The way we were

Possibly ironic, but I’ve so far been using Google Play on the Nexus7 to read books about how people lived before the advent of anything resembling modern technology. Having just finished off with Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and (ostensibly) Cacilda Jethá, I’ve launched into Jared Diamond’s The world Until Yesterday. The first is how the bodies we inhabit didn’t actually evolve for how we use them today. As the title suggests, the thrust of the book has to do with how we organise our personal relationships and accompanying sex lives, but in supporting its argument it brings up how we eat, work, fight (or don’t), and everything else that we’ve essentially remolded since becoming sedentary agriculture and agriculture-supporting communities fixated on property instead of the roving bands of immediate-return hunter gatherers that we once were for the majority of human existence.

Diamond’s book, by in large, is more interested in the developments cultures have set up sometime after we evolved into homo sapiens and discovered gardening up until just before this thing he loosely defines as the modern world. He’s sort of covering the missing intervening years to Sex at Dawn, while Ryan and Jethá’s book is more the naughty bits that Diamond glosses over, plus an account of what we’re actually adapted for regardless of how we choose to live, whether because of property, government decree, religion or any other artificial set of laws aimed at countering the rules hardwired in our genetic code (Are we more like bonobos or chimps?). What’s interesting about both books is the lack of romanticizing of what we now dub traditional cultures, and what anthropologists of old called “primitive,” while still keeping a wary eye on modern Western society, by in large creaking under its own obese weight and on the verge of keeling over.Both place the blame precisely at the period when humans settled down into agricultural communities: an intellectual feat which we never actually adapted to and have been struggling with ever since.

What have we gained, and what have we given up, and what have we just moved around? Does it matter? As individuals, if we do away with the accumulated several thousand years of cultural baggage, then we’re going to find ourselves on the outs with pretty much everyone. Continue to adapt to all of the external rules placed upon you and increase your stress, health risks and unhappiness, and the only upside is a shorter life span within which to deal with it all. Many an academic career steeped in existentialism is based on this exact dilemma, but it’s not necessary:  We can relax, let go, and realise that we’ve only got a few decades of our own and do whatever we damned well want to with what’s available, and in the comfortable knowledge that not much is likely going to come of it. That’s probably more like what our ancient ancestors did.