readingtrance

book reviews by Althea


Leave a comment

The Hallowed Hunt – Lois McMaster Bujold ****

(Chalion #3)

I have to agree with others who have said “good, but not as good as the first two.” However – it’s still squeaking into the 4-star range.

I also feel that in this case, marketing this as “Chalion #3” is doing the book a disservice – though set in the same world as ‘Curse of Chalion’ and ‘Paladin of Souls,’ this is a fully self-contained, stand-alone novel.

Ingrey, a bad-ass but good-hearted soldier, who just happens to have been saddled with a forbidden spirit-animal as a young man, is sent to deal with the fallout of a crime – a woman has murdered the prince. However, upon arrival, he believes Lady Ijada’s story – she killed in self-defense, while the prince was assaulting her as part of an occult ritual sacrifice. Now she also, as a result of that ritual, has a spirit animal.

Ingrey finds himself taking Ijada’s side, as they find themselves caught up in a complex spiral of religious manifestations, magical plots, and political machinations…

Ingrey is an enjoyable character, but my favorite character was actually the Learned Hallana – a motherly, powerful, demon-possessed doctor-sorceress with a down-to-earth attitude. I want more of her!


Leave a comment

Komarr – Lois McMaster Bujold *****

(Vorkosigan #11)

Following directly upon the events of ‘Memory,’ ‘Komarr’ still functions as a stand-alone novel.

And… I liked it even better than ‘Memory.’ The plot felt more original, and it just has a really well-structured, exciting story, backed up by well-rounded, believable characters and a vivid, consistent setting.

Miles Vorkosigan is sent, in his role as Imperial Auditor to the still-somewhat-rebellious subject planet of Komarr to investigate a space accident (or, possibly, act of sabotage) that may seriously impact Komarr’s terraforming project.

He accepts the hospitality of his colleague’s niece, whose husband happens to be an administrator in that terraforming project. Unfortunately, the husband’s also a shiftless jerk, and his and Ekaterin’s marriage is on the verge of falling apart.

As layers of plots and motivations unravel, you’ll find yourself staying up late to finish… well, at least I did!


Leave a comment

The Affinity Bridge – George Mann ***

An airship disaster, a plague of zombies, vicious automata, and a Sherlock-Holmesian investigator with a smart-and-lovely young female assistant, all in 19th-century London…

Not bad – it’s reasonably well-done. I’d say it’s better written than the last ‘steampunk’ book I read. However, I still got that feeling that the author was writing in certain elements (well, most of the elements) to cater to current trends rather than because of his personal and abiding passion for these things. I could be wrong – I don’t know the guy – but that’s the feeling I received. There’s plenty of adventure, and violence – but it all seems a little bloodless. The plot structure is a fairly standard mystery.


Leave a comment

A Conspiracy of Alchemists – Liesel Schwarz ***

So, I think I would get along with this author. She likes a bunch of cool things: airships, pirates, airship pirates, absinthe, fairies, vampires, plucky heroines, noble heroes, evil villains, henchmen, secret occult societies, sacrifices on altars, the Orient Express, Paris, Constantinople, absent-minded professors, scientific inventions, magic, and of course, alchemy.

All these things are jammed into this book.
It’s not about being original, it’s about fitting all the cool things in. The result, is a light, cartoony, adventure-romance. it’s good fun, even though I had a persistent feeling of ‘seen it before,’ and even though the romance aspect was a little annoying, mainly due to the male lead’s patronizing attitude. No, I really don’t find that kind of thing attractive.

I would highly recommend this book to all fans of M.K. Hobson – I found it very similar – and, to a lesser degree, to fans of Gail Carriger and Leanna Renee Hieber.

I know this is an advance copy, so I’m not going to make a big deal of the few errors in the text… with one exception. A “bill of fare” is the MENU at a restaurant, not the bill or check. Editors!


Leave a comment

The Killer Angels – Michael Shaara ***

Well-executed, as an embellished recounting of what happened at Gettysburg…it seems well-researched, and gives insight into the minds of men at war. but it doesn’t really have everything I look for in a novel.
I can definitely see that it would be LOVED by players of strategy
games, tacticians, and military buffs.
I doubt that there is a better book out there that gives a blow-by-blow recounting of the Battle of Gettysburg, so, four stars.


