Monthly Archives: September 2011

Book Notes: Sex at Dawn; God, No!

Some notes on two recent nonfiction books…

I’ve followed Dan Savage — the most popular sex columnist in the country, and sponsor of the It Gets Better movement for LGBT youth — intermittently for years, and recently noticed his endorsement for a nonfiction books called Sex at Dawn, by ones Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, which purportedly supported many of the theses that Dan has promoted in his sex advice column over the years — principally, the difficulty of monogamy and the reasons thereof.

Now, as I suspect many ardent readers do, I have bought and continue to purchase many more books than I actually have time to read. Evolutionary psychology, and sex, being two of my principle interests, I had in fact bought a copy of Sex at Dawn last year when it came out in hardcover. So, triggered by the Dan Savage reference, I picked it up and read it.

The book is a fascinating reinterpretation of the standard evolutionary psychological explanation for the difference between the sexes — to wit, that females are more choosy than males in whom to have sex with; that males are jealous of female sexual infidelity in order to protect their paternity investment; that nevertheless both sexes will take opportunities to ‘cheat’ if the odds favor an advantage in genetic promotion. And, it challenges the cultural and sociological premise that monogamy is inherent in the human species.

Their re-interpretation is based on the claim that for most of human history — the hundreds of thousands of years before agriculture changed everything — humans lived in small hunter-gatherer tribes, that the concept of one father per child was not understood (thus undermining the premise of paternal investment), and that casual sex, for a variety of reasons, was common. Numerous lines of evidence are described, including many analogies to bonoboes (based on body size, group size, anatomical propotions, etc), and to the practices of primitive hunter-gatherer tribes still in existence today.

Agriculture changed everything because suddenly property had to be kept track of, and so the hunter-gatherer tribes split into core family groups, forcing the sexual proclivities bred by of hundreds of thousands of years of group existence to be channeled into new narrow partitions.

I found the book fascinating, primarily because its willingness to reeaxamine assumptions is like the essence of science fiction.

Two other points: even if their thesis is valid, it of course does not speak to how people should live their lives today. Yes, it explains why monogamy is difficult, and so on, but no one today lives in the pre-agricultural world of small social groups. There is a whole ‘nother book there, perhaps.

Also, I don’t have the impression that this book has much impact or gravitas; in part because the authors have no track record, in part because the blurbs on the cover are mostly from pop figures, and in part because I can’t find any evidence that their revolutionary speculation has reverberated anywhere…


Briefly second: Penn Jillette’s God, No!, subtitled “Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales”. I am myself an atheist and am fascinated by the general question of why people believe what they do (it ties to my interest in science fiction, which is about exploring one’s concept of the world, overcoming parochial and childhood influences, just as science fiction scenarios celebrate conceptual breakthroughs). And I’m a casual fan of Penn & Teller, having seen their Las Vegas show, if not their TV series.

The book is structured around Jillette’s recasting of the Ten Commandments. I found myself skimming it. The content consists of many personal anecdotes, about Siegfried and Roy, Jillette’s unsuccessful venture into an early ’70s San Francisco gay bathhouse, and many others, always gleefully vulgar and profane. They ramble. And ramble. And are only peripherally about the Ten Commandments, or atheism, or anything except Penn Jillette. It’s amusing for a while, , but I found myself thinking about all those other unread books in my stack….and moved on.

The Most Beautiful Music in the World

is — excepting certain obvious choices, from Tchaikovsky, or Mahler, or Beethoven — a sequence of three tracks from a CD called “Preisner’s Music”, a compilation of works by the Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner, best known as a film composer, for Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy (Red, Blue, and White), and the same director’s earlier Decalogue sequence of ten one-hour films (based on the Ten Commandments). Preisner’s later film scores included The Double Life of Veronique, At Play in the Fields of the Lord (one of my favorites), and Damage, all in the early ’90s.

A non-film score work, “Requiem for My Friend” — a tribute to Kieślowski after his death — was excerpted in this year’s Terrence Malick film The Tree of Life.

The Preisner’s Music CD compiles tracks from his earlier, best-known, film scores*. But it also includes a sequence of three tracks from different sources that nevertheless fit together beautifully, the first from a film score (Quartet in 4 Movements), the second and third from a mysterious, apparently never completed or otherwise-released composition called “Egyptian Opera”. All three involve a soprano — perhaps a boy soprano, I’m not sure — that lend them an ethereal, other-worldly quality. They are called “Dawn”, “Labyrinth”, and “Sky”, in order. Over the 15 years since this CD was released, I have returned to them, these three tracks in particular, again and again, when in a contemplative mood — often, in fact, in my car as I’ve driven to the airport about to leave on another convention trip….

I wish Preisner were better known, and I wish “Egyptian Opera” was a work that had been finished and that I could acquire, though despite repeated Google searches over the years, and Preisner’s own website [which tonight I see has been substantially redesigned since last time I checked], I’ve never been able to learn anything much about it.

Doing a Google search just now, I have discovered the miracle of YouTube: here are those three pieces: Dawn, Labyrinth, and Sky. Listen to them in order.

And here’s the piece used in The Tree of LifeLacrimosa.

*Correction: the “Preisner’s Music” CD is not compilation of previously released tracks, but rather the recording of a concert performance of Preisner’s music, in an underground church in Wieliczka, in Poland. Thus the performances of works, such as “Egyptian Opera”, that had never otherwise been recorded. I should have remembered this.


Brief plug for the movie Contagion, an intelligent medical-thriller about a plague the quickly breaks out worldwide, killing a quarter of those infected. I was impressed by the Slate dialogue between Arthur Allen and Carl Zimmer, and advance articles that described the lengths director Steven Soderbergh went to instill scientific authenticity. The film tends towards a documentary style rather than a overtly dramatic end-of-the-world thriller style; I appreciated the focus on the *process* of analyzing the infection – to an extent it reminded me of The Andromeda Strain, with a similar focus on scientists as heroes (!). I was affected by the dramatic structure which begins the film with “Day 2″ and ends the film with “Day 1″, revealing — to the audience but not to the characters — the ultimate source of the contagion. And the music by Cliff Martinez is my kind of film music (though apparently not yet available on CD).