Duck Duck Book

67 – sex at dawn
12.31.2010, 8:47 pm
Filed under: social sciences

Sex at dawn : the prehistoric origins of modern sexuality / Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá.
New York : Harper, c2010.
[MCL call number: 306.7 R9883s 2010; 57 copies, 132 holds;
also in downloadable ebook format; two copies, 6 holds]

Most scholars of human sexuality agree about the basics of human sexual evolution.  The story goes something like this: a male and female meet and assess one another for their reproductive potential.  Each has a different agenda: he is looking for youth, health, fertility, virginity, and fidelity; while she is looking for wealth, status, health, and the likelihood that he’ll stick around to help raise children.  Once they each decide to take a risk on their opposite number, they settle down to practice monogamy and form a nuclear family.  After that, he worries most if she strays sexually, while she worries most if he strays emotionally.

This sounds awfully narrow-minded and unpleasant.  But familiar.  The conventional understanding of what constitutes “normal” human sexuality is breathtakingly judgmental and prescriptive (significantly increasing human misery).  Most of the scholars who conceived this “standard narrative” of human sexual evolution are a product of this relatively repressive contemporary culture.  Naturally it’s difficult for them divorce their intellectual activities completely from their own cultural contexts.

However, a few people are trying.

Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá refute this standard narrative in their book Sex at Dawn, and although their arguments aren’t perfect, they are helpful to anyone who is frustrated by the baby-focused, gender-stereotyping, hetero-centric, war-of-the-sexes slant of the standard narrative I described above.   Their most important (and their clearest) conclusion is that the standard narrative is very badly wrong.

Some of their evidence is quite interesting:

  • We have the same amount of genetic similarity to bonobos (who have sex all the time for an astonishing array of reasons) and chimpanzees (who fight a lot, about everything), so it’s crazy that scholars keep insisting that we’re more like chimpanzees than we are like bonobos.
  • People who live in small groups, who forage and do not bother to store food (as early humans seem to have done) have both an immediate and an evolutionary interest in enforcing a culture that preferences sharing and punishes not sharing (“fierce egalitarianism”); why wouldn’t this include sex?  In fact, in many contemporary societies of this type, the sharing does include sharing sex.
  • The animal species which are most thoroughly monogamous engage in sexual activity infrequently, and limit it to occasions when it is most likely to result in procreation.  The species which have sex regularly and enthusiastically are the ones that are the most thoroughly not monogamous.  Is there any reason to assume that humans, ostensibly monogamous but really interested in having lots of sex, are the only species which varies from this pattern?
  • Human genitals have some interesting anatomical features.  For example, we sport a very unusual penis, which has a glans on the end that acts like a suction machine during penis-in-vagina intercourse.  If someone else’s sperm is already in the woman’s vagina, this suction pulls it away from her cervix, thus clearing the field for the upcoming ejaculation.  This anatomical oddity lends credence to the notion that men’s sperm competes in a woman’s vagina.  And if the sperm is doing the competing, the rest of us can just have sex instead of fighting.

As you might expect, the book is also about prehistoric human life more generally — and about critically examining how modern academics do their work on the human past.  Ryan and Jethá’s pressure on other scholars’ assumptions is refreshing and interesting.  When discussing matriarchy, for example:

“As happens so often in trying to understand and discuss other cultures, wording trips up specialists.  When they claim never to have found a ‘true matriarchy,’ these anthropologists are envisioning a mirror image of patriarchy, a vision that ignores the differing ways males and females conceptualize and wield power.'” (page 133)

I would argue that a statement like “the differing ways males and females conceptualize and wield power” is problematic as well — it is a pretty sweeping generalization, especially when it’s intended to be inclusive of all human cultures over time.  But, no doubt if Ryan and Jethá’s analysis proves influential enough, thoughtful and thorough critics will help us examine their assumptions as well.

