Something to fight over

There's a tantalising thread that's been tugging at me, that sex-at-dawn manages to catch a glint of in its beam: that underlying the rise of agriculture (the anthropologist's "original sin"), was the newly established presence of "something worth fighting over: more".

Perhaps for the first time ever, the chimps had something worth fighting over: a concentrated, reliable, yet limited source of food. Suddenly, they lived in a zero-sum world.


Early agriculture’s stores of harvested grain and herds of placid livestock were like boxes of bananas in the jungle. There was now something worth fighting over: more. More land to cultivate. More women to increase population to work the land, raise armies to defend it, and help with the harvest. More slaves for the hard labor of planting, harvesting, and fighting. Failed crops in one area would lead desperate farmers to raid neighbors, who would retaliate, and so on, over and over.24

Freedom (from war) is just another word for nothing to lose—or gain.

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Drawing on research on chimps, the authors argue that wild chimpanzees are for the most part non-violent. But when researchers like Goodall appeared on the scene, using bananas to entice the chimps to come in closer to them so that the researchers could observe them, the chimps started to fight amongst themselves over the regularly appearing (guaranteed), limited ("scarce") food source, while starting to ignore the wild sources of food they had previously been foraging—and crucially, not fighting over, because there was nothing to fight over on that scattered landscape.

Which begs the question: this era of climatic stability, that began 10,000 years ago and begat wetland agriculture, was this a blessing of abundance, or a curse of conflict?


We learned to take more, and more, and more; forgot our obligation to give something back; and there was nothing, nothing on the Earth to repudiate that encroaching greed. We just took the increasing levels of ugliness to be the primal condition, unquestioned—solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, short—and continued doing even more onto others what's been done onto ourselves. Every day, we shoulder another "This Is Fine" upon the teetering stack of "This Is Fine"s already on our backs.


sex-at-dawn Ryan, Christopher, and Cacilda Jethá. 2012. Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships. Harper Perennial. ↩︎ 1 2