Leave a comment

Sex At Dawn – Christopher Ryan, Cacilda Jethá ***

SEX AT DAWN: Preface
OK, I get the point of this. The preface is trying to make the point that humans are primates, and subject to primate urges. However, this is a DUMB story. Seriously, author? A monkey stealing peanuts you’d meant to give to a different monkey makes you feel ‘betrayed in a way you’d never been before’? And inspires ‘loathing’ for monkeys? Plus, over-the-top anthropomorphization, and your telling me about putting on a ‘primate display’ for the monkey makes me think you may be a little unbalanced. Maybe not the best way to open the book.

SEX AT DAWN: INTRODUCTION
This covers a lot of stuff very quickly, as it’s a quick overview of the topic of the book. There is little evidence for the claims here, but I’ll trust that will come later.
*We’re apes – fine, ok.
*Our society has sex issues – fine, ok.
*The Spanish word ‘esposas’ means ‘wife’ and ‘handcuffs’… hmm… this word looks more like ‘spouse’ than ‘wife,’ looked it up, yep, I’m right, it can also mean husband. Point taken, though.
*People like porn – yep, true, but does that really mean sexual dysfunction?
*Priests molest kids – yep, true, but is this because of ‘denying normal human sexuality’ or because predators seek out positions where they have trusted access to kids?
*The self help industry is pathetic and non-helpful – agreed.
*On to the summary of what we’ll find in this book – a theory that from existing evidence, we can conclude that pre-agricultural societies were gender-equal and generally promiscuous. I have serious doubts that it is possible to draw such conclusions. It is POSSIBLE, but I do not think it can be proven. We shall see.
*Outline of the typical ‘narrative of human sexual evolution.’ Yep, heard it before, agree that it’s problematic.
*Graph of how agricultural societies lead to war. This graph spells the word “hierarchical” miserably wrong. PROOFREADERS are important!
*More about how agriculture leads to the idea of property, which leads to women losing status, etc. Stuff admittedly cribbed from Jared Diamond. Again, nice theory, not proven, though.
*Good point about: really WHY should men care about paternity?

SEX AT DAWN: Chapter 1, a.
Starts out with the old chestnut about an explorer asking the native “what’s that?” and ending up thinking that “I don’t understand” is a noun. I’ve most often heard this about “kangaroo” but the word in question here is “Yucatan.” If you go to the ‘notes’ the author admits that this story is anecdotal – but he uses it anyway. It would have been more effective (not to mention more respectable) to talk ABOUT this story and why it flourishes in different versions… Cecil Adams explains in detail. (I LOVE Cecil Adams): (start w/ 4th paragraph) http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/491/whats-the-origin-of-kangaroo-court

SEX AT DAWN: Chapter 1, b.
A page or two to convince us that food preferences are cultural, and people in one country may eat things that people in another think are gross. This seems very obvious, and a waste of breath – except that Elizabeth & I were recently discussing a post where someone was using others’ food habits to demonstrate racism; and then of course there’s the whole “Did Obama eat a dog” thing, so maybe this actually IS a valuable point to make to a large segment of the population.
I’m still stuck in my own culture – I’ll pass on the grasshoppers! The references in this bit led me to this out-of-date but interesting blog: http://bugsfordinner.blogspot.com/

SEX AT DAWN: Chapter 1, c.
“An essential first step in discerning the ‘cultural’ from the ‘human’ is what mythologist Joseph Campbell called ‘detribalization.’ We have to recognize the various tribes we belong to and begin extricating ourselves from the unexamined assumptions each of them mistakes for ‘the truth.'”
Nice quote. I agree. I know Campbell is frequently considered outdated, and in his search for universals, he was often far TOO reductionist about human mythology. He also grabbed things that were convenient to his narratives and ignored what didn’t fit… but I still like him, overall. Interesting stuff.

