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Sex At DawnSex 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.

bonobosThe 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.

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