There are some other significant difficulties with Ryan and Jethá’s presentation.  One that particularly frustrated me is that they focus most of their attention on what might be called plain-vanilla straight sex.  No doubt this is because many of their arguments are rooted in evolutionary biology, a field that is concerned with the circumstances, actions and events that lead to procreation.  But they also draw on anthropology and archaeology, and on the work of evolutionary theorists who posit that cooperation is just as important a factor in evolution as is competition.  And so it seemed striking to me that there is so little in the book about homosexuality in general, or about specifically non-procreative heterosexual acts.  After all, the authors are concerned largely with the question of how humans developed our propensity to engage in sexual activity that absolutely can’t lead to procreation.  I would think that they would have more to say about how queer we are.

But, despite its problems, Sex at Dawn is very interesting, amusing, and thought-provoking.  It is also very readable: Ryan and Jethá do a good job of keeping their tone lively, which helps make the book accesible for interested laypersons who don’t already posses a great deal of knowledge of the subjects at hand.  I recommend it.

Sex at Dawn has a decent index, and a long but sadly un-annotated bibliography.

* * *

The NPR blog Monkey See is currently featuring an excellent series of my-favorite-book-of-2010 reviews by NPR on-air personalitiesSex at Dawn was the first book featured, in a review by Peter Sagal, in which he said, “it’s the only book I read this year that proved that I was badly mistaken about something.”  It is this review that first brought the book to my attention.


65 – birthright
05.31.2010, 7:08 pm
Filed under: social sciences

Birthright : the true story that inspired Kidnapped / A. Roger Ekirch.
New York : W.W. Norton & Co., c2010.
[MCL call number: 364.154092 E367b 2010; two copies, two holds]

I came to A. Roger Ekirch’s account of James Annesley’s unhappy and newsworthy life not from an interest in Annesley’s biography, but because I so enjoyed Ekirch’s earlier book, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past (reviewed in duck duck book number 39).  Anything else he cared to write, I thought, must be worth my time.  And indeed it was.

James Annesley was the only son of Arthur, Baron Altham, an Irish peer, and though one might say he was lucky to have been born with wealth and privilege on his side, in actual fact his early life was pretty hard.  His parents separated when he was small.  Arthur ran through most of the family fortune and became indebted to his mistress, who didn’t like James and made Arthur toss him out of the house at the tender age of nine.  Then Arthur died, when James was just 12, and shortly after, Arthur’s younger brother Richard had Arthur kidnapped and transported to America as an indentured servant so that he could become the next Baron Altham (and inherit several other family titles besides, and the land and wealth to go with them).  James endured many years in servitude, but eventually made his way back to the British Isles and attempted to sue the crap out of his uncle in a long series of notorious trials.

It’s worth pointing out, actually, that Ekirch makes the story of dozens of years of complex and confusing lawsuits seem fascinating, rather than dull and stupefying as one might expect.  But the whole arc of James’s life, as Ekirch tells it, is pretty compelling too — this young person has had his childhood stolen away just as he lost his father, how horrible!  By his uncle, who should love and protect him, how appalling!  And he is made a temporary slave, how unjust!  But he bears up and attempts manfully to claim what’s rightfully his, how noble!  Really, it’s easy to see why the story was so newsworthy at the time, and in fact, as Ekirch’s subtitle points out, it was the basis for several popular novels, including Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, Sir Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering, and several others.

After reading Birthright, I realized it might be the perfect book to take traveling.  It’s not very long (about 200 pages), but the story is dense, challenging, and packed with odd details of 18th century British and Irish life – Ekirch describes the minutiae of civil court procedure, illuminates the workings of aristocratic households, considers the daily life of indentured servants in early America, and explains the mechanics and the social role of the press in mid-1700s London.  These carefully deployed bits and pieces bring clarity to a fascinating but terribly complex story.  I’m a fast and rather reckless reader, but I slowed down, so as not to miss anything, and it was worth the effort.

61 – mummy congress
06.10.2009, 12:03 am
Filed under: social sciences

The Mummy Congress : science, obsession, and the everlasting dead / Heather Pringle.
New York : Hyperion, c2001.
[MCL call number: 393.3 P957m 2001; one copy, no holds]

The human body, once dead, usually begins to degrade immediately.  Within a few days or weeks, under most natural conditions, the dead person is nearly unrecognizable.  Within a few months or years, no more than bones will remain, and in some environments they don’t last long either.  But under the right conditions, bodies are preserved.  Think about the ways we preserve food, and you’ll have a good start on how to keep a body stable — dry it, freeze it, or pickle it.  This can happen by accident, but people are observant and inventive, and many cultures have developed mortuary practices that increase the shelf life, so to speak, of their dead.