Goes on to say that the commonly-accepted tropes about sexual jealously, etc, are not necessarily natural, but cultural – that evolutionary psychologists are wrong. I feel like that’s probably the main focus of this book – the theories of Evo. Psych. are NOT NECESSARILY true. I think that is correct – the evo. psych crowd CANNOT determine that human have always been monogamous/jealous/etc. But I still don’t think this book can determine the opposite, either. Still, I suppose it’s necessary and valuable to point out that one can look at the same set of data, can draw different conclusions or create a different narrative.

SEX AT DAWN – Chapter 2a
Darwin was influenced in his thought by the prudery of Victorian times, and the religious bias of those who came before him, not to mention his own sexual inexperience. The writing of Darwin were, additionally, censored by his prudey sister.
Therefore our first concepts of human evolution were subject to an anti-sex bias.

SEX AT DAWN: Chapter 2, b.
“the deepest function of myth… to lend narrative order to apparently disconnected bits of information, the way constellations group impossibly distant stars into … patterns that are simultaneously imaginary and real.”

Ok, that is lovely.
I’ve probably never mentioned it here, but I am a huge fan of mythology and mythopoeic fiction; and how they connect to culture and history.

The book goes on to say, “mythology is the loom on which we weave… daily experience into a coherent story. This… becomes tricky when we mythologize about … ancestors separated from us by 20 or 30,000 years… (there’s a) widespread tendency to project contemporary cultural proclivities into the distant past.”

YES. Historical fiction writers talk about this A LOT, although usually not on such a grand time frame.
But I’m really glad this book is admitting this problem. We’ll see where they go from here…

SEX AT DAWN, Chap. 2, c.
Stuff about Lewis Morgan, a contemporary of Darwin and an anthropoligist. Never read much about this guy, but what a fascinating character!
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis_H._Morgan

SEX AT DAWN: Chapter 3
Here the author’s go into more detail on the assumption of current evolutionary theory that they believe are erroneous, including:
#1 – women aren’t actually very horny
#2 – men are motivated to only care for their own children.
Their arguments for this second one are pretty convincing – as they point out, the arguments inherent in this are very questionable:
especially: early humans understood that sex led to children, and were certain which children were biologically his. (It’s known that even recently, some ‘primitive’ cultures did not understand this).

There’s a lot more here but it also points out that evolutionary theory concentrates ONLY on sexual relations as a method of producing children, as if this were the only function of human sexuality – which, as any psychologist can tell you, it certainly isn’t.

The chapter also points out that no, not all human cultures have centered around ‘marriage and the nuclear family,’and that in early societies, which centered around shared resources, the whole sex-as-barter concept does not apply. (The idea that women allow a man sexual access in exchange for his material resources.) The author clearly find this reduction of all human sexuality down to – essentially – acts of prostitution – offensive.

SEX AT DAWN – Chapter 4.

Finally, the bonobos make an appearance!
Starts off with a quote from Stephen Jay Gould about how it’s peculiar that we insist on comparing ‘nasty’ animal and human traits, but not making the same comparison for ‘noble’ traits.

It then talks about how there’s a history of comparing human behavior to chimp behavior. Interestingly, it mentions how some of the characterization of chimps as violent and aggressive is also inaccurate (much was based on captive chimps; and their behavior, it is pointed out, differs from behavior in the wild as much as the behavior of jailed humans and free humans.)
However, the authors are somehow not as critical of the research done on bonobos, and ignore the fact that (much like chimps) bonobos have also been observed acting in aggressive and violent ways.
I don’t think this invalidates the author’s theory that we can compare ourselves to bonobos, as humans also, obviously, DO act aggressively and violently, but I do feel like the authors are oversimplifying to make a point here, and the point suffers for it.

However, there are some very valid points here about the insistence on seeing animal cultures as a reflection of human. For example, the concept of “rank” and “hierarchy” in animal societies – it’s noted that status can come from affection or seniority, rather than a ‘rank’ system.

Also, that primatologists have insisted on describing different groups of apes as ‘enemy’ groups, when in fact when the groups meet, socializing and sex occur – not what one would expect if they are ‘enemies.’

