Chris Ryan is an American author with a central thesis that can be summed up as follows: humans evolved in small hunter-gatherer bands over many thousands of years and those ancient ancestors had social practices that modern society has eradicated, much to the detriment of modern humans. His two books, Sex at Dawn and Civilized To Death are compendiums of Ryan’s assertion that humans are naturally polyamorous and that the atomization of work in any post hunter-gatherer societies is misery producing. The people of the past were happier than we think because they lived under the conditions that were natural to human development. He has gone beyond the ‘noble savage’ stereotype to develop a thesis on how we are to live.
Ryan is interesting for a number of reasons.
Let’s start with his refreshing lack of traditional credentials. While Chris Ryan is a PhD, he was not educated at one of the big high value credentialing factories like Harvard or Yale. His PhD is from a small, mostly online university and so it’s fair to say that Ryan is largely self-educated. Like so many emerging voices in the new digital formats, he is not restricted from publishing by the typical gate keepers and so is free to explore his ideas and release them into the world largely on his own. Chris Ryan is the sort of fringe author promoted by podcast and other digital media, first and foremost by Joe Rogan.
So, both Ryan and bio-hacker Dave Asbury (and popular journalist Sabastian Junger, who did not go to J-School) assert their ideas based on their own level of research and they find an audience for their ideas, independent of any bottlenecking institutions. Seriously, how many ideas have been propagated by experts whose primary qualification is not the elegance of their logic or easy testing of their theories, but their glowing credentials?
The value of this kind of independence was recently articulate by Dave Asbury on his podcast. Asbury is a self-described bio-hacker who focuses on human longevity, and in a recent podcast he stated “Oh, health care companies just love what they call ‘science based medicine’ because, of course, they control what is considered science.” What is not considered science is Asbury’s experiments on himself, or anyone else describing what works for them.
Ryan, Asbury (and Junger) lean heavily on ideas based in evolutionary biology, and in Ryan’s Sex at Dawn, he elaborates on his thesis that humans naturally should have multiple sex partners over time by reviewing how humans are related to other species of the great ape. If one accepts that the sexual drive is related to the innate desire to produce children and propagate one’s genes into the next generation, then there should be, and is, competition to see who wins. To understand where humans fall in this scheme, Ryan ponders where this competition occurs.
In gorillas, as with many other mammals including lions and wolves, the competition is on the outside; the male gorilla battles with other males for dominance and to the winner go the spoils, namely, a harem of female gorillas. Once the big Silverback male has defeated his rivals, he is free to mate with his female subordinates as he sees fit. As such, the competition is not down below; it’s up top, in the teeth and shoulders. Because the gorilla has already won the competition before he mounts the female, his has no need for a huge power or pleasure wielding penis and consequently, he does not have one. That’s right; the big man has a tiny penis relative to his size. Nature is ruthlessly efficient and sheds, in short order, anything that isn’t used or useful.
But for the primate where the competition is occurring in the groin, there will be bigger penises. Where the men do not fight for ownership of the females, there is still competition, but it’s not a battle of muscle, teeth, and dominance. The females in these groups have power, and they can and do choose multiple sex partners. These males are in competition with each other not to have sex with the females, because they all get to do that, but to father the children. Consequently, chimps and bonobos have far larger sex organs than the giant gorillas. Smaller bodies, bigger phalli.
At the top of this primate stack is the human male. Human males have the largest penis relative to body size of any primate in the world, according to Ryan. Further, Ryan asserts that the human penis is shaped in such a way as to vacuum out competing semen during the thrusting phase. The human penis can play offense and defense.
The real winner is the human female, who gets to exercise choices. Female power, and the loss of power in the long era of agricultural life, is a common theme in Ryan’s books.
In Civilized To Death, Ryan explores in great detail his central thesis about humans, namely that pre-historical man lived much differently before agriculture. The received wisdom that humans lived a miserable and short grubby existence is a tale Ryan resolutely rejects.
When humans began to master the planting and harvesting process, we began to accumulate wealth that was fixed in place and suddenly more abundant. The increase in food based on land triggered the development of warring tribes who could either grow their own food and raise their own livestock, or just take it from someone else. In this scrum for highly valuable resources, the human female was defined as another form of property; she was the source of more hands for agricultural work and more warriors.
Pre-agriculture man left behind no great corpus is writing to confirm Ryan’s thesis, but the societies of early agriculture certain left behind a written legacy and it confirms Ryan’s ideas, at least about that period of human history.
The era of the Old Testament Bible clearly describes a period of burgeoning agricultural development, high levels of insecurity, continuous warfare, and complete male dominance. Women are part of the male estate in the Old Testament stories, like his land and cattle. In this environment, the women are not thought to be at risk for being impregnated by other men except in the case of conquest through war, and the varying sexual relationships across the genders and power structures are much more like the gorillas than the chimps.
A case in point is the long and detailed story of Abraham and his relationship to his wife and female slaves. Abraham’s wife Sarah is unable to have a child and so she proposes that he “lay” with his slave girl, Hagar, so that she may deliver a son. He does so, and she gives birth to Ishmael. Later, when Sarah finds out she is pregnant, and gives birth to Isaac, she demands that Abraham send Hagar and her whelp away, which Abraham also does.
Note, however, that this occurs AFTER Abraham has lied to the Pharaoh in Egypt, telling him that Sarah is his sister so the King will not kill him. The Pharaoh takes Sarah in as his wife for a time, thus committing adultery with her and Abraham knows, but he lets this happen to save his own life.
In no place in this story does it describe any concern that either Sarah or Hagar will become pregnant by another man as a result of voluntarily having sex. Sarah is given over to another man only with Abraham’s permission. Hagar is not available to other men at all. The drive for a son, as part of God’s promise to Abraham, is described as a desire for an heir. Later rulers and kings, including British sovereigns like King Henry the 8th, had a similar situation that was similarly perilous for the women in his life.
Chris Ryan assigns all of these stories to a sort of ‘fall from grace’ that occurred when humans developed the means to acquire fixed and abundant property. Women where simply defined as part of that set of zero sum wealth packages. Women were the first losers in this process but not the last. As Ryan describes things, long sexless marriages and years of unpleasant or wildly dissatisfying work are the poisonous fruits of first agriculture and then industrialization.
Chris Ryan is not the only person to question the benefits of our modern life, but he does so unedited and in his own interesting way. He goes beyond the ‘noble savage’ thesis to describe a manner of living that he claims we will return to once machines are tasked with doing all the hard work for us.