And for just about every something that there is, someone wants to study it.  Studying the preserved dead, though, is tricky.  They are people, undeniably.  Should they be unwrapped, thawed out, dissected, or dismembered, for the cause of learning?  Is it more important to respect the intentions of the people who preserved (and often buried) them, or to advance our knowledge of epidemiology, human migration, or the history of technology?

Heather Pringle explores some of these questions by traveling to meet and interview dozens of mummy experts, and by delving into the fascinating and occasionally quite horrific history of how mummies have been regarded, exploited, and revered.  Among the most repugnant stories she recounts is this:

Medieval Arab physicians, who were wonderful at writing things down for future generations, were very fond of using a specific variety of bitumen (a naturally occurring hydrocarbon, sort of like a petroleum pitch) found in Persia and known there as “mumiya” as a salve for cuts, bruises, and bone fractures.  They also gave it internally for a wide variety of ills, including ulcers.  Since the word mumiya was a strictly local word, when European scholars got to translating these medical texts, they were not sure what to do with this unfathomable word.  They guessed, wrongly, that it must refer to a pitchy kind of substance found in Egyptian mummies.  So European doctors began prescribing ground up Egyptian mummies as a new wonder drug.  Horrors.

The Mummy Congress is engagingly written, a little more journalistic than scientific, with a good solid narrative, a handy (though sadly not annotated) bibliography, and a decent index.

60 – sex collectors
04.7.2009, 12:03 am
Filed under: social sciences

Sex collectors / Geoff Nicholson.
New York : Simon & Schuster, 2006.
[MCL call number: 306.77 N625s 2006; one copy, one hold]

I have long been curious about collectors.  What drives them?  Is their interest in collecting a compulsion, a passion, an emotional or intellectual outlet?  How does one collector’s interest in the pursuit of collecting differ from another’s?  Are there psychological dangers or benefits to collecting?  Is it a byproduct of consumerism?  Can careful amassing of objects or ideas bring collectors to a deeper philosophical or spiritual understanding, or do they just know more about their particular interest than people who are less obsessed? What actually makes someone a collector — does it require a particular degree of passion, a certain number of objects, or a specific approach to the work of gathering things together?  Are people who collect experiences, ideas, or other intangible things truly collectors?

I expected Geoff Nicholson’s Sex Collectors to be essentially a journalistic account of his encounters with individual collectors, descriptions of their collections, and maybe a little discussion of what motivates people to develop sex-related collections.  Nicholson does deliver this — in fact he provides a very rich account of his experiences meeting noted or interesting collectors and visiting museums and archives.  This journey forms the framework for the narrative, and it’s pretty fascinating, but it’s not the book’s only contribution.  Along the way, Nicholson troubles to examine the underlying motivations collectors seem to feel.  He considers possible hallmarks of “true” collectors.  He describes how serious collections change collectors’ houses, affect their personal relationships, and influence the patterns of their lives.  He wonders what defines a sex collection, as opposed to another kind of collection.  And he considers how his interest in sex collecting and sex collections might qualify him as a collector as well.

Sex Collectors is intelligent, clear, and interesting, and it provides a calm but engaged examination of two subjects — sex collections, and the universe of collectors more generally — that, in his narrative at least, are by turns bizarre, wholesome, and titillating.

