Pandora's Seed

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  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 9/13/2011
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks

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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#x19;s Seedtakes 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#x19;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#x19;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#x19;s too late. A riveting and accessible scientific detective story, Pandora#x19;s Seedis an eye-opening book for anyone fascinated by the past and concerned about the future. From the Hardcover edition.


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


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 t

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