Interesting note about how both humans and bonobos, UNLIKE other apes, have a genetic mutation related to oxytocin, and by inference, emotional bonding.

And, a reiteration of the books main point: “Modern man’s seemingly instinctual impulse to control women’s sexuality is not an intrinsic feature of human nature. It is a response to specific historical socioeconomic conditions – conditions very different from those in which our species evolved.”

Sex At Dawn: Chap. 5

Starts off with an interpretation of the Adam and Eve story as an allegory about humans moving from a foraging to an agricultural lifestyle. The authors express befuddlement as to why anyone would move from such an Edenic lifestyle to one of toil. It seems rather willfully naive. Foraging may be Edenic, temporarily, in times and places of plenty, but not all places are full of food. The foraging lifestyle requires frequent, nomadic travel. Not so good for those who aren’t hale and fit. For me, it’s very easy to see why people wanted to be able to settle and make a home, to try to wrest some predictability from an unpredictable world.
However, the authors clearly state they they regard the move to agriculture as a ‘fall from grace.’ I see it as a trade-off, yes… but one that most people have seen as worth it.

Next: very interesting (and true) idea about how humans have domesticated themselves, as much as any crop or farm animal: ‘our cultures domesticate us for obscure purposes, nurturing and encouraging certain aspects of our behavior… seeking to eliminate those that might be disruptive.”

Next: the author claim that, in the animal kingdom, humans are both uniquely social and uniquely sexual. While I see their point, I do think they exaggerate both. And no, ‘exile’ has not usually been considered the ‘worst’ punishment one can decree – hello, torture and death? Check out a list of historical punishments sometime.

Last: the authors promise to make the case that prehistorical human life was ‘far from solitary.’ OK, I never thought it was. However, I do think that the degree of privacy/community/social interaction that an individual expects is not an innate thing, but one of those ‘culturally pruned’ aspects of society mentioned at the beginning of this very chapter.

SEX AT DAWN: Chap. 6

This chapter explores in more depth the fallacy of the assumption that sexual exclusivity is required because women need the protection and provision of a man, who will only cleave to a woman if he is sure that her children are his.

The authors bring up the examples of many, many tribes who have traditionally believed that ALL men a women has sex with contribute to the paternity of a child (and even that, the more men a woman has sex with, the stronger and healthier a child will be).
They point out that in cases where a child is considered to have more than one father, the child benefits, because that child has multiple people looking out for his or her well-being. (After all, in small tribal groups, the likelihood is that to some degree, the children ARE actually related to all of the adults in the group.)

In a small tribal group, where monogamy is not the rule, and having multiple lovers is not considered to be a cause for jealousy, but rather, something to be expected, having multiple bonds of affection helps draw the group closer together.
If women are free to have sex when and with whom they choose, this eliminates conflict & competition between males for female companionship.
The authors point out that the egalitarianism of small groups, where resources (and, often, sexuality) are shared, is not somehow more ‘noble,’ but, rather, is the most efficient way for a small group to survive. Again, showing that monogamy is not always the cultural norm, the authors mention that the Matis tribe of South America (they’re pretty much nearly wiped out now, which the book doesn’t mention) actually have a word that translates to “being stingy with one’s genitals” – a cultural transgression. (Kinda the opposite of calling someone a “slut!”)

The authors also mention that if we look at sexuality not solely as a means of reproduction, but as a mechanism for consolidating enduring bonds of affection and caring between multiple individuals in a group, homosexuality no longer appears like a functionless aberration, but rather as just another way to demonstrate mutual bonds.

However, the authors then try to make a jump to compare the sexual egalitarianism of tribes to examples such as rock bands or soccer teams that happily share the sexual favors of groupies. I’m not at all sure that this analogy works.