58 – history of the world in 6 glasses
12.1.2008, 8:02 pm
Filed under: social sciences

A history of the world in 6 glasses / Tom Standage.
New York : Walker & Co. : Distributed to the trade by Holtzbrinck Publishers, c2005.
[MCL call number: 394.12 S785h 2005; six copies, three holds]

Being animals, humans need to drink to survive. Being social animals, we have gone to some trouble to craft rituals, traditions, and practices that rest on drinking, preparing drink, offering drink to others, and accepting drinks offered to us. Certain drinks mean certain things. In my own culture, for example: A strong cup of coffee helps us shake off sleep but also marks the beginning of the work day. Cocktails go before a meal, and milk is the appropriate companion for an afternoon cookie. Champagne, espresso, or sparkling water in an elegant glass mark special occasions. And sharing is important as well — we drink a toast at a wedding, we offer a cup of tea to a guest, we share a drink with coworkers at the end of a trying week.

Tom Standage set out to examine the history of significant drinks in different periods of Western history. In ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, beer. In Greece and its Mediterranean neighbors about 3,000 years ago, wine. In Europe and its colonies beginning about the 15th century, spirits. In the European Age of Reason, coffee. Shortly after that, tea. And finally, in late 19th century America, Coca-Cola. Standage explains how each beverage developed, considers why it became popular, and how it affected cultural trends. How were these drinks made? How did they come to be popular? Were they stored, shipped, or traded? In what circumstances were they drunk, and by whom? Did people choose these drinks because they held particular cultural meanings, because they were identified with strength or fertility or civilization or graciousness? It is a very compelling narrative, full of fascinating detail, and Standage displays a rare gift for explaining the development of technology and its role in commerce and culture without being at all boring.

I am frustrated, however, that he has given in to the widespread tendency to cast important developments in the history of Western civilization as universal. The book is called A History of the World in 6 Glasses. A history of the world. But it is really a history of the West. When Standage discusses the importance of tea in the history of China and the development of the tea ceremony in medieval Japan, he is providing background, not telling his central story. When he mentions that the Inca and Aztecs used quite beer-like beverages in religious ritual, it is almost off-hand, a nod to the fact that far-flung cultures shared similar elements. This doesn’t make it a bad book — on the contrary it is an excellent book. But it would have been an even better one if Standage had plainly acknowledged the true scope and focus of his story.

At the close of the book, there are two particularly nice bits of end matter. One is the notes to the main text, which are themselves written in a narrative style that acts more as an annotated bibliography for readers who have an interest in exploring the source material more fully. The end notes are helpful and readable, rare and welcome qualities for notes and bibliographies both.

The second piece of end matter is an appendix, “In Search of Ancient Drinks,” which directs readers to beverages that are as close to the ancient variety as possible. Here we learn, for example, that traditional folk beers found in sub-Saharan Africa are probably the closest modern equivalent to Neolithic beer; while King Cnut Ale from the British brewer St. Peters and Sahti, a Finnish folk beer, are quite similar to Egyptian or Mesopotamian unhopped beers. Fascinating!

46 – barmi
06.11.2007, 8:02 am
Filed under: history & geography, social sciences

Barmi : a Mediterranean city through the ages / Xavier Hernàndez, Pilar Comes ; illustrated by Jordi Ballonga ; translated by Kathleen Leverich.
Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
[MCL call number: j 307.709 H557b; one copy, no holds]

Open this picture book and you’ll see a two-page spread showing a tiny walled settlement in a wooded area near a river.  Turn the pages, and you’ll see the settlement grow from wee village to an significant Roman city, then fall into ruin, and then grow again as it becomes an ecclesiastical center, university town, and hub of commerce.  Keep turning the pages and you’ll see star-shaped fortifications grow during the 1600s, factories spread during the 1700s and 1800s, and modern suburbs, roads, and high-rises appear in the 1900s.

Each of these fabulous two-page views of the whole city at different points in history is followed by a terse narrative history of Barmi and its residents, and a few pages illustrating details — plants grown in the region, engineering methods for building bridges and civic buildings, the arrangement of domestic quarters, siege defenses, the operation of a paper mill, 20th century suburban slums, underground infrastructure.

Barmi isn’t a real city; it is an example imagined to represent the typical city in its region.  Their histories, geographical features, and civic infrastructure are collapsed into one tool for explicating the whole scope of how cities evolved on the northwestern edge of the Mediterranean over 2,400 years.  The focus is on the city fabric, and its physical context — political history, social changes, and religious trends are all present, but the place itself is the real story.

