Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

I picked up this book after I read about it in Dan Savage's July 7, 2010 column.  I've been a big fan of Dan Savage for years now, and when I read what he had to say about Sex at Dawn I dropped everything and started reading.  So in case you feel the same way, here's a quote: 
"Sex At Dawn is the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior In The Human Male on the American public in 1948. Want to understand why men married to supermodels cheat? Why so many marriages are sexless? Why paternity tests often reveal that the 'father' isn’t? Read Sex At Dawn."
It really is pretty awesome.  It's fun to read, and very well-researched.  As a former anthroplogy major, I felt like I was in familiar territory, and I appreciated that when the authors couldn't discuss a subject in-depth they always cited multiple more comprehensive sources.  This is important, and I mention it first because so many of their claims are pretty incendiary.  

Their basic thesis is as follows: most of human evolution took place in pre-historic, non-agrarian societies.  The standard narratives about human sexuality - about men who try to spread their genes by sleeping around, and women who try to secure the protection of a single male - simply don't fit with what we know about pre-historic lifestyles.  By investigating the sexual habits of our closest genetic relatives (chimpanzees and bonobos) and also by analyzing human hunter-gatherer societies past and present with a fresh eye, we can come to a better understanding of contemporary sexual behavior.

Basically: Why do we cling to the idea that human beings evolved to engage in a perpetual "war of the sexes," with men and women in a state of mutual exploitation?   Is there a way of understanding our sexual urges as adaptive and useful, rather than unnatural and dysfunctional?  

And the answer to that last question is: well, yeah, there is.  Unfortunately, it's an answer a lot of people won't like very much.  For the vast majority of human history, we lived in small, nomadic groups where multi-partner mating was common.  Women are built to accomodate multiple partners at once (sperm competition); men are built to seek variety (exogamy, avoid incest).  Monogamy is not a natural state. And however we behave now, our bodies are still tuned to the old dance.

The authors support their claims with mountains of evidence.  They compare the size and shape of male genitalia among chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans, and gibbons.  They describe behavioral experiments involving farm animals.  They discuss Jane Goodall's fieldwork with chimps in Gombe.  They turn to fieldwork on modern hunter-gatherer cultures from around the world, in the Amazon basin, China, and Africa.  They mine accounts of early European explorers, from the first English settlers in Australia to Darwin.  They give Hobbes a thorough beat-down.  They talk about declining testosterone levels, Calvin Coolidge, and the smelly t-shirt experiment.  

Personally, I was convinced.  And I really do believe, like the authors do, that understanding and accepting our biological make-up can make us happier, healthier, and more peaceful people.  I very highly recommend this book.  As Dan Savage says: even if you are unwavering in your support of monogamy, at least make the effort to understand why it's such hard work.  

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