In an article that makes you roll your eyes and wonder “where do they find these people?” the BBC interviews Dr Spencer Wells, explorer-in-residence at the National Geohraphic Society and in charge of their Genographic project, about his new book Pandora’s Seed
Dr Wells tells them about the claims he makes in the book:
In the book, I talk about global warming and overpopulation. I trace a lot of these issues back in time to the dawn of the Neolithic. This was a period when humanity made a sea change in its culture. We settled down and started growing our own food.
Wow! That’s a pretty big claim to make – that late stone age man caused global warming and overpopulation by inventing farming! But the invention of farming is a good thing, right?
Wrong, says Dr Wells. People were worse off with farming, becoming more malnourished. Which leads one to ask, well why did they keep farming then, if it was such a disaster for humanity? Dr Wells has the answer for that as well: they had to invent farming because of climate change:
It turns out the reason we became agriculturalists is that we were backed into a corner – a climatological corner. At the end of the last Ice Age, things were warming up, population densities at some locations increased significantly. And some people started to settle down.
And then, Say Dr Wells, the climate switched again and got colder, forcing people out of the lands they had previously settled:
we had too many people moving on the land at the time, and they couldn’t support themselves as hunter-gatherers so they had to develop an innovation. And that innovation was agriculture.
So let’s summarize: Dr Wells is arguing that agriculture caused climate change and overpopulation. Okay. He argues that agriculture wasn’t a step forward for mankind but a step backwards from hunter-gather living. Okay. But what does he think gave rise to agriculture? Climate change and overpopulation. Brilliant! What a great argument.
Pick your jaw up off the floor, though, because Dr Wells has more great ideas for humanity. Asked what he thinks about the invention of farming – the ‘neolithic revolution’ – he pins a whole host of ills on it, but then goes on to reveal some of the concluding thoughts of his book:
PR: So what in your view are the main costs of the Neolithic revolution?
SW: Diabetes, obesity, mental illness, climate change. I talk a little in the book about genetic engineering – re-engineering ourselves and eugenics. It’s the fact that we now have the tools to choose the genes for the next generation. People will start to make decisions on that basis – what they want their children to look like genetically.
Okay, now you’re getting scary Dr Wells. Eugenics to help decide what our children will look like? And what sort of aspects will this include?
There is a company in California that early last year announced that it was going to test not only for medically relevant conditions but also hair colour, eye colour and genes which pre-dispose to lower or higher IQ.
Sounds horrific if you ask me. But Dr Wells thinks that managing the genetics of the human population may be essential, we may need to manage the population for the common good:
PR: Then, do you think genetic engineering of humans is inevitable? Are we now into management rather than prevention?
SW: I think it is inevitable. I think it is something we have always done. I liken it to those simple decisions about growing crops and manipulating the genes of the crops to make them more efficient – produce more calories – that was done during the Neolithic.
Did you spot the beautiful circularity of the argument there? Eugenics, Dr Wells informs us, may be forced upon by circumstances. What circumstances might those be? The interview doesn’t specify exactly, but surely it’s a safe bet to say that global warming and overpopulation are among those circumstances.
Interestingly, in his interview with National Geographic, Dr Wells discusses another future for us he’d like to see, based on a new “mythos” that would be focussed on us wanting less, very much as tribal people in Africa (apparently) do:
Q:You mentioned tribes in Africa wanting less, needing less, focused on a quest for meaning, not consumption. Do you think this sensibility could creep into our society?
A: Yes. That’s the reason I entitled the final chapter of the book “Toward a New Mythos.” The term refers to accepted wisdom, what’s been passed down through the generations from your ancestors, including somewhat mystical explanations for why things are. In contrast, logos is hardheaded logic we use to solve problems. And I think a lot of people sense that we’ve lost too much mythos in the modern world. I argue in the book that we do need to make room at the table for mythos.
National Geographic. Growing Pains.
Or maybe we could just genetically engineer people to want less, learn to love the new “mythos” and accept “mystical explanations” for the way things are?