Sex at Dawn

There's cake in the house.

"I'm reading this book" I said, for weeks, to whoever I was with when I ran out of other things to say. I finished the book, and now its newly learned contents are bumming me out. So I'm eating the cake.

The book is Sex at Dawn by Chris Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. (I just went to their website and saw that they have some readers photos posted. In these photos, people pose nude with the book. Pretty weird. But of course, if I published a book and people posed nude with it, I'd be stoked.)

I recommend the book. It's an anthropology-ey take on what human's prehistoric sex lives must have been like, as well as their lives in general. It's engaging. There are jokes, which end up being a lot better than what you would expect from an anthropologist.

While the book does talk a lot about sex, its overarching argument, I would say, is that prehistoric people lived in a way that was different - and notably better - than how we think they did. Since the length of human history is much shorter than human prehistory, our biology adapted mainly under those prehistoric conditions. It's what "natural' to us.

In prehistoric times, Ryan and Jetha argue, people lived in small (~150 individuals) tight-knit bands where fierce egalitarianism was the law. Everything was shared - food, protection, communal responsibilities. Personal property was at a low, which makes sense when you think that everything they owned, as nomadic people, they had to carry. (Anybody who's gone backpacking can tell you how soon all that crap you packed doesn't seem to matter as much.) Adults would have several simultaneous sexual relationships going over time, which meant that sex was not commodified, which meant that women were allowed to be people rather than fiercely guarded property. Resources were plentiful, wars extremely rare, and everyone had a community to belong to.

The big bad, according to the book, was the emergence of agriculture. It cut down on the variety of foods people ate. Droubts and pestilences hit harder because people couldn't move somewhere that wasn't affected. The concentrations of people and livestock, together, was a boon for disease. Upper body strength was a distinct advantage for the first time in that it was necessary to manipulate a plow. Men sought to control female sexuality because they had personal property and didn't want to pass it on to someone else's son. On top of all that, many children were needed to maintain the farms, and with many more children, more farmland was needed in order to feed them. The population skyrocketed. Wars started to break out.

It's hitting me pretty hard, right now, because Ryan and Jetha's prehistoric world takes care of some of my least favorite parts of contemporary life:

1. The high percentage of unhappy/broken marriages.
2. Our isolation from and anonymity among one another, especially as adults.
3. That we have to go to work so goddamn much.
4. Gender inequality and the persecution of women and girls throughout the world based on their sex.
5. The negative impact we have on the environment.

As far as fixing issues 1 - 5, though, the book is unhelpful. One can't very well, at this point, start a campaign against agriculture. It's bothering me, making me sad, the ways in which life seems stacked against human happiness and how impossible it seems to change that.

It reminds me of an "Angel" episode I saw the other day. Angel is being grumpy/rampage-y, but not outright evil. (He gets a shot at complexity. Woohoo!) He rides an elevator to hell, vowing to kill evil at the source, uproot and banish it, but he finds that when he steps out of the elevator he's back where he started, on Earth, where evil is mixed up in every bit of us. He has an epiphany (and a face bruise):

But even believing that kind actions - that loving other people - is what matters doesn't make me feel better. How can I feel good about small actions and choices when what it seems like what the world needs is a huge structural shift - a trip through time to take agriculture away? I guess I'll feel better once all this book stuff fades a bit from my mind. Until then, I'll just keep eating cake for breakfast. Cake at Dawn.

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