Orgies or Beer? You Only Get One

Illustration for article titled Orgies or Beer? You Only Get One

In Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá put to lie the notion of sexual monogamy as something intrinsically human, arguing we gave up sexual novelty for agriculture. "Agriculture" probably means "beer". We gave up orgies 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?

To condense a beautifully researched book into a gross synopsis, Ryan and Jethá's theory goes like this:

Illustration for article titled Orgies or Beer? You Only Get One

From Sex at Dawn.

• Before humans settled down into civilization, we were small bands of hunter-gatherers who had no notion of sexual monogamy. Within our relatively small tribes, most humans had multiple partners, primarily from within the tribal group, although occasionally we'd have a dalliance with a stranger to keep the DNA pool zesty. Children had multiple social "fathers", jealousy was nearly nonexistent, and relatively easy access to calories kept us fit, happy, and satisfied well into our 70s and 80s—provided we managed to get past the perils of high mortality rates expected from a wild environment and primitive medicine.

• Upon the discovery of agriculture, nomadic wandering was no longer possible—someone has to stick around to water the crops—so the ideas of property and inheritance became sadly useful. Domesticated food could become scarce, unlike the effectively endless bounty of hunter-gathering (ignoring the occasional climate-torqued famine or run of bad luck), so hoarding became necessary to ensure calories even in lean times. It's a lot of work to farm, so it became important to ensure that you weren't wasting your precious grains on someone else's offspring, especially if it meant you own kid was getting short shrift. Hence monogamy, marriage, and the unfortunate concept of partners as property, manifested in agrarian societies as a tendency to view women as chattel.

• Our genes, still tuned toward sexual novelty, 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. Men cheat, women wither in sexual shackles (or, you know, cheat), wars erupt over resources or sexual exclusivity, cats and dogs almost start sleeping together except they're afraid the neighbors might find out—Old Testament, real wrath of God-type stuff.


While that glosses over so much good stuff from Sex at Dawn—our sexual similarities to our closest relatives, the bonobos; the dismantling of the idea that most animals are monogamous; humans' absolutely scandalous appetite for sex and our correspondingly massive genitals—I hope it's a fair summation of the part that's relative to my point (which is coming, I swear!): Agriculture fundamentally altered human sexuality.

Enter Patrick E. McGovern. (Buy him dinner first.) His 2009 book, Uncorking the Past, lofts the idea that humans first cultivated grains not for making bread, but for brewing alcoholic beverages.


It's possible we have been drinking alcohol for a couple of million years. The "drunken monkey hypothesis" proposed by biologist Robert Dudley attempts to explain why our bodies have evolved such a happy capacity for metabolizing ethanol. From Uncorking the Past:

On average, both abstainers and bingers have shorter, harsher lives. The human liver is specially equipped to metabolize alcohol, with about 10 percent of its enzyme machinery, including alcohol dehydrogenase, devoted to generating energy from alcohol. Our organs of smell can pick up wafting alcoholic aromas, and our other senses detect the myriad compounds that permeate ripe fruit.


For eons primates have been getting soused on overripe fruit, fermented honey, or collected, macerated grains that have gone off after sitting overnight. (Primates are hardly the only animals that get tipsy, either, although sadly the tales of drunken elephants are probably mostly hype.) We spent a couple of million years getting drunk whenever we could—enough that we evolved bodies that could better handle the hard stuff—but probably picked it up where we could find it or made simple fermented drinks like pulque as circumstance allowed.

But then one day a few tens of thousands of years ago someone got the bright idea to cultivate. I'm sure it seemed like a great idea at first. Who wouldn't want to get drunk whenever they chose? (A stocked liquor cabinet is certainly how I measure my own personal success.) And no less a man than Benjamin Franklin, one of the architects of modern society, acknowledged that "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."


Little did that intrepid farmer know that in just a few generations the idyllic, if unpredictable era of lazy browsing, casual sex, and occasional fruit-fueled orgies would give way to the terrible force of civilization—all so we could bring home a six-pack every night.

Illustration by Sam Spratt. Check out Sam's portfolio and become a fan of his Facebook Artist's Page.



I’m sure I read somewhere (will trawl in a minute if anyone cares) that agriculture, livestock domestication etc actually made life easier for the majority of people as opposed to the live fast, die young, hunter gatherer existence we’d previously indulged in?

That version goes life prior to agriculture was often unpredictable and violent - "nasty, brutish and short" as Hobbes put it.

Given that, there was pressure to reproduce quickly and often. Monogamy in those conditions makes no sense.

Ryan and Jethá seem to have a more pleasant Rousseauian view of human beings… that we existed in a perfect state of nature and it’s civilisation that’s corrupted us and led to conflict.

Anecdotally, I reckon both extremes might hold true depending on where you hunt and gather.

One of Bruce Parry’s Tribe programmes focussed on a rainforest tribe of hunter gatherers whose lifestyle had remained practically unchanged for thousands of years.

Because they lived in a dense rainforest (and were adept hunters), they could literally head out and shoot a couple of monkeys when they felt like it, pick some fruit, and eat.

This gave them the spare time for art, comedy, religion etc. They also sat about and smoked a lot.

Contrast this with a tribe trying to survive on Mammoths in a northern European winter, hunted by giant bears and sabre tooth tigers, constantly in danger of freezing to death.

Not saying a rainforest is a safe environment, but you can see that calorie requirements and hunting demands would be more stringent for the European hunter gatherers, which is why agriculture arose in some places, not others.