Jun 112010
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From obesity to chronique fatigue syndrome, jihadism to urban ennui, the costs of civilization are becoming ever more apparent. Spencer Wells explores adapting to a world where accelerating change is the new status quo.

During my work as a geneticist and anthropologist I’ve been lucky enough to work with people around the world, ranging from senior politicians and the heads of major corporations to hunter-gatherer tribesmen eking out a precarious existence in remote wilderness locations. What has struck me over and over again is the huge amount of change taking place in the world today, regardless of where one lives. Some of this change is good, such as the overall decrease in poverty during the course of my lifetime, or the drop in the birthrate in developing countries. Other things, though, like 9/11 and the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, have not been so welcome though.

This essay is adapted from Spencer Wells’ new book Pandora’s Seed, which will be released nationwide on June 8.

Everywhere there is a feeling that the world is in flux, that we are on the brink of a historic transition, and that the world will be fundamentally changed somehow in the next few generations. The pace of technological change is accelerating, and we are all swept up in it. Think of all of the indispensable things in your daily life you have only learned to use in the past decade or so. Email, Google, instant messaging and mobile phones spring to mind immediately, but there’s also hybrid car technology, curbside recycling and social networking sites like Facebook. All have found widespread application only since the mid-1990s, and yet today we can’t imagine living without them. Trying to imagine what the world will be like at the close of the 21st century is nearly impossible.

With all of these amazing technological advances, though, has come a great deal of ancillary baggage. The unprecedented rise in chronic disease in westernized societies is perhaps the most obvious example. I say westernized, rather than western, because we are now well aware of the growing incidence of heart disease, diabetes and plain-old obesity in the developing world, particularly in places such as India and China. As they become more like us, they are taking on many of our worst attributes as well. Psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety are also on the rise, and drugs to treat these disorders are now the most widely prescribed in the United States. This seemingly inexorable march toward western unhealthiness made me wonder why it happened in the first place. Is there some sort of fatal mismatch between western culture and our biology that is making us ill? And if there is such a mismatch, how did our present culture come to dominate? Surely we are the masters of our own fate, and we created the culture that is best suited to us, rather than the other way around?

The answer to this was a long time in coming. It took me on a global quest to discover the similarities between what happened thousands of years ago and what is happening now, as we face what promises to be another turning apparent point in our evolution. During the course of researching of my first book, The Journey of Man, I was struck by the effects of the agricultural lifestyle on humans living 10,000 years ago in the Middle East. It turns out that early farmers were actually less healthy than the surrounding hunter-gatherer populations. So why did the farmers ‘win’ so resoundingly, to the extent that virtually no one on Earth today lives as a hunter-gatherer? The answer, like most insights into major historical events, is somewhat complicated, but reveals a simple pattern in human history that seems to repeat itself again and again: necessity is the mother of invention.

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