cover image Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress

Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress

Christopher Ryan. Avid Reader, $28 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4516-5910-8

Modernity is toxic, brutal, and insane compared to the blithe existence of ancient and contemporary hunter-gatherers, according to this fervent jeremiad. Ryan (Sex at Dawn) paints a rose-tinted portrait of nomadic “foragers” who lead healthy, happy, peaceful lives in “an egalitarian world of shared plenitude”; value “generosity, honesty and mutual respect”; work just 20 hours a week; enjoy sex with multiple partners; and respect women and LGBTQ people. Unfortunately, with the arrival of agriculture and fixed abodes, the foragers’ “gods of ease and play, pleasure and laughter” succumb to civilization’s “god of toil, sacrifice, scarcity and submission.” The results are disastrous: patriarchy, war, high-carb diets, cancer, sexual repression, environmental destruction, tooth decay, “rich asshole syndrome,” overprotective parenting, and toilets that thwart humans’ natural squatting posture. Ryan updates the centuries-old theme of mankind’s “fall from grace” with a one-sided selection of anthropological and psychological studies, while jousting with pro-civilization ideologues such as Steven Pinker. He notes the high rates of childhood mortality among hunter-gatherers, and concedes that prehistoric foragers developed agriculture to keep from starving, but reckons death “a relatively minor event” when capping a gloriously uncivilized life. Ryan’s anti-progress polemic is entertaining and provocative, but not very convincing. (Oct.)