This is probably coming up later in the book, but it seems clear to me at this point that this egalitarian model of sharing (both sex and resources) with multiple members of a group, through multiple, enduring bonds of affection works very well IF you are in a tribe – a fairly small group who all share close bonds.
It wouldn’t work so well in a larger group (say a town or city) where not all your neighbors are people you know intimately, whose well-being and survival is chained inextricably to yours.
A change from it being acceptable and expected to have sex with multiple people in your tribe probably occurred when people started having a larger social group, and the “social unit” switched from “tribe” to “family.”
Huh, This would also explain the weirdness of traditions such as that in Afghanistan where a woman is expected to marry only within her family (usually an uncle or first cousin), and marrying a non-related man is considered to be wrong and threatening (a non-family member is not trusted). It’s like the tradition has only half-switched over…

SEX AT DAWN – Chapter 7.
While the last chapter was all about how other cultures have often had a more non-specific view of paternity, this chapter moves on to how mothering has often been less specific as well, with examples about how, in small tribes, maternal duties are shared amongst all the women.
It also points out how, in cultures that have insisted on seeing the nuclear family as the only acceptable family unit, horrible dysfunctions often occur. They bring up a horrible statistic that I had to check: it’s true. In 1915, out of ten ‘foundling hospitals’ visited, in NINE of them, EVERY child died before the age of two. Makes it sound like Little Orphan Annie had it good! Meanwhile, the unwed mothers of these infants would hire out as wet-nurses to other womens’ children. Hardly the ideal vision of the nuclear family, I agree.

This chapter segues right along into CHAPTER 8
The main point here is that it’s been claimed that “marriage” exists in every society around the world because, well, we’ve taken a look at whatever arrangements exist in whatever culture, and we call that “marriage,” ignoring how their arrangements may actually differ quite a lot from what we think of as “marriage” – there’s no definition of the word. The authors agree that yes, people around the world do ‘pair-bond.’ But whether a bond is supposed to be permanent, temporary, or brief, whether that bond overlaps with other long-term sexual relationships, whether sexual activity is allowed or expected outside the bond: not at all, all the time, only during festivals, only with strangers, only with tribe members…? this varies, and varies quite a lot. Most of the chapter is composed of details about the “marriages” found in other cultures, and it’s quite interesting.

CHAPTER 9
The first half of the chapter is all about Matriarchies. It talks about different cultures that have encouraged female sexual permissiveness, and talks a lot about the Masuo; whom I’ve read about before. In traditional Masuo culture, the family is the essential unit of society – but the family who lives in a shared house are brothers and sisters, and the children of the women. Men go to women’s homes for sex and romance, but never live with their lovers. Men’s fatherly duties are to their sisters’ children.

The authors that assert that in a matriarchal society, men have it better than in a patriarchal one, because women don’t have a tendency to form the mirror image of a patriarchy and oppress men – matriarchies tend to be more relaxed and easygoing. Sounds nice, but the evidence presented is a bit scant for that assertion.

The second half of the chapter is about animal species which are erroneously considered to behave monogamously. Penguins are brought up (they engage in serial monogamy, sticking with one partner annually to raise chicks), as well as swans (they mention that at least 20% of chicks born to supposedly monogamous birds are not the offspring of that pair).

I’m not at all sure why these two segments are jammed together into one chapter, but there you are.

CHAPTER 10
The topic is jealousy.
“In a traditional Canela marriage ceremony… the brother of each partner’s mother comes forward. He admonishes the bride and her new husband to stay together until the last child is grown, specifically reminding them not to be jealous of each other’s lovers.”
I like it!
Here, the authors argue that jealousy is largely a socially-constructed emotion, pointing out that degrees of sexual jealousy differ from society to society, not to mention exactly what behavior elicits jealousy. They make a very valid point that the results of many studies that we hear bandied about a lot, (saying that men are concerned with sexual infidelity and women are concerned with emotional infidelity) are fundamentally flawed, because their respondents were all Western college students – hardly a wide representation of the many ages and cultures of humanity. Good point.
It then moves on (again, and awkward transition) to talking about how Western pop culture views of ideal love are flawed, bringing up as examples the notorious stalker-song “Every Breath you Take “ (The Police), and “When a Man Loves A Woman,” which they amusingly propose should be retitled “When A Man becomes Pathologically Obsessed and Sacrifices All Self Respect and Dignity by Making a Complete Ass of Himself (and Losing the Woman Anyway, Because, Really, Who Wants A Boyfriend Who Sleeps Out In The Rain Because Someone Told Him To?)”
They then go on to point out Richard Dawkins’ idea that there’s no reason that sexual love should necessarily be exclusive, since we don’t expect any other sort of love or affection to be exclusive. All good. Then, they finish up with a quote by Kurt Vonnegut (um, who is NOT a famous anthropologist), saying that human would all be happier if we moved back to living in primitive societies. I disagree. (I don’t even like Vonnegut, so I might be biased). But I think that many primitive societies have many miserable failings, and that I for one, would be miserable living in most of them. I’m OK with the idea that we can move on to bravely forge a new society, but let’s not be regressive about it.

