deep Ancestry. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, a documentary filmmaker.
 

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Mystery in the Map

 . . . the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by humankind.-president bill clinton,

 Announcing the completion of the draft human genome sequence

On June 26, 2000

A map is not the territory it represents. -alfred korzybski

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS

My cab wove through the midafternoon traffic, tracing an arc along the frozen shore of Lake Michigan. On my right, the buildings of one of the world's tallest cities stabbed toward the sky, steel and glass growing out of the Illinois prairie like modern incarnations of the grass and trees that once lined the lake. A thriving metropolis of nearly three million people, Chicago boasts an airport that was once the world's busiest (it's now second), with over 190,000 passengers a day passing through its terminals-including, on this particular day, me. This sprawling city prides itself on its dynamic, forward-looking culture-the "tool maker" and "stacker of wheat," as Carl Sandburg called it. Not the most obvious place to come looking for the past.

The lake took me back in time, though-way back, before it was even there. Lake Michigan is actually a remnant of one of the largest glaciers the earth has ever seen. During the last ice age, the Laurentide ice sheet stretched from northern Canada down along the Missouri River, as far south as Indianapolis, with its eastern flank covering present-day New York and spilling into the Atlantic Ocean. When it melted, around 10,000 years ago, the water coalesced into the Great Lakes, including Michigan. Looking out the window of my cab, at the strong winds ripping across the expanse of ice reaching out from the Chicago shoreline, I felt like history might be rewinding itself. The ice age could have looked a bit like this, I thought.

This wasn't just idle musing; I've spent my life studying the past, effectively trying to rewind history. I became obsessed with it as a child, and devoured anything and everything on ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, the great empires of the Middle East, and the European Middle Ages. In high school biology classes I started to think about much more ancient history, its actors playing their parts on a geological stage. I added the history of life to my passion for written history, and when I got to college I decided to study the record written in our own history book-our DNA. The field I became interested in is known as population genetics, which is the study of the genetic composition of populations of living organisms, using their DNA to decipher a record of how they had changed over time. The field originated as an attempt to piece together clues about how our ancestors had moved around, how ancient populations had mixed and split off from each other, and how they had diversified over the eons. In short, really ancient history.

 And my quest had brought me here, for the second time. My last visit to the University of Chicago-where I was headed from O'Hare-had been eighteen years earlier, in February 1989, when I was considering going there for graduate school. The lake was frozen then as well, and my early-morning walks to meetings at the university in single-digit temperatures played a small role in my decision to head to school in the somewhat warmer city of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Despite my decision, the University of Chicago was, and is, an outstanding university. Its faculty boasts brilliant researchers and thinkers in many fields, from economics to literature to physics. I had come back to visit one of them.

Jonathan Pritchard had been a graduate student at Stanford when I was a postdoctoral researcher there, and I still clearly remember his early presentations to our group. His mathematician's mind, coupled with his deep understanding of the processes of genetic change, made him a real asset to the group. We overlapped again briefly when I was at Oxford, but we lost touch over the years, although I followed his work from the papers he published in scientific journals. It was one such publication that led me to get in touch with him to discuss his findings.

This paper, published in the journal PLoS Biology (PLoS stands for Public Library of Science, a prestigious family of scientific journals available on the Web), described a new method his team had developed to look at selection in the human genome. Selection is the Darwinian force that has created exquisite adaptations like the eye and the ear, as well as most of the other really useful traits we humans have. As Darwin taught us, small changes that are advantageous in some way give an organism a greater chance of surviving and reproducing in the perpetual rat race that is life. Since all of these selected characteristics ultimately have their origin in the way our DNA is put together, it is logical to look to our genes to find out about what made us the way we are.

The search for selection at the genetic level has a long history, dating back to way before Watson and Crick deciphered the structure of DNA in the early 1950s. Pioneering scientists such as Theodosius Dobzhansky, a Russian immigrant to America who helped create the modern science of population genetics back in the early twentieth century, were obsessed with looking for genetic changes that could be explained only by invoking Darwin's seemingly magical force. In the days before DNA sequences could be studied directly, though, researchers observed large-scale changes in the structure of fruit fly chromosomes. (Fruit flies being the geneticist's favorite model organism, mostly because their huge salivary gland chromosomes made their patterns of genetic variation easy to study in the days before DNA sequencing.) But while they found some evidence for the past action of selection in fruit flies, the ultimate cause of the patterns they observed remained elusive.

Once it was known that DNA was the ultimate source of genetic variation, and its structure had been discovered and methods developed to determine the actual sequence of the chemical building blocks that make up the double helix (I'm glossing over about fifty years of pioneering research here), population geneticists began to look at DNA sequences directly. In the early days (only around twenty-five years ago), because of technical limitations, they could examine just a few small regions in the genome (the sum total of the genetic building blocks in an individual), and the search for evidence of natural selection usually proved fruitless. It was only with the completion of the Human Genome Project in the late 1990s, and the massive technological breakthroughs that it spawned, that scientists could finally start to reassess the issue that had obsessed Dobzhansky and his colleagues nearly a century before: Is it possible to find evidence of selection at the DNA level and, perhaps more interestingly, can we figure out why it has taken place?

GENETIC BEADS

I paid the cab driver and got out near the University of Chicago bookstore, taking in the surroundings. Gothic-style edifices, constructed during Chicago's earlier building boom, toward the end of the nineteenth century, surrounded me on all sides. It had been a conscious attempt on the part of the new university-it was founded in 1890, with funds provided by the oil baron John D. Rockefeller-to connect with an older tradition of learning. I felt as though I were back among the gleaming spires of Oxford, running between undergraduate tutorials. My destination, however, was a much newer structure.

The Cummings Life Science Center was constructed in 1970; as befitted a structure meant to house scientists engaged in the advanced study of biology, then undergoing a revolution as a result of Watson and Crick's elucidation of the structure of DNA, the building's brick tower was bracingly modern, even a bit brutal. But I had come to talk to Jonathan Pritchard, who was using the most advanced techniques in genetics to look at the history of our species. The juxtaposition of this building amid a campus of older structures seemed fitting, given what I was here to discuss.

I located his office on one of the upper floors, and we chatted as he made me a cup of tea. An avid distance runner, with the intense, lanky look of a marathoner, he seemed somewhat surprised that I had made the trip just to talk to him. I asked him about his move from Oxford to Chicago, his personal life (one of his son's drawings hung above his desk), and what it felt like to have been granted tenure at one of the world's most prestigious universities at the precocious age of thirty-seven. He laughed, confident in his intellectual abilities, like so many of the mathematically gifted people I have known, and explained that his life was going well. We then moved on to the reason for my visit.

I wanted to talk shop. Or, rather, I wanted to get his take on the findings of his important research paper. In their PLoS publication, he and his colleagues had described a new method of detecting selection in the human genome. It made use of something called the HapMap, a collection of data on the so-called haplotype structure of the human genome. And to understand that we'll need to delve into the science a little.

 The long string of DNA that makes up your entire genome is broken into smaller strings called chromosomes-there are twenty-three pairs of them-containing the 23,000 or so genes that direct your body to do what it does. These genes code for things like sugar-digesting enzymes in your gut, or blood-clotting proteins, or the type of earwax you have-all of the physical traits that make you who you are. The chromosomes are linear strings of DNA, composed of four chemical building blocks known as nucleotides: A, C, G, and T. The sequence of these nucleotides-AGCCTAGG, and so on, along the entire length of the chromosome-encodes the information in your genome and determines what each gene will do in your body. The nucleotides are arrayed along the chromosomes like beads on a string, a linear orchestra of musicians, each playing their own part in the symphony that...

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