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Growing Pains

One on One

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Spencer Wells's Genographic Project has analyzed thousands of DNA samples.

From the October 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Spencer Wells's latest book, Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization, explores the downside to the agricultural revolution. Over time, he says, farming has created a world crowded with sedentary city dwellers whose bodies are better suited to follow the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The result? Obesity, diabetes, tooth decay, mental illness, even warfare. Wells, a geneticist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, says the challenge now is to change our lifestyles to save our planet—and ourselves.

How did farming plant the seeds of our downfall? We evolved as hunter-gatherers, our population growing according to the carrying capacity of nature, that is, staying in harmony with nature, reaching about five to ten million people. Then, about 12,000 years ago, we were plunged back into an Ice Age, and hunting and gathering could no longer support as many people. That's when we started planting seeds. As climatic conditions turned benign again about 10,000 years ago, the population really started to explode. We're at nearly seven billion now and will reach nine or ten billion by mid-century. Making that shift to agriculture, we went from eating about 150 species of plants during the Neolithic period to getting more than half of our calories today from wheat, rice, and corn. Domesticated animals also contributed a burden of disease to agricultural populations. We saw a drop in life expectancy. So, we not only increased the population size but also became less healthy.

Do the slow-food and eat-locally movements help? Yes, speaking particularly about those of us in North America, we have to change our lifestyles, to slow down, want less, not ship in so much of our food from thousands of miles away.

The recent recession seems to have recalibrated our consumption patterns. Will that last? I think it has to. These crisis periods spur tremendous innovation; you know, necessity is the mother of invention. So people are reconsidering their lifestyles and options, moving toward green energy, for example.

Your Genographic Project has analyzed thousands of DNA samples to map human migration patterns. What have you learned? For years, anthropologists argued that our human ancestors, such as Homo erectus, left Africa one million to two million years ago, evolving separately into different races in different places around the world. But genetics shows resoundingly that we all came out of Africa very recently—about 60,000 years ago—so we're all much more closely related than we ever suspected.

You say our differences are mostly cultural, not genetic. Does travel play a role in understanding those differences? It can. When we travel, the main thing is to try to live as much like a local as possible. Let people invite you into their homes. Experience their cuisine and other aspects of their culture. Don't isolate yourself with other tourists.

Are there places that have particularly moved you? Africa is always amazing. When you get out on the savannas of Tanzania or Kenya, you really do feel like you're going home. Also, Central Asia. I've always been fascinated by the Silk Road, the nomadic cultures transmitting ideas between East and West, the storybook history of places like Bukhara and Samarqand, and Alexander the Great coming through with his armies.

Have there been "magic moments" that remind you why you travel?Spending time with the Hadza hunter-gatherers in Tanzania had a big impact on me, seeing their ability to make do with essentially nothing and yet seeming so fulfilled in life. As you spend time with them—walking through the savannas, hunting, listening to stories around the fire (you cannot understand what they're saying, but you have the sense that something amazing is being transmitted)—all the worries and concerns of your world start to melt away. You begin to live life to their rhythm, and it's a wonderful experience.

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? 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.

Are there places whose future you fear for? Yes, definitely. In the book, I write about the low-lying islands of Tuvalu, for example, out in the Pacific; and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. Rising sea levels will eventually force the inhabitants to move away; a culture that has developed in relative isolation for thousands of years will be effectively destroyed. The hunter-gatherer way of life is doomed as well. Ten thousand years ago, 99.9 percent of the people on Earth were hunter-gatherers; today it's less than 0.01 percent and keeps dropping.

What kind of world will our kids inherit? Are you an optimist or a pessimist? A bit of both. I know some things will be lost. Wild spaces, large predators in Africa, such things are in danger and likely to be gone by the time my children are adults. On the other hand, as I said, when people finally realize there is a crisis, we become very clever about developing solutions.

Keith Bellows is the editor of Traveler .

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