SEX AT DAWN – CHAPTER 11

Have I mentioned yet that this book is really simplistically written, poorly structured, and keeps repeating the same things over and over again in order to fill up pages?

This chapter begins “PART 3,” which will argue that prehistoric life was not “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

The chapter argues that modern society’s emphasis on greed and economic competition leads to stress and heart disease. The authors bring up the (mostly true) idea that wealth is mostly conceptual: largely, people judge themselves against their neighbors, not against some baseline. People with a net worth of over a million dollars can ‘feel’ poor, but rural folks in areas where no one owns much property at all can feel content, rather than ‘impoverished.’

The authors argue that our current ideas about human society existing as a constant struggle over territory and resources date from the 17th century (Malthus) – a time in which a large population WAS struggling over resources. However, for most of human history, the population level was comparatively miniscule, and remained fairly stable for thousands of years.
To me, this would indicate that life in prehistoric times WAS difficult and that many people died and died early, because I’ve seen no evidence that a population of humans has EVER, given enough resources to multiply, chosen NOT to multiply.
However, the authors argue that resources were plentiful, early humans were content and peaceful, and the reasons that they had fewer children were: late menarche due to #1 low body fat (??? I’m not sure about this – I really think, scientifically, if you’re not ovulating due to low weight, it’s because you ARE at a near-starvation state – not content or ideal) and #2 because they breastfed for 5 or 6 years, and thus spaced out their children. (I think this is an exaggeration, though essentially there’s a point. See: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12…). But I’m still pretty convinced that early humans had a high mortality rate and short life span due to all kinds of other reasons.

The authors bring up the example of natives of Tierra del Fuego who were brought to Europe but who, when returned to their homeland, opted to stay home and ‘reverted’ to their original culture and customs.
Naturally, an individual will tend to love the familiar, the ways in which they were brought up.
But I will argue that the modernizing of society HAS extended life spans (even if sometimes we do stress out too much), and has given us all kinds of tantalizing creature comforts which, as groups, people from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds, all over the world, obviously enjoy.

I’m just not buying the authors’ obvious belief that a communal, tribal, nomadic life without concepts of individual property is superior and would make everyone happier. Again, I think that in an effort to make their point that the cliched ideas of caveman life are wrong, they’re going too far in the other direction, and trying to paint an idealized, bucolic image of prehistoric society which is equally, if differently, inaccurate.

