A Review of Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilisation, by Spencer Wells, and some cross-referencing to The Watchman’s Rattle: thinking Our Way Out of Extinction by Rebecca Costa, both published in 2010.

I have never heard a sound beating the air,
So fraught with the spirit of trouble and need of assistance,
As the sharp crack of the watchman’s rattle
Reverberating in the street at the dead hour of night.

Edward H. Savage 1865

As I write the New Year sales are underway. Exhausted shoppers stagger back to their cars trying to convince themselves that these were bargains that they couldn’t afford to miss. Within weeks their credit card statements will turn that buzz of retail therapy into the harsh reality of an empty bank account. Why, oh why, do we get into this mess time and time again?  What follows may help to explain this.

Some years ago I had the rare opportunity of spending a week in Tanzania observing members of the Hadza tribe who still practice a genuine hunter-gatherer economy in conditions that almost exactly reflect the way of life of our Stone Age ancestors some 60,000 or more years ago. They neither herd animals nor do they plant crops. They have no permanent villages, and only dry grass to cover the low huts in which they live. They own minimal possessions (other than their knives) and move from place to place for food – the self-rooting tubers of hanging vines, the fruit and berries they collect in season and – in about one day in eight – the meat caught by the hunters[1].

Significantly the Hadza have no facilities whatsoever to store anything. They share anything they find with everybody else around them. In such a way they manage to survive when other more sophisticated people would be wiped out by periods of drought and famine. As I wrote in my diary at the time “the questions foremost in my mind are just how like them are our behaviours all these generations later and, secondly,  how has the experience of our ancestors bequeathed to us brains pre-disposed to operate perhaps more effectively in their world rather than in the lifestyle of the 21st Century?”

One afternoon I was amazed to see what looked like a half-hearted attempt to grow maize. One of the older men explained, with obvious concern, that some Norwegian missionaries had persuaded several of the women to attempt to become settled agriculturalists. “Even though there is, in most years, insufficient rain to grow crops”, the older man explained, “the missionaries have given the women seeds and spades and shown them how to plant crops. Most years the crops fail”, said the older man, “but the worst of planting crops is that, when the crops do flourish, the people who planted them won’t share the harvest with other people. They say it is theirs because they planted it. What they don’t eat in one year they want to save for a bad harvest. They become selfish. It is breaking our way of life because it makes some people more powerful than others because they can bargain with things that previously had been owned by everybody”.

Here, in three or four short sentences uttered under the African sun by a man who had no concept of reading from a book, was an explanation of human behaviour that exactly replays what scientists understand as being the cultural evolution of the human race. As the eminent anthropologist Christopher Boehm said on reviewing the appropriate research, “the data do leave us with some ambiguity but I believe that as of 40,000 years ago, with the advent of anatomically modern humans who continued to live in small groups and were not yet domesticating plants and animals, it is very likely that all human societies practiced egalitarian behaviour and that most of the time they did this successfully”[2]. In other words our human-behaviour default position has changed over all that time from being naturally collaborative, to being innately competitive.

It was a theme that had been taken up the previous year in a fascinating study by the geneticist Spencer Wells as he applied research in genetics to explain “The Journey of Man[3]. That journey began, evidence from numerous genetic studies of existing populations now show, when the Ice Age moved out of the mountains to the north of Africa and turned virtually the whole continent into a vast tundra. Sixty thousand years ago this apparently forced just a few of our ancestors to risk all by daring to do the unexpected; they built rafts and floated off across hostile seas in the hope of finding warmer and more hospitable climates, while their parents, lacking such enterprise, slowly froze to death in their ancestral caves.

At this dramatic turning point in our evolutionary history the need for those early teenagers to grow beyond the clone-like learning that had kept previous generations of young people dependent on their parents’ knowledge, resulted in introducing into the genetic sequence of human maturation the biomedical change we refer to as adolescence. In a paper that I wrote in 2005 called “Adolescence; an evolutionary adaptation”[4] I explained that it is this rebelliousness of adolescence – the willingness to take risks and do the unexpected – that has been the driving force behind civilisation – adolescence is our unique species opportunity, not simply a threat to existing forms of culture.

