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A Brief History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built Civilization Paperback – August 9, 2016
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“Evans's goal is to investigate and illuminate the human tradition of merriment and debauchery, which he does with tact, humor, and insight.”—Publishers Weekly
“An engaging and compelling assemblage of pop culture and cultural anthropology (pop cultural anthropology?), an exploration of the growth of civilization via things that our own culture has in many ways declared taboo. This is one of the more entertaining books, fiction or nonfiction, or whatever, that you'll read this year.”—Allen Adams, The Maine Edge
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As interesting and entertaining as his explanations of the history of various vices are (and they are VERY entertaining), I enjoyed just as much his re-creations of a variety of ancient vices – mostly the drinkable kind. In these re-creations, Evans documents his experiments with ancient intoxicants, chronicling their effects on him, his friends, and his fiancée Magenta (who evidently has the patience of a saint). He also provides the recipes for these ancient head trips. Oddly, this is the point where the book veers deeper into philosophical waters, as Evans reflects on the cultural and psychological value of intoxicants and their role in making life better and (as Evans would certainly argue) more fun.
A (Brief) History of Vice is a bizarre (but wonderful) blend of sociobiology, gonzo journalism, and Betty Crocker. Author Robert Evans elucidates the connection between behaviors and attitudes society frowns on (vices) and the ancient and robust underpinnings of our advanced civilization.
The conceit driving the book is that throughout human history we did or preferred a lot of what is now considered bad things and by these bad things civilization was built. We need not agree with what is only just barely a serious hypothesis, but it has its merits. Many ancient religions had sex workers, so called temple prostitutes and certainly there are a variety of religious and civil traditions with chemical or alcoholic inebriation adjunct or central to their practices. In Judaism there remains a barely mentioned tradition of drunkenness at some celebrations, down to a weekly ritual of blessing the wine. Certain American tribal practices are allowed to include hallucinogenic mushrooms.
There is a certain in admitting to our collective naughty side. A more seriously intended scholar could start here and ask us to be more honest about who we are and how selective we –collectively- are about separating our mythical self-image with our real selves. This is to argue that Evan’s is pretending to make these serious arguments and asking for serious introspection. Mostly he is not. He is in it for the fun, at to achieve the most historically accurate and unlikely buzz.
Given how nasty some of his concoctions and experiments are it is hard to properly represent the kinds of things he does. A milder example: Having established that beer is one of the earliest beverages; he also demonstrates that a common ancient production process involved chewing and spitting out the mash to be fermented. Upon learning that in the Wari Empire, roughly modern Peru prized a form of beer in part because only women were allowed to do the spitting; Evans estimates the nearest possible recreation of the process. Then conducts a blind taste test among his fellow spitters to determine which, male only spit or female only spit made the better brew. BTW the female spit beer was preferred.
As for the matter of law, Evans seeks out, re-mixes and ingests a variety of ancient mind altering drugs. Nowhere does he advocate doing this where it is not legal. In every case he goes first to the source and then to a location where he would not be acting against the local law.
That said is usually provides the exact formula for making your own mix of these same items. Rather like saying “I have done this silly, risky, often revolting and sometime illegal thing so you do not have to”. Oh, and here is how to do it yourself.
Throughout he maintains a banter intended to be funny. Asides, more or less related observations and most often playing to common prejudices. Given he is writing for fans of Cracked, this is understandable. I found it distracting.
Does A Brief History of Vice prove that civilization is the child of bad behavior? He does make an interesting case. The argument against cannot avoid the fact that sin was usually in at the beginning. But Evans is more likely to be out sampling some local micro-brew than hanging around pretending to defend his hypothesis.
In a display of truly excellent writing, he delivers this information with irresistible charm and wit that is completely unique to him. It's as though he's actually right there, sitting in a comfortable chair and sharing a mind-blowingly awesome drink with you while talking companionably about some of the most fascinating things you'll ever learn about the history of human life. He made me laugh many, many times, but he also made me cry--twice. While the general tone of the book is classic Cracked funniness, he still manages to treat the entire subject with the reverence it deserves. His experiences--such as nearly dying of dysentery in Pushkar, India because of the lack of safe, potable water there--have made him into someone far older and wiser than his years suggest, and he is able to make you feel those experiences, yourself, with honest, candid description and rich detail. He alerts the reader to world problems that make the media storms and political nonsense all around us seem unimportant to the point of total absurdity. There are people on this earth who cannot drink a cup of water without risking agonizing death, and Robert does not spare us from the details.
Once you've read this book, you WILL be inspired to reexamine not just your own life, but your perspective on life itself. I was left feeling profound gratitude for the things that allow us to write reviews like this, for the human dignities and miracles born of "vice" that allow us to live in relative comfort today, and for simply being alive today. Put bluntly, we're damn lucky to be alive in this golden age of humanity, and we owe it all to those who suffered, fought, experimented, and risked their lives in the exploration of mind-altering chemistry, sex work, and other taboos long before we were born. When you read this book, you do honor to those brave pioneers (many of whom were tortured, imprisoned, and murdered for their vices--including the coffee we casually drink every morning), and you have a wonderful opportunity to share the journey they took, yourself. The history of vice is not over, and probably never will be. Robert alerts his readers to incredible studies being done even now on "controlled" or downright illegal substances that may literally save lives as soon as 2017, which is absolutely astonishing.