SEX AT DAWN –
Chapter 12
Starts with a discussion of the word ‘meme’ which refers to a unit of information spread much like a virus through communities. (It was coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976. I first encountered it in cyberpunk novels in the 80’s, but I remember that the first time I wanted to use it in a Scrabble game, it was not an allowable word. Now, in 2012, it’s an acceptable move in Words With Friends. We’ve come a long way… )
The argument of this chapter is that the concept of scarcity-based economics is a meme which has spread through our society. The authors argue the “Yes, greed is a part of human nature. But so is shame. And so is generosity.”
Interesting discussion of the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ studies. (2 criminals caught: If one snitches, the other gets 10 years. If both snitch, both get 5 years. If both remain silent, each gets 6 months.) According to the authors, players new to the game tend to snitch. But, more experienced players tend to cooperate. And brain scans show more ‘reward centers’ lighting up for cooperative play. Are humans hard-wired to feel satisfaction and pleasure for successfully cooperating? The authors also point out that the game doesn’t take into consideration the possible real-life consequences of snitching (revenge). Cooperation is the way to go.
Moving on, the chapter discusses ‘The Tragedy of the Commons,’ Garrrett Hardin’s influential paper that posits that when given ‘common’ resources (such as a shared field for grazing), greedy individuals will always try to grab the biggest share for themselves, to the eventual detriment of all. This is indeed happening with resources such as forests and oceans on a global scale, right now. However, the authors point out that in history, shared grazing fields (‘commons’) were just about always overseen by community boards – rules for their use were enforced, ensuring the maintenance of the resource. Unfortunately, we don’t have a global community board right now.
Why? The authors (finally) get around to what I’ve been saying for a while: size of community. “With (50 to 150 people) everybody knew everybody else intimately, so that the bonding of reciprocal exchange could hold people together. People gave with the expectation of taking and took with the expectation of giving.” The authors than mention the “dubious freedoms conferred by anonymity.” The problem here is: the authors are right, as far as it goes. But I can’t help emotionally rebelling against the concept. I guess I’m just too individualistic and somewhat antisocial. I’ve chosen to live in one of the world’s biggest cities; I like the potential for anonymity, and very much appreciate those not-dubious-to-me freedoms. Living in small communities is not for me. There are many works written/filmed/etc demonstrating the horrors of small-community life. (I just finished JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy – it’s a good example.) In a small, interdependent community, you HAVE to fit in, you HAVE to conform, you HAVE to participate. The good of the community depends on your participation. People like me wouldn’t last long.
Now, the authors admit that this notion of an interdependent, sharing-based community doesn’t work, large scale. They posit that this is why large-scale communism has failed. “Human nature functions one way in the context of intimate, interdependent societies, but set loose in anonymity, we become a different creature. Neither beast is more or less human.”
This is followed by some reiterations of the authors’ beliefs, because the more they repeat them, the more the reader’s likely to accept them? They say we only believe our society is the best BECAUSE it’s our society, repeat that hunter-gatherers saw themselves as living in affluence, with abundant food and leisure time, and give a couple of examples in support of the idea that peaceful, cooperative behavior can be as ‘meme-like’ as aggressive, selfish behavior.

SEX AT DAWN –
Chapter 13
Seguing smoothly in from Chapter 12, the authors here offer further arguments that hunter-gatherer societies were not warlike.
Their main argument is the so-called primitive societies which warred upon each other were clearly post-agricultural, and thus had begun to fight over resources.
The authors take issue with those who have presented war as inevitable, saying that they have cherry-picked their data (for example, discussing chimps but ignoring bonobos).
War begins when resources are presented as something limited, and thus something to be fought over. They that some data about conflict is flawed. For examples, they discuss Jane Goodall’s research on chimps. Goodall apparently unwittingly sparked chimp conflict by attracting large numbers of chimps to her camp by feeding them at set times. Chimps which would have been peacefully foraging on their own instead congregated at Goodall’s camp, and began to fight over her bananas. Less unwittingly, the anthropologist Nicholas Chagnon visited the Yanomamo, handed out weapons to some groups but not others, and apparently intentionally goaded people into conflict with one another, actively encouraging them to violate social taboos against their neighbors – and then ‘snitching’ on them. A good way to start arguments between any group of people! The book convincingly argues that Chagnon’s depiction of the Yanomamo as violent is inconsistent with other researchers’ reports.
Further discussing war, the author go on to assert that there is a “strong statistical correlation between population density and warfare.” Well, YES. (You can see this in many species. Put too many rats in a cage, and they’ll attack one another and eat their young. Give them enough space and they’ll co-exist peacefully and be good parents.)
The authors then complain bitterly about the scorn heaped upon anyone who posits that war is NOT the natural and inevitable state of affairs (they get called ‘hippies’). The problem is, by their very own arguments, so far, although war was NOT inevitable in prehistoric times, it seems that in our current world, it IS inevitable. It is not possible for modern humans to form bands of 150 people and pastorally wander through a lush and empty landscape. We are horribly overpopulated; the world is full; and nearly no resource is free for the taking.
As the authors said in the last chapter, both generosity and greed are parts of human nature. Richard Dawkins pointed out that cooperation, in certain situation, is the sensible (and even self-serving) way to behave. ‘Sex At Dawn’ so far has convincingly argued that cooperation serves small interdependent groups better than selfishness. But so far, this fact, while interesting, does not seem applicable to the present day.