[thanks, Jamie]

 * * *

Barmi is part of a series, which includes at least three other books: Lebek : A City of Northern Europe Through the Ages (by Xavier Hernàndez,  Houghton Mifflin, 1991, also in Hungarian and Italian), San Rafael : A Central American City Through the Ages (by Xavier Hernàndez, Houghton Mifflin, 1992), and Umm El Madayan : An Islamic City Through the Ages (by Abderrahman Ayoub, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1994, also in Italian and Japanese).  Barmi was also published in Spanish and French.  The illustrations in the series are precise and intensely detailed, and the books’ ability to instruct with pictures reminds me of nothing so much as David Macaulay’s famous practical explanations of architecture, construction methods, and the uses of buildings in his books Cathedral : The Story of its Construction (Houghton Mifflin, 1973), City : A Story of Roman Planning and Construction (Houghton Mifflin, 1974), Pyramid (Houghton Mifflin, 1975), Castle (Hougton Mifflin, 1977), etc.

40 – the works
12.19.2006, 8:23 pm
Filed under: social sciences

The works : anatomy of a city / Kate Ascher ; researched by Wendy Marech ; designed by Alexander Isley, Inc.
New York : Penguin Press, 2005.
[307.1216 A813w 2005; six copies, one hold]

One of the magic things about cities is that they are incredibly, incredibly complex.  Even a pre-industrial era city was supported by dozens of important infrastructural systems: sewers, canals, marketplaces, streets, civic fortifications, communications networks.  Modern cities require even more layers of infrastructure, and it all has to be more or less reliably available in thousands (if not millions) of locations over a large geographical area.

The Works breaks down the different layers of modern U.S. city infrastructure into sections (moving people, moving freight, power, communications, keeping the city clean, and the future of civic infrastructure) and provides detailed explanations of how they work, using New York City as an example.  This use of New York City’s infrastructure to illustrate city infrastructure in general works well to provides a concrete basis for each chapter, but it also pulls readers into the story of one fairly enigmatic city.  For example, Ascher begins her explanation of how city postal delivery service works with a two page spread describing Manhattan’s pneumatic tube mail network (in operation from 1897 to 1953).  I found this fascinating, but I would guess it’s not a very good example of how metropolitan mail systems typically work.

In fact, while reading the book’s most New York-specific bits, I often wished that Ascher had made more of an effort to discuss them in the context of other cities.  There is a section on New York’s steam network, which heats buildings and provides steam for industrial use throughout midtown and lower Manhattan.  Ascher’s account of the history of the steam system, her description of its technical specifications, and her discussion of steam’s practical uses is both compelling and educational.  But although she begins the chapter with a note that New York’s is the biggest district steam system in the world, and mentions that there are steam systems in Paris and in at least four other U.S. cities, she does not disclose how common municipal steam systems are, nor does she discuss the circumstances under which they are practical, or explain their history in general.  Are they rare, or common?  When were they first installed?  What political and practical factors keep them operating, or not?  Outside of the specific example of New York City’s steam system, readers are none the wiser.

The strategy of using a specific city to illustrate how city systems operate is a good one, but I think it might have been more successful if the example city was more, well, typical of cities in general.  Of course every city is unique and has its foibles, but comparing Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Buffalo, Nashville, Iowa City, Austin, Bakersfield, or Spokane to the rest of the cities in the U.S. might be a little bit less of a stretch.

However, despite my frustration that The Works contributes to a worldwide conspiracy to make New York seem more important and fascinating than it has any right to be, I can highly recommend the book.  Each piece of the story of how city systems work is clearly explained with an intelligent narrative and beautiful, information-rich illustrations.  Many chapters shed a great deal of light on how cities operate — the discussions of rail freight, garbage collection and disposal, road maintenance and traffic management, radio and telecommunications, and electricity are especially illuminating.  The book’s organization is logical and easy to navigate, and the index is competent.  If you are curious to see how mail is moved, how sewers work, what causes potholes and how they are fixed, or how rolling stock is managed, The Works is an excellent place to begin your education.