Spencer Wells visited the Hadza some years later (by which time he was Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society in Washington and had helped produce the successful feature article about the Diaspora which described it as “The Greatest Journey Ever Made[5]). This subsequently prompted him to write his intriguing – and deeply disturbing – “Pandora’s Seed; the unforeseen costs of civilisation” (2010). In this he explains how, when our ancestors created agriculture around 10,000 or more years ago “they had no idea of what other changes they were setting in motion”. In essence those early hunter-gatherer societies had blended the skills of the hunters with those of people better at building straw huts or telling stories; all members of the tribe had a status as contributors to the wellbeing of the whole. The move towards settled agriculture changed this and gave an enormous advantage to those whose attitude was “go out and get all that you can grab” and store it.

It didn’t all happen at the same time. Evidence from Çatalhöyükin Central Anatolia, thought to be the remnants of the earliest settlement that we could call a city, dates back some ten thousand years. That archaeological evidence suggests that in early urban life things remained pretty egalitarian – most houses in Çatalhöyük were the same size, and there were no large civic buildings suggesting a communitarian type existence of social equality. But slowly in the Neolithic period this began to change. “Agriculturalists with their relatively simple food supply and their view of nature as something that needed to be controlled rather than cooperated with, were sociologically pre-disposed to create religions with fewer and more powerful Gods – and Gods in their own right”, writes Spencer Wells.

So it was that the first person to plant seeds and wait around until they produced fruit (tenfold, fiftyfold or a hundredfold) and then keep their harvest in a safe place, gave our species what Spencer Wells calls transgenerational power – the ability to “effect events many generations down the line”. By making agriculture subject to human control this perturbed the balance of nature. Enhancing our food supplies meant that our distant ancestors were then free to explore new cultural possibilities, from fishing for salmon to hunting mammoths on the Central Asian steps, or creating beautiful artistic depictions on the walls of caves. Our Neolithic ancestors learnt new skills to suit the broader needs of society.

Over time humans have gone from living in “the original affluent society” with almost unlimited time to devote to seemingly idle activity, to becoming as of now a group of anxious worker-bees with endless, looming deadlines to meet. (Recent research suggests that the acts of hunting, collecting food stuffs and maintaining their huts took only 18% of our Stone Age ancestors’ waking hours). This process accelerated rapidly during the Industrial Revolution 300 or so years ago as benefits of specialisation became evermore apparent, and evermore people became detached from the reality of the work they were doing. People lost their identities as they started to merge with their machines so eventually “spending their whole lives performing repetitive tasks that, while wonderful at producing large quantities of standardised, inexpensive goods, robbed factory workers of their individuality and creativity”.

“All you have to do” wrote the prophet of what has become to be known as the Scientific Management of Work in the very early 20th century, “is to give up your individual ways of working and do it my way, by my standards, at the speed I mandate and in so doing achieve a level of output I ordain, and I will pay you handsomely for it, beyond anything you might have imagined. All you have to do is to take orders, and give up your way of doing the job for mine”[6].

The immediate results of such specialised mechanical production were indeed impressive with productivity levels growing by between 20 and 30 per cent per annum. But what is good for the general economy may be appalling for the individual. A machinist gained prominence when he debated the theory of scientific management of labour with its creator, Frederick Winslow Taylor in 1914, and remarked before a packed audience “we craftsmen don’t want to work as fast as we are able to. We want to work as fast as we think it is comfortable to work. We haven’t come into existence for the purpose of seeing how great a task we can perform through a lifetime. We are trying to regulate our work so as to make it auxiliary to our lives”[7].

The extent to which Taylor was responsible for preparing the world for Capitalism is open to debate, but what is beyond dispute is that  scientific management has changed the relationship of workers to their workplace in a dramatic way. Another writer, Edward Mott Woolley, described a workshop before scientific management as follows: “Formerly, as in most workshops, the mechanics did a large part of planning how the work was to be done. They studied their blueprints and what operations were necessary … they hunted out the tools they needed … they drove their planes or lathes at whatever feed and speed they thought to be right”. By contrast in a scientifically managed shop Mott Woolley said “the workmen do no planning. Every detail of the job is thought out for them and put down in unmistakeable black and white. The character and number of cuts, the depth of each, the tool to be used, the speed, the feed, the time allowed if a bonus or premium is to be earned, the hourly rate if the bonus is not attained”[8].

