Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization

By Razib Khan | November 5, 2010 3:03 am

1400062152The cockroach as we know it has been around for ~140 million years. That’s a rather long run. The evolutionary design of the cockroach seems to be well suited to avoiding obsolescence; it’s withstood the test of time. I suspect that the particular example of the roach is often used to illustrate the blindness of evolution because of its lack of aesthetic alignment with the the values of modern humanity. Unlike the elegant wasp or the industrious bee the cockroach seems to have few redeeming characteristics on first blush. The Hutus referred to the Tutsis as cockroaches before and during the Rwanda genocide of 1994. And yet the roach succeeds, it breeds, and it flourishes.

Some of the same class of issues pertain to our own species. What we feel to be edifying, to be aesthetically pleasing, may not comport with the final judgement of history, of evolution. The narrative of man ascending which has become so popular since the Enlightenment turns out to present us with some problems when one realizes that our species seems to have regressed on particularly transparent metrics such as height and cranial capacity since the last Ice Age. But the prevailing wisdom of the ancients that we descend from an Edenic Golden Age also does not seem to necessarily comport with the record at hand either. Just as the past is cloudier than we once perceived it to be, so the future often looks muddled from the perspective of the present. How did man come to be? What should we be? And why should we be? These are a combination of positive and normative questions, and Spencer Wells tackles them in his newest book, Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization.

Wells is a relatively prominent public intellectual. He came to the fore in the early aughts with his book The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, which was made into a documentary of the same name, and led to Wells heading National Geographic‘s Genographic Project. A geneticist by training the history of the human species has always been one of his passions, and that topic has become the current focus of his career. But while The Journey of Man was a historically inflected work of genetics, Pandora’s Seed is a scientifically inflected work of history; political, social, and economic. There are broad family similarities to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, but Pandora’s Seed is both more tightly written and broader in scope. Wells describes the past, posits some tentative predictions about the future, assesses the present, and questions whether we need to reclaim a firmer and clearer grasp of the aims of the well lived life.

logscalpopThe first third of the book is focused on the Neolithic Revolution. Or perhaps more accurately the agricultural innovation. In its broad outlines I agree with Wells’ thesis that the transition to an agricultural lifestyle resulted in greater morbidity because of the shift away from a diversified diet to one based on grains. With the judicious use of charts and illustrations Pandora’s Seed outlines how pre-agricultural sedentarists of the post-Ice Age Natufian culture had to adopt the conscious planting and harvesting of grain due to a change in their environment. That change was the exogenous shock of the Younger Dryas, which saw a reversion back to dryer and colder conditions. The model of adaptation in the face of inclement conditions is persuasive precisely because it so human. In extreme circumstances human populations set in their ways must abandon tried & true traditions which are found wanting and explore the space of possibilities so as to maintain their viability. This ingenuity in the face of resource exhaustion or scarcity has occurred many times in human history. The critical factor distinguishing the present from the past is not the reality of innovation itself, but the rate of innovation.

But at this point I must enter into the record a major caveat, and even object to the veracity, of the story which unfolds in Pandora’s Seed. I will quote the section which raised my eyebrows in full:

…As the land dried out, the wild grain retreated from the lowlands, remaining only in the higher mountain valleys, where it could get enough water. The Natufians had to travel farther and farther from their lowland settlements to gather enough to survive. This would have put tremendous pressure on food supply, and probably esulted in an increased mortality rate in these people accustomed to a land of plenty. It was humanity’s first real encounter with Thomas Malthus’s conjecture that popualtion growth will eventually produce more people than can be supproted by the availalble food supply.

CARRYSpencer Wells has a doctorate in biology, and great breadth of knowledge. So perhaps there is some detail or nuance I’m missing here, but the fact is that all organisms are subject to Malthusian laws except in the transient state of resource surplus. The term “carrying capacity” is one which one learns in introductory biology courses for a reason. The hunter-gatherers no doubt pushed up against their carrying capacity. I am aware of arguments that weaning and infanticide constrained hunter-gatherer populations, but even granting such forethought would not abolish the vicissitudes of exogenous disruptions in climate and ecosystem. Even the most culturally anti-natalist tribe would at some point be faced with a situation where circumstances outside of their control would leave the adults above the Malthusian limit of their local territory. Wells argues that for much of human history we were expanding in a transient. But this does not negate the broader point that animals generally move up to the carrying capacity of the local ecosystem rather quickly because of the nature of natural increase. In the course of history exogenous shocks generally produce periodic culls of the herd. Spencer Wells implicitly endorses this reality by his tacit support for the Toba catastrophe theory.