It really doesn't matter how you feel about drugs, sex, or rock n' roll...this book is for you because it's *about* you. This is where we come from. And if you read this book, you'll have a brilliant view of where we're headed.
Top international reviews
But this isn’t just a book of history, anthropology, and evolutionary biology as pertains to the origins of vice and its linkage to civilization and culture; it also offers humorous anecdotes of the author’s experiments into how to replicate some of the vices of the ancients – as well as offering step-by-step directions for readers to conduct their own such investigations. As might be expected, there’s a lot of humor in the book. Just the idea of debauchery building civilization offers plenty of opportunity for the subversion of expectations that makes comedy, but then one adds in stories of people (and occasionally other species) making decisions under the influence of mind and mood altering substances (or even under the influence of horniness) and one enters territory ripe for hilarity.
The book consists of 15 chapters that cover both expected and unexpected topics. Not surprisingly, discussion of drugs – legal and illicit -- takes up a large portion of the book. [I should make clear that the discussion of illegal substances is purely historical, and the “how-to” sections describe “experiments” that were legal in the author’s jurisdiction and that will be for most readers.] Ten chapters are about various consciousness and mood altering substances including: alcohol (ch. 1 & 4), psychedelic substances (ch. 7, 8, and 10), tobacco and marijuana (ch. 9; treated together because historically they had more in common than in their modern use / legal status), the ephedra shrub and derived products ranging from Mormon tea to Methamphetamine (ch. 11), coffee and caffeine (ch. 12), designer drugs ranging from ayahuasca [made from two different plants that don’t live together and which only work when used together] through pain killers and on to the dangerous scourge of synthesized substances created in labs to get around drug laws for a few days until they will be added to the schedule of illegal substances.) The final chapter (ch. 15) is devoted to the search for the mythical salamander brandy of Slovenia (claimed to have hallucinogenic qualities owing to a toxin emitted by the submerged reptile.) I should point out that I have oversimplified with this division of chapters for simplicity’s sake. Some of the chapters dealt with more than one type of substance. For example, Chapter 10 is really about drug cultures and how they kept people safe in, for example, shamanic tribal societies, and how the loss of such culture is part of the reason we have a more severe problem with substances in modern society.
No investigation into the role of vice on civilization would be complete without discussing sex, though there are only two chapters about it. The first, chapter 6, discusses prostitution / sex work. There’s a widespread tongue-in-cheek reference to “the world’s oldest profession” that hints that sex work is both ancient and that past civilizations sometimes viewed these activities in a much different light than do we in modern, Western society. The second chapter on sex, chapter 13, addresses a different question altogether, but one which has captured the attention of many a scholar (as well as being fruitful territory for humorists), and that’s why there’s such a vast range of sexually titillating activities. It’s not difficult to figure out the evolutionary advantage of extreme pleasure being linked to sexual intercourse. However, it’s much less clear why there are such a huge range of fetish behaviors that are intensely arousing for some while ranging from being boring to disgusting for others. [It’s not cleared up by thinking that there is just a tiny fraction of the population that is into everything. A person who gets excited by wearing a head-to-toe rubber suit while being failed with a halibut might find a foot fetish utterly disgusting.]
For those who are counting, that leaves three chapters on miscellaneous forms of vice. Chapter 2 discusses music, particularly as a lubricant of social activities, and it presents an intriguing theory that Stonehenge may have been built for its acoustic qualities – i.e. to facilitate ancient raves. Chapter 3 explores celebrity worship, an activity which we tend to think of as both recent and as harbinger of doom for humanity, but which actually has a long history – so long that it may date back further than humanity, itself, does. That leaves chapter five, which delves into a grab-bag of bad habits that would today be collectively labeled “douchiness.” This includes narcissism, inexplicable overconfidence, and a tendency toward lying, bragging, and delusions about self or others.
The book has a range of graphics from photographs to diagrams. Some are for educational purposes (e.g. to help the reader conduct their own experiments) and some are mostly for comedic effect. The “side-bar” discussions of how to reproduced the results of the ancients (and the author, himself) are presented in text-boxes for the sake of clarity. There are one or two of these text-boxes in most chapters. As mentioned, the subjects for these “hands-on” activities are chosen to avoid running afoul of the law.
I enjoyed this book. It’s at once amusing and thought-provoking. I think the author hits a nice medium between doling out humor and educating the reader. I’d recommend reading it (though not necessarily conducting every one of the experiments) for anyone who finds the subject intriguing.
Having purchased most of the other cracked.com writers books, this was being purchased regardless of the content.
And, wow am I impressed. Each chapter is designed to give a background, historical basis, and clever footnoting of supporting materials used to arrive at the author's intriguing interpretation of the historical facts- then- to a practical modern-day approach to the historical materials.
I have laughed-out-loud at least twice per chapter (which range from approximately 5-20 pages).
The Cracked staff have yet to fail to disappoint, and this is further to that upward success.
But definitely worth it.