I have to admit, I’ve really rather lost interest in this book – I feel like it’s pointlessly repetitive, and, half-way through, I’ve GOT THE POINT (what there is of it.)

I’m now accruing overdue fines, so I figure I’ll power through the rest, just so I can say I finished it.

Chapter 14 – this chapter really began to be WORSE than the previous chapters. As this book started, the authors have made a big point about how a lot of social anthropology is guesswork based on very little evidence, and COULD be wrong. Now, they’re starting to REALLY make their own totally unfounded assertions. In addition, they are cherry-picking data that suits them, and IGNORING other data. Y’know – sometimes it’s OK to just say – the jury’s out, we don’t have enough evidence; we’ll never know for sure.

What’s NOT OK? Using the Old Testament as evidence that people in the past may have lived to 80-90 years old WHILE IGNORING the fact that the Old Testament also claims that people lived to 800-900 years. (And, btw, people in Old Testament times were NOT pre-agricultural, anyway, which is what they’re talking about.)
This really lost me.
(if you’re going to cherry-pick something that obvious, I’m not going to trust other things you’re asserting.)

Anyway, this whole chapter is busy claiming that pre-agricultural people lived happy lives of plenty, and the reason for high infant mortality was infanticide for population control reasons, and that they all lived to a ripe old age. Fact? We DON’T KNOW. There is no way to know, and we’re not going to. But many of the assertions made here are Highly Unlikely.
Again, they cherry-pick data that indicated that pre-historic people lived long lives, and IGNORE lots of evidence that they did not.

Chaps 15, 16, 17

This is a new section, and is all about trying to discern from our physical bodies how we evolved to behave, sexually. The authors take some very questionable assertions from other authors and then go on to make them even MORE questionable.

By comparing the size, shape, and weight of the genitals of various types of apes and men, they believe they can tell whether or not a species is ‘meant’ to be monogamous or not.

There’s some interesting factoids here – and certainly ‘sperm competition’ is a biological fact… but again, they are just making assertions that not only aren’t backed up – they CAN’T be backed up. And I feel that they need to acknowledge that more.

It’s fine to say – “there’s not only one possible interpretation of this data.”
It’s not fine to say – “your unproven assertion is WRONG! MY unproven assertion is correct!”

SEX AT DAWN – Chaps 18-22 – THE END!

OK, these chapters didn’t actually annoy me as much as the preceding ones.

Chapter 18 talks about the history of vibrators and women’s orgasms. It’s nothing I didn’t know before, but there are some interesting references here. Of course, this re-iterates the authors point that women have strong libidos. (Not going to argue with that one! 🙂 )

Chapter 19 talks about how women make noise during sex and this may biologically serve to announce the fact that a female is horny and ready for it to all and sundry – i.e. – she might not want to have sex with just one guy. Also points out that women/female apes are usually up for more than one session of sex, and that men/male apes like to watch other males having sex with a female.

Chapter 20 reports on some pretty interesting studies about what turns people on and what they report being turned on by. Apparently, heterosexual women get turned on my the largest range of sexualities – but don’t always admit it to themselves. Talks (AGAIN) about the selection bias involved when studies only report on college students’ sexual behavior, and ignore older individuals. Mentions female sex tourism. Some I knew about (Jamaica, for example), but I wasn’t aware that apparently lots of women from Japan go to Phuket for sex.

Chapter 21 – talks about the massive stupidity of trying to stop horny young people from having sex. More historical details about the horrific lengths people have gone to to stop masturbation. How people like novelty in sexual situations.

Chapter 22 – The last chapter. Gets very, very, very self-help-y. Platitudes about how mature people have to figure out what works for them. OK.

THE END!