Many of the other arguments which implicitly argue for the superiority of the hunter-gatherer mode of production over the agricultural one are somewhat tendentious, but in those cases Wells usually presents the “other side.” For example he is skeptical from what I can tell of the idea of widespread organized war among hunter-gatherers, but he grants evidence of relatively high mortality rates due to conflicts of a more limited scale, but still significant when judged against the small sizes of the ancient bands. The main big picture reality seems to be that hunter-gatherers were generalists with few material goods. The world of The Gods Must Be Crazy was no utopia, but it illustrated how physical objects of value and scarcity could introduce conflict and tension, above and beyond the mundane realities of human existence (also see The Pearl).

800px-David_-_The_Death_of_SocratesMuch of the second half of Pandora’s Seed leaps forward from the Stone Age to the present, and attempts to grapple with the reality that many of our competencies are not much advanced over that of the hunter-gatherer despite the fact that we are embedded in a world of extreme sophistication and specialization. I’m reminded of the old 1990s hit Mo Money, Mo Problems. Over the past 10,000 years our species has ascended up an irreversible ratchet of population density, complexification of society, and specialization of labor. And for what? In some ways Pandora’s Seed presents a profoundly pessimistic case, and verges on being a 21st century update of the idealizations of the Romantics of savage peoples who lived in enchanted worlds without worry. The title of the book seems justified.

But then he asks a real question: why? Why to be, as opposed to not to be? With the rise of mass agricultural society such questions were answered definitively by philosopher shamans. At least in their own minds. In China they were called Sages, in India Rishis, and in the West the philosophers, prophets, and Church Fathers. The names may have differed, but this specialized caste spoke and wrote, and the other rentier castes listened and gave nominal fealty to the theories propounded. Over the last few centuries this old world of certainty has collapsed, and a cacophony of voices have arisen, over which looms an operational nihilism. The consumer society which is the apotheosis of “development” is characterized by an all-you-can-eat buffet of gadgets, sensations, and social signalers. Even the religious philosophies which theoretically stood opposed to this sort of gluttony have in part been absorbed or co-opted. Spencer Wells does not come to any conclusion that I can see to resolve this existential Gordian Knot. But a serious conversation needs to be started amongst those of us who no longer bow to the gods, the cosmos, or the ancients. It must be remembered that in some versions of the myth of Pandora hope remains within the jar which she opened.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Health, History, Human Evolution

Comments (32)

  1. bioIgnoramus

    “But then he asks a real question: why? Why to be, as opposed to not to be?” Isn’t that in the same category as the question that the taxi driver recounted asking his passenger, Bertrand Russell? “Tell me, Lord Russell, what’s it all about?”

    According to the taxi driver “And, do you know, he couldn’t tell me.”

  2. I’m planning a talk about the evolution of complex nervous systems, and this quote is definitely going in: “I’m reminded of the old 1990s hit Mo Money, Mo Problems.”

    His assertion that this was the “first time” we hit the limit is obviously poorly considered, but I like the idea that the invention of certain cultural widgets (e.g. types of social organization or labor division or tools) related to the collection and management of local resources could suddenly and dramatically raise the Malthusian limit at various times for our ancestors. There could have been long periods (many generations) where the limit was essentially unexperienced and therefore forgotten. Surprise!

    “But then he asks a real question: why?”

    Someone said something like “We never answer the big questions, we get over them.” Could’ve been Russell for all I know. Anyway, let’s hope. After all these millennia it’s time for the shamans to go.

  3. bob sykes

    I think it is pretty clear that the so-called population explosion is simply an explosion in carrying capacity. Your basic premise is correct, all populations are always at the Malthusian limit except during transitions.

    That of course raises a really serious theoretical question, Why are so many advanced industrial societies in population decline? The UN’s low projection (which is the one we are following) predicts a maximum world population of about 8 to 8.5 billion people sometime around 2030 or so, with a continuous decline in numbers thereafter.

    So how are these ideas to be reconciled? It looks like a Talmudic problem to me.

  4. Gil


    Perhaps in industrial society, the flexibility of both money and birth control allow us to equilibrate at the carrying capacity a little more elegantly by having fewer children, rather that starving? It is an intersting thing to ponder…

  5. Sandgroper

    bob sykes, if you really expect a simple explanation for population decline, I’ll oblige by trying to provide one – the progressive increase in education and emancipation of women.

    My great great grandmother had 11 children and died in childbirth, my great grandmother had 7, my grandmother had 5, my mother had 2, and my sister had 2. This was paralleled by them becoming progressively increasingly educated and emancipated. Actually, my sister was more educated than my mother, but my mother was more emancipated than my sister – otherwise my sister might have stopped at 1, like my wife did.

