Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality
by Cacilda Jethá and Christopher Ryan
The authors of Sex At Dawn begin by setting up what they call the ‘standard model’ of human sexuality. In the standard model, humans are primates that form monogamous pair bonds for the purpose of raising children. The male tries to prevent the female from having additional sex partners (to protect the certainty of his paternity) whilst also trying to cheat with as many other females as possible (as to better spread his own genes). In this model, it is to the female’s advantage to keep the male emotionally faithful to her, as to secure his resources (i.e., food and protection) for her children and to better make sure that her genes survive. The standard model is one based on scarcity (males compete for access to females with which to mate; females secure males to protect access to food and defense) and conflict (the sexual goals of the male and the sexual goals of the female are at odds; the males are in competition with one another). The consequences are infidelity, war, and rugged pursuit of individual gain. For the standard model, this is the essence of human nature, which we try (and usually fail) to overcome.
But for Jethá and Ryan’s model, this actually isn’t human nature at all. Arguing partly from primatology, partly from evolutionary psychology, and partly from anthropology, they make the case that human nature is historically communal rather than individual, polyamorous rather than monogamous, and cooperative rather than competitive. Of the other primates, they point out that humans are most closely related (genetically) to bonobos and chimps (both of whom live in social groups and share multiple mates), rather than gorillas (alpha male with many females), orangutans (solitary), or gibbons (monogamous pair bonding, and the furthest from humans genetically). Through anthropology, they attempt to demonstrate that in hunter-gatherer societies, the evolutionary advantageous norm is for humans to live in groups in which resources are shared and to have multiple sex partners in which paternity is uncertain (and unimportant). They argue that these were cultures of abundance rather than scarcity – when someone in the clan makes a large kill, there is no reason (and indeed no way) to hoard the meat. Likewise, when fruit is on the trees for the taking, there is no reason for competition to arise. When paternity is uncertain, every male in the group looks out for all of the children in the group, leading to social cohesion and better group survival. Jethá and Ryan assert that the social bonds broke only very recently in human history, with the dawn of agriculture. With agriculture came ownership of land and scarcity of resources. With that came inheritance, and the need to know whom your offspring actually are. And with that came concepts of fidelity, monogamy, infidelity, and the corresponding moral imperatives.
The authors make the further claim that the monogamous nature of humanity has always been a Puritan fantasy — and one that we aren’t very good at. Even societies that glorify monogamy and chastity as the pinnacle of virtue simply don’t practice them: the data shows that nearly everyone cheats, and it causes us no end of societal trouble. The final chapter of Sex At Dawn encourages us to abandon the pretense. If we accept that we aren’t monogamous by nature, then what? We don’t necessarily need to go back to non-agricultural hunter-gatherer societies. But we do need to de-couple sex from land ownership, inheritance, moral norms, etc. In short, we need to treat sex as being no big deal, a thing that our evolutionary history has given us to enhance (rather than disrupt) our social bonds. The authors encourage us to have frank discussions with our chosen partners in light of our biological truth, and decide what actually works for us, rather than what we wish and pretend would work for us.
It’s hard to disagree with their conclusions. One need look no further than the newspaper on any given day to see that the people in power who push hardest for the virtues of chastity and monogamy fail to practice them any more than anyone else. Pick your pedophile priest, your homosexual evangelical Christian, your conservative politician who makes a tearful apology for infidelity to his family at a press conference. And while they rarely take the fall as publicly (partly because we simply have fewer of them in positions of power), the data shows that the women don’t fare any better in this regard. Take a look at the numbers on paternity testing, and how many children out there are fathered by someone other than their mother’s husband. And that’s just the episodes that result in pregnancy. There’s no denying it: we’re terrible at monogamy, and our biology is mostly to blame. And in evolutionary terms, that’s not a bug; it’s a feature.
