Did we give up orgies for beer?

Here's Joel Johnson at gadget blog Gizmodo: "In Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá [argue] we gave up sexual novelty for agriculture." In other words, for beer. "As a lover of both booze and sex alike, it's the most troubling existential question I've ever faced: Would I give up easy access to booze to have easy access to more sexual partners?"


  1. An interesting theory, but the article bases its entire construction on a single, unsubstatiated claim: that access to food was “relatively easy” (relative to, presumably, agriculture) and that we thus lived into our 70s and 80s as hunter-gatherers. I find this idea preposterous.

    Hunting and gathering is HARD WORK. You have to spend all day out looking for food to get enough to feed you, your young kids if they’re not old enough to help you, and your pregnant women (“you” being the group of people, to follow the assumptions of the article’s argument). You have to do this all the time, because if you don’t, people starve. When food gets scarce, you start a journey to somewhere you don’t know where in the hope that there will be more. This is a -hard- way to live.

    By contrast, agriculture (after a few hundred years of experimentation to get it just right) lets you make more calories than you need for a similar amount of effort; you can trade them with the people who’re coming up short, and they can do the same to you when you’re down too. If food’s scarce, you can rely on what you’ve stored and on your neighbours rather than having to uproot and move somewhere else.

    Agriculture eventually needs fewer people per unit land, which leads people to spread out, while also paradoxically allowing your population to boom through excess calories. Eventually the food and population surplus gets so large that it can support nobility, and then science and industry, and then all of us office drones who’ve never even seen a chicken outside Asda.

    My point, anyway, is that life before acriculture was HARD. Life after it is hard too, but it’s not a constant and, as so many people have said before, harsh and often violent search for more food. It’s not a trade-off between beer and orgies so much as it’s a trade-off between a life of constant movement and a desperate search for more food, and of eating Danish bacon, French cheese and Argetinean steak in a burger bun while I browse the internet for a bargain on a new plasma TV, perhaps making an image macros of a kitten saying “om nom nom” between bites.

    We have it easier now than we ever have before, and we should be thankful for that. Looking back to the past as some idyllic commune with nature is farcical.

    Which isn’t to say I’m against more orgies, you understand.

    1. EVERY report I have seen says hunter gatherers were healthier, bigger, and taller, and that it wasn’t until the 1900s that people began to regain what they had lost with the advent of agriculture and civilization. Hunter gatherers didn’t have the population pressures and overcrowding that city dwellers had, and with agriculture came villages and city dwellers. Agriculture certainly isn’t easy work, but it’s not healthy either, compared to what came before.

      This evidence comes from fossils as far as I know. I have no links, but I do read some science journals (not digest for the public magazines, but real journals like nature and Science) and I have read this many times.

      I do not believe the core of your argument, that agriculture is less work than hunting and gathering. I have seen other reports that it only takes a few hours each day to hunt and gather, most times, and the rest of the day is free time. Of course there are bad times, but most of the day is spent not eking out a meager living.

      My personal impression has been that agriculture brought about civilization not because it was easy to generate extra food, allowing others to become craftsmen and bureaucrats, but because it tied most people to the land and made it easy for the chiefs and warlords to enforce long hours of work for those bossy people to grab and redirect the way they saw fit.

  2. “EVERY report I have seen says hunter gatherers were healthier, bigger, and taller, and that it wasn’t until the 1900s that people began to regain what they had lost with the advent of agriculture and civilization.”

    Of course, you may be confusing cause and effect here. When we were hunter-gatherers, all the existent bodies we’ve found were big strong healthy ones simply because anybody who wasn’t big, strong, and healthy didn’t leave a body to be found – they became the Stone Age version of Purina Sabertooth Tiger Chow.

    In other words, the less pressure on the gene pool, the crappier it gets. If we had a nuclear Armaggedon, I feel fairly confident it would only take 3-4 generations for the population to return to big tall healthy types.

    1. I doubt it was that it was the weak getting eaten. My guess would be that hunter-gatherers (living in a world still wild) would have many more opportunities to eat meat.

      BTW, you can really smell the BS faux-science in statements from the article like “cause us to really hate being monogamous but societal pressures—including centralized codified religion—force men and women into an arrangement that brings with it just as many problems as it solves.” The author needs to speak for himself!

  3. There’s so much variation across cultures now and since the advent of agriculture that it is hard for me to believe there was one culture before civilization.

    With the high levels of violence and social inequality you see in most contemporary hunter gatherer societies and the infanticide, forced sex, and killings you see in most primates, I doubt this noble savage narrative. Even bonobos have been observed killing each other.

  4. Hunter gatherers work on average 4 hours or so a day. If things go bad they move.

    Farmers actually work a lot harder and for longer hours. Farmers can’t move when danger threatens and have to defend their property or join a group and lose their autonomy and usually end up working longer and supporting others.

  5. Booze? Hell, I’d give up booze for easier access to calculus.

    In fact, I already did, a long time ago. I’d certainly give up easy access to the Internet in exchange for more sex.

    I’d also give up access to chocolate, red meat, AC/DC, muscle cars, jobs in the entertainment industry, all of my hair, and pretty much everything else with which I fill my sexless hours over the last decade or two.

    Except my family. I do love them so.

  6. The rise of agriculture represented a definite downturn in health. This is evidenced from dental and bone studies of remains. Early agriculture is associated with shorter lifespan, shorter median height, general malnutrition. Hunter-gatherer remains after the last ice age show much better health, in general. However, by around 8k BCE, early man had wiped out most of the megafauna on every continent except Africa. I’m not convinced it wasn’t the loss of a relatively easy diet that led to the adaption of agriculture.

    Also, the graph of agriculture leading to war is particularly suspect. There’s a lot of evidence, from hunter-gatherer peoples discovered in the past couple of centuries, that there was a nearly constant level of low-level war going on–mostly in the form of limited raids with neighboring tribes. This sort of behavior has also been discovered among other primates. The “peaceful savage” notion is a complete invention.

  7. How would I work up the courage to talk to women without booze?

    Still, I think my ancestors may have made poor choices.

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