  6. dave chamberlin

    If in fact we reach the maximum human population around 2030, then Ill be alive at the party, and what a party it will be. I’ll be 82 then and maybe I’ll party so hard that I will drop dead right in the middle of it, making me forever known as the guy who made human population decrease. Maybe in the afterlife me and mitrochodrial Eve can get together and whoop it up some more.

  7. Over the past 10,000 years our species has ascended up an irreversible ratchet of population density, complexification of society, and specialization of labor. And for what?

    To create slums financed by flensing productive citizens, with government and religion taking their cuts of the pilfered flow to cover expense chits. The true purpose of civilization is to abandon its intellectual and behavioral dregs, not perseveratively breed them.

    Native Neolithic Amerindians drank deep from the Fountain of Youth. The average indigene lived to age 30. European women died in/after multiple childbirths. Any woman who survived to grey hair was a witch. The Garden of Eden was Hell itself. The tree of Knowledge was a successful exit strategy despised by all gods: only shop in the Company store.

  8. Ian

    I skimmed Pandora’s Seed at the bookstore several week ago, and I was disappointed. It looked really interesting, but on closer examination I found it a somewhat superficial, and a little lacking in nuance. (His account of the relationship between climate change in the Younger Dryas and the origins of agriculture came across as fairly certain. Looking at the literature though, I found that the scholarly view seemed far more equivocal.) Granted, I was just skimming. But then, maybe I would feel the same way about The Journey of Man if I had read it now.

  9. bob sykes, if you really expect a simple explanation for population decline, I’ll oblige by trying to provide one – the progressive increase in education and emancipation of women.

    the demographic transition happened in france possibly as the early 19th century, and in england in the late 19th. the connection between female empowerment is normally asserted, but there’s a huge residual. the drop in TFR in poor patriarchal countries like bangladesh in the past generation was not expected.

    the reason malthus was wrong is the demographic transition. there are plenty of reasons given, though perhaps once it started you saw a positive feedback loop. the possibility for real affluence and income growth through smaller family size and greater investment per child led to middle class revolution?

    one possibility is that this will be a transient. that high fertility minorities like mormons and amish will eventually push us up to the malthusian limit.

  10. I’ve previous read claims (no, no sources) that many of the North American aborigine groups existed below the Malthusian limit – at the cost of constant, low-level warfare through feuding with other tribes. So there could be plenty of food and water as long as you had a reasonable chance of being killed off in combat.

    The obvious exceptions are the Mesoamerican societies which expanded to the limits of their land resources (and sometimes way past them), and the Cahokian Mound Builders, who seem to have been killed off by disease due to the uncommon overcrowding of their cities. An ancient equivalent of the Black Death, perhaps.

  11. Katharine

    At what point will the United States reach its own Malthusian limit, particularly since you mention the fecund wackos? If the fecund wackos were less fecund, how much would this delay the Malthusian limit?

  12. At what point will the United States reach its own Malthusian limit, particularly since you mention the fecund wackos? If the fecund wackos were less fecund, how much would this delay the Malthusian limit?

    the malthusian limit really applies to subsistence. if you just switched all corn grown for ethanol and meat to direct human consumption (perhaps through some processing to make it more palatable) you could probably support billions of americans at subsistence, right? we’re prolly gonna be water constrained at some point though.

    in the long run we’re dead. sentient tech life may have a limited shelf-life, in which case it’s been a good time to be alive, right? i don’t worry too much about 2 generations + in terms of public policy, though i would like fund mars colonization or something so that humans might be able to have a backup. and i’m also a transhumanist in sympathies, though i don’t talk about that much here is that’s more a matter of norms than science for me.

  13. Sandgroper

    Razib, yes. In the example I gave, increased mechanisation in farming had to lead emancipation of women, it couldn’t follow or be in parallel.

    Women who can be released from breeding farm labour to get paid jobs can afford to revolt.

    I’m talking Australia, obviously.

    It’s of interest to know how this plays out in different countries, e.g. whether there has been any kind of transition in farming in Bangladesh to more productive methods, like there was in China with the introduction of small two wheeled tractors.

    The malthusian limit becomes water. This is predictable in Australia within another two generations, depending on rates of migration. The current drying trend isn’t helping – whether that is a prolonged drought cycle or irreversible climate change doesn’t matter at this point in that respect, the limit will probably be reached well within my daughter’s lifetime. It might even happen within my lifetime.

  14. Razib, I’m just impressed that you managed to mention a song by Notorious BIG in a post about human prehistory.

  15. James

    “The malthusian limit becomes water.”

    Nonsense. This planet is covered in water. If nuclear powered desalinization plants are needed in some localities they will be built.

  16. Sandgroper

    “This planet is covered in water.”

    No shit, Einstein.

    ” If nuclear powered desalinization plants are needed in some localities they will be built.”

    Tell that to Africans.