But while I mostly agree with its conclusions, a lot of the argumentation in Sex At Dawn is frankly a mess. It’s a popular science book written for a non-academic audience, and so it can get away with a lack of academic rigor. The manuscript was rejected by Oxford University Press for that very reason, the authors took it to Harper’s, where it became a New York Times bestseller. It’s an easy read, a great conversation starter, and I think it ends up at the right place. But they way it gets there is sloppy. The authors cherry-pick from the literature, grab the anthropological cases that bolster their argument, extrapolate from the data that fits their premise and ignore the data that doesn’t. Upon its publication, Sex At Dawn was criticized as being pseudo-science, and I can’t bring myself to disagree. It is pseudo-science, pseudo-anthropology, and pseudo-primatology. It’s like a television dramatization of a true story — it gets at the spirit of the truth, but not in any literal way. But in the court of public opinion, for better or worse, that doesn’t matter. The book got far more attention in the public imagination than it would have as a peer-reviewed academic work, and in that sense it probably accomplished the authors’ goals better than a more scientifically rigorous work. Because that’s another feature of the human primate: we like shiny things, and we don’t like to work too hard for them.
The central question of Flow is that of how to experience life well. It’s not about the conditions of living well, because Csikszentmihalyi makes the case that the conditions of living (past a baseline of survivability) have little to do with the experience of living well. That experience, he argues, is a psychological state induced by a particular structuring of consciousness, and that structuring of consciousness is one over which we can (and should) exert control. His shorthand for this ‘optimal experience’ is ‘flow’, and the state of flow has a few specific conditions:
- To experience flow, one must be engaged in a purposeful activity. The purpose need not necessarily be a ‘higher’ purpose with moral weight, but simply a purpose: jumping higher, producing a garden, or learning to juggle will do.
- The purposeful activity must be one that challenges us. If it’s too easy, we get bored. If it’s too difficult, we get frustrated. We need goals that are achievable, but only with some effort.
- We need feedback. We need to have some means of knowing whether or not we’re making progress toward the chosen purpose.
When these conditions are satisfied, Csikszentmihalyi argues that we find ourselves in a state of ‘flow’ or ‘optimal experience’, and that flow is the basis for what we experience as having a good life. Without those conditions, what we experience is boredom, lack of purpose, low self-esteem, anxiety, or any of a number of other non-optimal experiences.
I find myself in agreement with Csikszentmihalyi‘s basic premise, and I find the argument persuasive based on my own experiences. That said, I don’t think Flow is a very good book. There wasn’t quite enough material in it. The substantive parts of the book were enough for a good solid article or essay, and the rest is just padded with endless listing of examples. Examples are useful in illustrating points, but they aren’t a substitute for arguments.
Nonetheless, the book succeeded in getting me to write about reading again – the point being to impose a structure on my reading, to once again read with purpose instead of merely to pass time. I try not to read books that don’t affect me, and this one did. Which, despite the sub-par writing, makes it not a waste of time to have read.
Blues and Chaos: The Music Writing of Bob Palmer
Anthony DeCurtis (ed.)
The best writing transforms the reader. It shows them parts of themselves that they didn’t know existed, shows them potentials that they didn’t know they had, shows them perspectives that they thought themselves incapable of adopting. That, I suppose, is the mark of writing that transcends to the category of literature. The best of the best transforms not just the reader, but the world: think Invisible Man or The Jungle or The Grapes of Wrath.
Blues and Chaos didn’t transform me. But it did make me buy a lot of CDs.
Bob Palmer, longtime popular music critic for the New York Times and regular contributor to Rolling Stone, had a Hunter S. Thompson approach to music journalism. He was able to write well about musicians living on the edge because he was a musician living on the edge. He played and partied with the people about whom he wrote, ranging from bluesmen from the American south to sacred musicians from the mountains of Morocco. That gonzo journalism granted him access, whether to the inner sanctum of Yoko Ono’s apartment, the back rooms of black juke joints in Mississippi, or the private sacred rituals of his beloved Moroccans. Of course, it also granted him access to drugs, and subsequent fatal addiction. Palmer burned brightly and blew out early, like so many of the musicians that he interviewed.
