Coal and anthropology

Reckoning at Eagle Creek, Jeff Biggers, is the third of the books I have read over the past five years about the coal industry’s less than positive contribution to our lives. I have yet to see a pro-coal book interesting enough to pick up, but what is there to learn? Coal is cheap and plentiful to one degree or another, and most of us do enjoy our electrically powered computers, appliances, climate control, etc.

This book is different from Big Coal and Lost Mountain because Biggers has a personal, ancestral connection to the area around Eagle Creek that has now been strip mined for coal. This book is as much a recounting of his search for the past as it is a treatise on the problems of coal mining and burning. Yet, it is not without its insights: notably, Biggers exposes the links between coal and legal or tolerated slavery in Illinois long after the state was declared “free,” and he discusses with disdain the history of this idea of “clean coal” (FutureGen is not the first technology described as such).

Personally, I do not believe I will ever buy into the idea of clean coal. My love of mountains and the coal industry’s love of removing mountaintops to get to the coal underneath in the least expensive way possible do not seem compatible, nor am I impressed when hiking around a strip mine “reclaimed” into a half-assed state park. Illinois coal is supposed to be pretty uncontroversial other than its high sulfur content (which FutureGen will supposedly solve), but Eagle Creek shows that coal mining does not need to involve mountaintop removal or carbon dioxide emissions to be disturbing and harmful.

Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. Where do I start? Read this book. Read this book, read this book, read this book.

Something is wrong with human romantic relationships as generally defined in the western world. We say one thing, but we do anything but that. Starting with the pair-bond myth, we justify the preeminence of institutionalized marriage, yet most marriages fail. That same myth leads some to say homosexual relationships cannot be natural. The idea that the pair bond is the earliest and therefore the truly internalized form of human sexual relationship is wrong.
Ryan and Jethá offer another explanation, one based on observations of earlier societies and closely related primates that have, in their opinion, been conveniently overlooked in favor of the standard myth. Though a good number of their references to anthropological research are ones I recall from early anthropology classes, the authors put their combined talents (Ryan a psychologist and Jethá a psychiatrist) to good use, compiling this body of sources into a flowing, readable progression to the inevitable conclusion: humans developed in groups, lived in groups, shared sexual partners within and among these groups, and raised the resultant children in groups. Anything else, including the pair bond, is a much more recent regression in response to the start of agriculture, the inevitable shortage of land and the new structures that developed in human society to support agricultural (and later industrial and post-industrial) life.

As I was reading, I had picked out a few parts of the book to quote here, but looking back I do not believe I can provide adequate context for any of them. The authors say something similar in the intro to Part III of the book. About to delve more deeply into anthropology and away from what may be more interesting to the casual reader, they state: “We hope readers primarily interested in sex will bear with us because what might at first seem a detour is in fact a shortcut to a clearer vision of the day-to-day lives of our ancestors, a vision that will help you make better sense of the material that follows, as well as of your own world.” That sums up why, if you pick up this book on Dan Savage’s recommendation and get bored halfway through, you should read the whole thing: you will better understand yourself and the world around you.

Sex at Dawn puts together a convincing picture, but what about it? If you subscribe to the book’s very compelling conclusions, you learn that the myth inherent in society, government and religious norms and precepts regarding sexual relationships does not reflect the truth about the roots of human behavior as you were led to believe. But, living in a highly structured society — with land ownership, accumulation of wealth and the practical importance of conclusive paternity — what can or should be done about it?

My personal feeling: Not much can or should be done about it until more people know something other than the pair-bond myth. So, again, please read this book. It is completely fascinating.

Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee, Pamela Druckerman. This book has been on my shelf for the past couple of years, and I picked it up right after I finished Sex at Dawn. If that book describes in detail the roots of human behavior in this area, Lust in Translation describes the ways people express those behaviors in several societies. The books are on different planes and for different audiences, but I read them together.

This is an entertaining read, and there are some surprises here: the first is that Americans do not generally have fewer affairs than the French or Europe in general. One would assume so from our relatively Victorian reaction to an affair being made public, but the numbers do not lie. In that vein lies probably the most potentially instructive portion of Druckerman’s writing: the two choices in response to an affair in America are a permanent severing of the relationship or a lifetime of distrust, therapy and support groups. This is fairly unique, and it sounds pretty ridiculous when contrasted with the reactions of cuckolded partners in other societies.

This is worth a read, and it has some insight to contribute to learning more about the world around us. However, if you are going to read one of these books, make it Sex at Dawn.

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