Saturday, October 8, 2011
100 Books 51: Christopher Ryan & Cacilda Jetha's SEX AT DAWN: THE PREHISTORIC ORIGINS OF MODERN SEXUALITY
I am very much a singer in the choir this book is preaching to, but I can see where some might find it controversial, yes I do. First of all, it concerns evolution quite a lot, which is still (amazingly, to me) a hot-button issue in many circles. Second, it concerns sex, which is pretty much the most fascinating* topic we've yet found to talk or write about but which lots of people really rather wouldn't. And third, it's a thumping great, thoroughly researched, entertaining, funny and well-researched argument against monogamy as anything but an artificial cultural constraint.
Nor is sexuality the only sacred cow getting a goring in this fantastic (but sigh! too short -- my Kindle led me astray again. Oh hey, I'm only 59% of the way into the book, yay! Oh wait, 40% of the book is endnotes. Aaaaah!) book: the work of a lot of well-known anthropologists and thinkers gets a beady-eyed look from the authors, who find the logic of, e.g. the Hobbesian notion that prehistoric life was "nasty, brutish and short" rather wanting, both on its own and in the light of contemporary research and the evidence it has found that our ancestors were freer, healthier, less stressed out and more laid-back than we can even imagine being today.
I don't want to spoil Ryan's and Jetha's arguments, which are wonderfully presented, as to how our evolutionary history and our present-day biology argue that promiscuity and not fidelity is our natural sexual state; I will say this is not written as a set of excuses to offer one another. That's not the intent of the book; indeed, the authors encourage frank communication between partners or potential partners. Knowledge is power, and I, at least, can see how honestly confronting the facts of our biology can strengthen, rather than weaken, relationships. Sure, it's easier to ask forgiveness than permission, for instance, but having the balls to ask permission and begin a dialogue about the realities of our minds and bodies seems to me ultimately less costly than asking for forgiveness after feelings are hurt and trust is shattered and pride is at stake. But you've got to be brave. And if you're not brave, what are you doing dallying with the opposite (or same, if that's what you prefer) sex (or both) in the first place?
Along with Rings of Saturn, Inverted World and The Hidden Institute, Sex at Dawn is one of the best books I've read this year.