Such writers reinforce what Spencer Wells writes in Pandora’s Seedabout the unforeseen costs of civilisation, and look at the  implications for society when parents working in an industrial situation are so “dumbed down” that fathers no longer work in an environment in which their children can learn experientially alongside them. The rapid acceptance of the principles of scientific management shattered the aeons-old learning partnership between parents and children within a few short generations. Children were the greatest losers in this bargain, for parents who are not proud of their work often have little of practical experience to pass on along to their children. And, as I explained with Terry Ryan in our book The Unfinished Revolution[9] in the year 2000, Taylor’s influence quickly “extended to all American education from the elementary schools to the universities”. An English educational historian wrote of the early 20th century, “it was the factory put into the educational setting … every characteristic was there, minute division of labour … a complicated system of incentives to do good work, an impressive system of inspection, and finally an attention to cost-efficiency and the economic use of plant”. The public started to create a new metaphor of the school as factory and the child as product.

Modern society has come to tolerate this because of the very obvious economic benefits it provides.  They think that it makes good economic sense for experts to focus on a limited aspect of human endeavour and excel, than to have generalists spend their time as dilettantes moving from one task to the other as their interests suit them. Writing about the American retail industry in the 1950s one analyst, Viktor Lebow commented “our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and using of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption… we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever accelerating rate”[10].

So the question has to be posed: is it to be the owners of ever more stuff that really makes us happier? Is happiness dependent on having the greatest bargaining power as was questioned more than 3000 years ago when the psalmist noted that the love of money is the root of all evil, or is it simply that as the evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright noted in 1994 that we have evolved to be an effective species, rather than necessarily a happier species.

Put that another way round. Maybe happiness from an evolutionary perspective comes from the satisfaction of having a justifiable pride in what you have achieved. Psychologists refer to this as a state of flow in which a total commitment to an idea makes the brain so excited that it achieves levels of output not otherwise possible. As other evolutionary and cognitive scientists seem increasingly to be implying, the highest levels of satisfaction are reached when we are utilising as many of the multiple forms of intelligence that our species developed over millions of years of evolution that we are empowered to do something that we really need (not just want) to do. It was what that machinist in Washington was arguing in 1914; individuals do not believe they came into existence for seeing how great a task they can perform, rather that they want to make the act of work auxiliary to the quality of their lives. It seems that we get the greatest satisfaction from feeling that we are in good relationships with what is going on around us. Do we live to work or work to live?

It was with such ideas in his mind that Spencer Wells returned to thinking about the Hadza as he prepared to write the last chapter in his book – “Towards a New Mythos”. Mythos is derived from two words, ‘mythology’ which is a spiritual way of viewing the world often preoccupied with received meanings about significant events (something that scientists will refer to as synchronicity), and ‘logos’, the world of words and accurate, objective definitions, something which is essentially logical, rational and precise. For many thousands of years human societies have  incorporated aspects of both (as did Archbishop Ussher when he used biblical accounts to calculate the formation of the world as being in BC4404) but in the past few centuries logos has come to the fore. Logic and rationality underpin scientific thought and “has provided us with the wonders of modern technology, and has led to unprecedented levels of wealth. [But] in its ascendency it has also, many would argue, led to the destruction of the old certainties that so many relied on to give their lives meaning”[11].

I well remember back in 2003 being taken by two of the Hadza early one evening to sit on the top of a low hill commanding a wonderful view of the valley below. These men weren’t hunting, they weren’t making arrows, and they weren’t obviously talking but in the most elemental form possible they were indulging in a daily act of silent reflection – call it, if you like, communing with nature. The Hadza, as with so many other early tribes, are totally happy to exist within nature, and not to struggle to master it. Their attitude to death exemplifies this; when a person gets too old to move around the near family quietly take their leave, place a vessel of water within the old person’s reach and simply walk away and leave them to dies. Months later they return and collect the sun-bleached bones from which wild animals have torn away the flesh, and quietly hide them in a cave or other sacred place. I once asked through my interpreter who actually owned the land; they found it difficult to give a clear answer because in the minds of the Hadza everything is owned equally by the spirits of the people who once lived there, by those who live there now, and by those as yet unborn who will live there in the future.

Such a sense of being part of a greater form of reality lead Chief Seattle in the Pacific North West America a century or more ago to remind the incoming settlers that “ we have not inherited this world from our parents but have been loaned it by our children”. It was why it was customary amongst the Pablo Indians in Arizona to require that the chieftain, before agreeing to implement any new law, should first consider what would be the implications of such a law over the next seven generations.