But reading through his book of essays, I realized just how much American and world music I didn’t know. I started making a CD wish list. Son House! How could I have missed Son House? I felt a little ashamed to admit that I didn’t own the Robert Johnson recordings. And there wasn’t a single Ray Charles album in my collection. I picked up a collection of 45s from Morocco. I looked in vain for recordings of Pandit Pran Nath and had to settle for LaMonte Young. And still I felt ignorant. We live in a world with too much good music, and reading someone like Robert Palmer is like drinking from a firehose. He listened to records professionally; most of us can’t. But Blues and Chaos is a great starting point for building a sample of things you may have missed.
The Devil Drives
Fawn M. Brodie
There are demons that incapacitate a person: demons that drive one to drink, drive one to murder, drive one to the madhouse. And there are demons that just plain drive, pushing a person beyond their physical and mental limits for no reason other than to go, because going is the only thing to do. We call these people “self-starters”, “highly motivated”, sometimes “visionaries”. And sometimes the visions cross over into mania.
Sir Richard Burton‘s drive almost certainly has more than a touch of mania to it. What else could cause a man to master twenty-nine languages, to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in disguise and under threat of death, to trudge miles across the desert at night with an assassin’s spear hanging out of the side of his face? He published books on swordfighting, the sexual customs of India and Africa, the Mormons of Utah, and of course his massive translation of the Tales of the Arabian Nights, all based on his own travels and experiences. He even set out to learn the language of monkeys — not by going out in to the jungle and recording what he heard, but by brining the monkeys into his house, dressing them in tiny clothes, and trying to have dinner table conversations with them. It’s hard not to attribute at least a touch of mania to a person like that.
Still, amid the thousands of pages he published, the sprawling maps of areas he explored, the volumes of eastern literature he translated, and the litany of tales he lived and told, Burton’s was a mania that was as productive as a human body can be. And yet somehow the fire didn’t consume him. Somehow he died not of malaria, not of assassins or cannibals, not lost at sea or dessicated in the desert, but at home, in bed, at the age of sixty-nine, after a nice supper. He lived a life larger than life, but died an absolutely ordinary death. His wife, in a posthumous attempt to make him a decent Christian, burned all of his diaries and unfinished manuscripts. The devils that drove her were entirely Catholic in origin, and have left us the poorer for it.
In the Internet Age, paranoia runs rampant. The wealth of self-service medical information available gives the average person incredibly broad abilities to diagnose — and mis-diagnose — illness. Pick any possible symptom, run it through a search engine, and you can convince yourself that you have any number of life-threatening illnesses. You can find a dozen different message boards to confirm your suspicions, and even self-medicate to a large extent thanks to all sorts of half-baked half-expert advice.
All of which makes it terrifying to read medical nonfiction in the Internet Age. One of the effects of reading Awakenings is the realization of just how fragile a normal life can be. One encephalitic infection, and you’re in a state hospital for the rest of your life, unable to do so much as walk across the room or write your own name. Was that a twitch or a tremor? Are my hands shaking because I’m developing Parkinson’s, or have I just had too much coffee? Do I stutter more than I used to? Who will visit me in the hospital?
Of course, that’s not really the story of Awakenings. The stories in Awakenings are about individuals — individuals locked inside the cages of their own bodies for decades, released (if only partially and temporarily) by L-DOPA — and how they do or don’t cope with their imprisonment, release, and re-imprisonment. Some accept it with grace; others cannot. Some remain creative, vibrant humans; others go mad. The stories that Sacks shares are not merely the stories of their illnesses, but of their humanity in the face of their illnesses. They aren’t humans for whom the illness is some foreign body; their illness is their body, and an inseparable part of their humanity. Awakenings, as a chapter in medical history, is very much about the impossibility of treating the disease without treating the person. That will almost certainly be its legacy.
And I suppose modern medical practitioners would do well to keep that in mind in the current world of over-mis-informed “health care consumers”. You have to treat the paranoia along with the symptom, I think. Because while one might go away easily, the other will not.