    How much agriculture in Australia relies on irrigation? Answer: lots. 10s of 1000s of square miles far from the coast. It is already a major problem and your obvious technical solution hasn’t happened.

  17. James

    If currently non-arable land far from water needs to be irrigated then it will be when the price of grain and produce vs. the cost of energy needed to de-salinate and move the water calls for it.

    If you are now importing more food into Australia than you feel comfortable about then I suggest that you stop importing so many Asians. You might also personally want to study the basic principles of supply and demand.

  18. Sandgroper

    I always get that argument from people who believe in simple-minded market force economics, and who delude themselves that they understand engineering.

    Australia importing food? No.

    Australia’s largest source of migrants by far is still the UK – that’s white poople from the UK.

    If you don’t know basic facts about Australia and know nothing about engineering, I suggest you find out a few things before calling what I say nonsense.

  19. james, you kind of sound like a asshole here frankly. i’m not a moron, i do know about desalinization. just not aware it’s currently practicable on a mass scale. if it is practicable on a mass scale in the near future, bexplain how in more detail. i understand supply and demand, but economics isn’t magic, it’s contingent on biophysical parameters and innovation doesn’t happen magically. feel free to never leave comments again if you’re offended that i haven’t properly taken in your genius 😉

  20. James

    You’re the one who said irrigation in Australia is a “problem.” And if you don’t think massive amounts of water can be transported for long distances through the desert then I suggest you familiarize yourself with the California Aqueduct. Or are you now going to claim that desalinization plants and pumps don’t exist?

    A shortage of water in Australia is not “Malthusian.” Neither is famine in Africa or North Korea. Those problems are economic and political. The earth has a carrying capacity of at least several times its current human population which in fact appears to be leveling off at far less than that.

  21. Sandgroper

    What Razib said.

  22. james, your interlocutor is an engineer. if you have the engineering background you should talk about it in the nut & bolts with him instead of broad platitudes. i grant that scientists sometimes don’t factor in the power of price signals, but i really don’t see you making much of an argument here but blustering. i obviously granted that the earth has a carrying capacity of multiples higher with current technology if i thought the USA could support billions at subsistence. you seem to be operating under the impression that the discussants here are morons.

  23. Sandgroper

    You know what’s wrong with the world? All the people who know how the world should be run are too busy driving taxis or working as hair dressers.

  24. Naughtius Maximus

    Isn’t a lot of Californian irrigation government subsidised?

  25. Sandgroper

    NM, has to be.

    #25 was not original humour, BTW, my hairdresser has it hanging on his wall.

  26. Zohar

    Here’s the original humour version:

    We should subsidize the taxi drivers and hairdressers instead of the desalinization plants!

  27. Sandgroper

    Zohar, call it desalination and save two letters!

    I like that.

  28. Zohar

    for overpopulation?
    IZ engineering frustration
    the end of civilIZation
    no hope for the nations

    Word out. Yo, tell ’em Razib.

  29. twl

    Malthusian limit in its sharpest form is whatever humans can get by hunter-gather strategy. Technology, agriculture, the hallmarks of civilization, simply decrease human sensitivity to the ever-dangerous, local Malthusian limit where you are – the local Malthusian limit still exists but is kept away by human ingenuity at a regional and global scale (trade, transport, relief organizations).

    Today famine occurs only when highly complex, interconnected society breaks down and local Malthusian limits are allowed to reassert themselves e.g. due to civil war, tyrannical government or a natural disaster which servers communications to a remote region. A definition of civilization could be “a cultural system capable of raising Malthusian limits by increasing connectiveness between peoples over larger areas.”

    This definition would invalidate nomadic groups from forming civilizations – until they settle in one place – because their strategy is to dodge local limits by moving from one forage grounds to the next An analogy could be made to a trader who seeks to diversify his portfolio of stocks. A civilization needs to expand geographically to diversify its reach in terms of river systems, agricultural plains etc because that must be its strategy for dealing with local Malthusian limits.

  30. kurt9

    If global population stabilizes around 2040 and slowly declines thereafter, with everyone living a reasonable standard of living, say around $20K per head (its at $11K per head right now), why is that a bad thing? The ratio of dependent elderly to productive people has to be managed. Other than that, I see nothing wrong with “benign decline”. In any case, Malthus was not wrong. We just simply choose to live a more fulfilling life rather than to have more kids and managed to use technology to push the limits out some.

    Besides, SENS and other life extension will probably put paid to aging anyways in the next 50 years and the issue of having to support decrepit old people will become moot. Population growth will resume (slowly, as post mortals will not have very many kids, they are too busy making money and having a good time). Space colonization, L-5 style, will come into vogue as well. This will be done mainly by the post-mortals as they are the ones most interested in this kind of stuff.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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