Spencer Wells writes nostalgically of how “to spend time living with the Hadza is to return to an ancient way of life, one where the term “self-sufficient” takes on new meaning…..They spend their evenings telling stories of recent hunts and ancient legends while sitting around a small fire, story lines punctuated with careful intonations, sound effects and jokes. In an odd way, it felt like returning home after a long absence”. I utterly agree. I too had made such a comment to my guide years ago to which he replied “I have escorted many travellers from different countries, and their reaction is always the same. Something deep inside them tells them that this feels like home. It has to be a deep-seated human instinct; after all, this was ‘home’ for perhaps 99% of our ancient ancestors’ experience…..which makes us just like the Hadza.”

But for most of us, living in the way the Hadza do is unimaginable.

“There is something else about the way people like the Hadza live their lives, something that seems to combine so many aspects of what it means to be human, making use of so many different skills. We may think of ourselves today as multi-taskers but in fact the jobs most of us carry out are remarkably focussed…..staring at a computer screen, sitting in meetings, playing professional baseball, or even driving a truck, means that our lives in the 21st century are defined by a very narrow range of skills. Watching the Hadza forces us to rediscover a treasure trove of lost abilities.”

Be you born a Muslim, Christian, Jew or Buddhist, you were born into a culture that tried to find the most appropriate route around a maze of decisions and moral dilemmas that we will each face. Spencer Wells notes that the Catholic Church identified seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. No less than four of these sins are related to greed, for greed was – to medieval Christians as to many Muslims – the cause of most of life’s problems, and probably still is. To Catholics and others of faith it is sin that separates the individual from his or her god, and from their neighbours as well. This is poisonous for it is not just the greedy man who suffers as a result of his greediness; as the Hadza know, and endless recent research on happiness has shown, it is not just being poor that makes you feel unhappy, what makes you deeply unhappy is to be poor when everyone around you is doing well.

“I am not advocating a return to a hunter/gatherer lifestyle,” states Spencer Wells, “ merely pointing out that we can learn something about the state of modern society from those ancestors”. It is not that many in society are unaware of those intrinsic social/economic/environmental tensions – from the Luddites in the early 1800s to Fritz Schumacher and the advocates of Small is Beautiful in the 1970s – onwards to today’s anti-globalisation and climatic change lobbies, there is an ever widening anti-material progress group. But coalescing in the mid 20th century has been something more widespread and potentially extraordinarily dangerous – Fundamentalism. Fundamentalist Islam, as with fundamentalist Christianity, is increasingly dominating political debate (and bloodshed) around the world. Born of desperation and anger “and driven forward by charismatic leaders, fundamentalist world views provide a focus for people who feel left out of the modern world, offering an alternative vision of how life should be lived.”

Much to the surprise of most people these two groups, which seem to be absolutely in total opposition, have very similar origins – they fear, as with so many I expect of my readers – that greed is undermining our collective and individual potential to be good people.

Sayyid Qutb (pronounced SIGH-eed KOO-tub), an Egyptian author and literary critic became an active member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in 1953, an educational organisation devised to spread the teaching of Islam. Not a violent organisation initially, it became much involved in fighting the increasingly secular Egyptian society and Sayyid Qutb was sentenced to 15 years hard labour in 1954. During his time in gaol he wrote two books which became hugely influential in redefining Islam in a more aggressive form. In these he argued that it was time for Islam to reclaim its supremacy as a world religion, something that he said the Muslims had lost because they had surrendered to jahiliyah, or ignorance of God, because secularism had lead to its decline. He called for a holy war against corrupt secularism. Until Sayyid Qutb reinterpreted Jihad it had never been seen as a primary goal of religion. By reinterpreting Islam in the context of the modern world Qutb hoped that his work would lead to an Islamic revolution.

At the same time that Qutb’s views were receiving widespread attention in the Islamic world, many in America were feeling the loss of mythos (that “old-time religion”) in their own lives. “The social upheavals of the 1960s, with their rejection of traditional Christian family values, were a shock to many. The rise of Christian fundamentalism in the United States was, even more than the spread of Qutb’s scholarly works, an application of logos thinking to a mythos problem. Spencer Wells quotes Karen Armstrong as showing how in the 1960s and 70s 40% of American households tuned in to the preaching on the radio of Jerry Falwell and his southern Baptist exhortations.” The logos of modern technology was being used in a novel way to mobilise a conservative social movement, its goal being to return religion – mythos – to what they saw as its rightful place at the centre of society. This totally re-orientated the Republican Party away from its industrial and big business base and so elevated religion on the American political stage in a way it had never been before.

