Among the books that I would rate very important, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá’s Sex at Dawn would need to be on top, or nearly so. As I’ve often stated on this blog, religion and sex are very closely related. Every religion, in some way or another, intimates itself into sexuality. Like religious belief, however, it is something about which we blush, look at our feet, and politely change the subject. Perhaps it would be helpful to shift focus, then, to the subtitle: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships. Well, not even that reaches the depths to which this book plumbs. Ryan and Jethá actually peer back deep into prehistory and look at the changes that agricultural life brought onto humanity. Comparing that information to conclusions drawn from evolutionary theory and serious biological study, they derive a picture of a much more equitable culture for which humans clearly evolved. Agriculture, and just plain culture, changed all that.
With culture, you see, comes the materialist idea of possession. Hunter-gatherers, even today, are the best sharers in the world. Their generosity isn’t noble, as Ryan and Jethá point out, but entirely practical. In addition, their lives are longer, healthier, and happier than those of the modern, stressed-out, perpetually frustrated, “cultured” individual. We are constantly trying to get ahead, and own more. Of course, we don’t want to mention or think about the fact that when we die, all that ownership will mean nothing. We invent complex laws that so only our biological (we think) offspring will carry on that legacy until the last bit is parceled out so fine that all that remains is a name that few will remember millennia down the road. For that we suffer nearly constant frustration. I’ve not read a book in decades that made me want to throw all of this off and head out to the woods, sharpened stick in hand. (Problematic, since I’m pretty solidly vegetarian.)
Some of the larger implications, however, that Sex at Dawn doesn’t address, are the roles that religion plays in problematizing what we’ve evolved to be. Of course, sex scandals in churches are referenced, since they are such crucial evidence. What is overlooked, for the purposes of the book, is that religions have always tried to define and control sexuality, at least since the dawn of agriculture. We don’t often consider that agriculture, in addition to making us fat, and lazy, also gave us organized religion. It may be that religion came first, but it only grew into a coercive social force with the temple culture of ancient Sumer, and it has been with us ever since, dictating who may love whom, when, and for what purpose. Sex at Dawn is not for those who are set in their ways, nor for those who take a one-size-fits-all attitude toward life. For the rest of humanity, however, there is hope that perhaps we can learn to be a little more true to what nature intended us to be, and to understand that nature may be many things, but it is seldom evil.