Al-Qaeda has taken Sayyid Qutb’s writing to its very heart and “much of Osama bin Laden rhetoric is lifted directly from his writing. The organisation’s recruiting materials bear no resemblance to the religion practised by the vast majority of the world’s Muslims.” Which helps to explain how the world has come into the frightening position in which we find ourselves today. Members of the American religious right killing doctors at abortion clinics; Al Qaeda members using bombs and hijacked planes to kill thousands in a global war against western secularism…..It seems like the inhuman acts of crazy zealots…..Crazy though it may appear from the outside, it is not insanity that drives terrorism in the fundamentalist world; rather it is their god-given certainty that what they are doing is morally just”.

It seems that the Jihadists are fighting less of a war against the West than a civil war for the minds of Muslim youth. Both movements, in trying to return to a past they imagine to be more pure, are using the technologies of the present to reach out to more and more people. Spencer Wells closes his description of the line-up of these two contrasting world views – that of mythos (that involves both fundamentalist Christians and Muslims) and logos (that involves both radical thought in unhappy alliance with pure materialism). He then challenges the adherents to various forms of mythos to talk to the proponents of logos and ask each other what fuels the flames of fundamentalism (religious, economic, or cultural). “Ultimately, fundamentalism can exist only in opposition to something else; it is a protest movement. If there were nothing to protest it would lose its raison d’etre”.

So why is all this of such interest to the 21st Century Learning Initiative? It is quite simple. More than 15 years ago we first raised the question “what kind of education for what kind of world?” In the days of our species’ youth, so the Book of Genesis recounts, Cain killed his brother Abel. There may well be much significance in the one who was the murderer and the one who was murdered. If the interpretation that Spencer Wells puts on this account of human cultural origins is correct, it stands to reason that it was the man Cain who first planted crops and kept the harvest who killed his brother the nomadic shepherd, Abel. As our ancestors started to settle down, Cain believed he owned his crops and that Abel was an intruder.

So just what skills and knowledge do today’s young people need to take over the guardianship of the planet when we’re too old? Hopefully fratricide will not become too much of a problem but if the announcement in this month’s National Geographic (January 2011) magazine that the human population is just about to touch the 7 billion mark, we really must prepare ourselves for what might happen should war or a natural disaster such as rising sea levels, volcanic dust clouds or a pandemic send billions in search of new homes. Even more to the point and underlining the whole of this argument is the warning in today’s Guardian (7th January 2011) that “ it is a fantasy [to believe] that growth will go on forever”.

Let the closing word go, not to Spencer Wells but to Rebecca D. Costa whose book The Watchman’s Rattle was also published last year. In her introduction she writes “In earlier times, ordinary citizens volunteered as watchmen to protect the welfare of their communities. They patrolled neighbourhoods, lighthouses, and important institutions, watching for early signs of danger. Surprisingly, these early watchmen never carried weapons. They carried wooden rattles that made a loud, harsh, clacking noise designed to summon help. The sound of the watchman’s rattle was an alarm – a call for citizens to wake from their sleep and quickly join forces against danger.”  These two books are “a plea to change the course of humankind by calling on the greatest weapon of mass instruction ever known: the human brain.” That is why the 21st Century Learning Initiative believes this issue is so important.

John Abbott


[1]Abbott, J.“Master and Apprentice: reconnecting thinking with doing”, 2004, available on the Initiative’s website www.21learn.org

[2] Boehm, C. “Hierarchy In The Forest: the evolution of egalitarian behaviour”, Harvard University Press, 1999

[3] Wells, Spencer “The Journey of Man: a genetic odyssey”, Random House, 2002

[4] Abbott, J. “Adolescence and Evolutionary Adaptation”, 2005, available on the Initiative’s website at www.21learn.org.uk

[5] Shreeves, James, National Geographic Magazine, Washington, March 2006

[6] Quoted in Abbott, J. and Ryan, T. “The Unfinished Revolution: learning, human behaviour, community and political paradox” Network Education Press/Continuum, 2000

[7] ibid

[8] ibid

[9] Abbott, J. and Ryan, T. “The Unfinished Revolution: learning, human behaviour, community and political paradox” Network Education Press/Continuum, 2000

[10] Lebow, Viktor as quoted by Leonard, Anne “The Story of Stuff”, Constable, 2010

[11] This and subsequent quotes (unless otherwise attributed) come from Wells, Spencer “Pandora’s Seed”, Allen Lane, 2010