August 2010

Barbara J. King


Sex at Dawn (and at Noon, Dusk, and Midnight)

If ever you’re asked to provide a two-word Latin summary of Sex at Dawn, try this: Homo hypersexualensis. Though not deployed by authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, this phrase points acutely to their central theses:

* We humans are obsessed with sex, far more even than are our evolutionary cousins, the famously randy bonobos.

* Sexual monogamy, despite relentless claims to the contrary, was never our natural condition in prehistory. “With and without love,” Ryan and Jetha write, “a casual sexuality was the norm for our prehistoric ancestors.”

* Only with the relatively recent shift from off-the-land foraging to agriculture did our species veer away from cooperation and sharing, even sharing of mates, in small groups; hierarchy, sexual repression and violence may pass for the human normal nowadays, but it wasn’t always so. 

* Current frenzied attempts to make sacred the nuclear family are not only way off the biological mark, but also terribly hurtful to women and men who fail at life-long loyalty. The dominant narrative pits “man against woman in a tragic tango of unrealistic expectations, snowballing frustration, and crushing disappointment.”

When I first heard about Sex at Dawn, a small groan escaped me: oh, another attempt to popularize our prehistory! Hasn’t that worked out just so well before? (See here.) Now, in a book driven by evidence from apes, human ancestors and foraging societies -- the stuff of my own dear discipline Anthropology -- there’s nary an anthropology credential in evidence between the two authors.

Lapses do mar more than one passage in the book. Yet on balance, Sex at Dawn is a welcome marriage of data from social science, animal behavior, and neuroscience with a skewering of scientists (therapists too) who buy into our pair-bonded past (and present). Consistently fun to read, Ryan and Jetha’s book might even tilt a moral worldview or two.  

We in the U.S. know by now to expect a relentless drumbeat of nuclear-family championing coming from the fundamentalist religious crowd and the spouting-family-values-while-seeking-extramarital-sex crowd alike. Ryan and Jetha do make some hay with these folks, but aim primarily at scientists. The standard scientific account of prehistory, they write, “hides the truth of human sexuality behind a fig leaf of anachronistic Victorian discretion repackaged as science.”

Nice shot across the bow, but who exactly do they mean? For one, Helen Fisher, author of Why We Love and Why Him? Why Her?, who refers, in an elegant evidence-free way, to pair-bonding at four million years ago. For another, Frans de Waal, whose Chimpanzee Politics and Our Inner Ape deserve their fame, but who argues stubbornly that the nuclear family is intrinsically human. The list goes on, and in refuting the scientists’ assumptions, Ryan and Jetha aggregate some convincing bits of evidence. Among them:

* None of our closest living relatives, the great apes, lives monogamously. Indeed, female nonhuman primates across the board are attracted to novelty, that is to say, to fresh rather than familiar males. It’s the pattern, rather than any single species’ behavior, that matters here.

* Foraging societies organize themselves around staunch principles of cooperation, including a “deeply felt, broadly shared willingness to care for unrelated children.” This openness ill-fits the standard story of how and why we pair-bond, and would only have changed with the onset of agriculture and rising population numbers.

* With low population density and abundant resources throughout prehistory, our ancestors’ sexual behavior would have mirrored that of pre-agricultural societies. 

* Even today, the design of the male body reflects a trenchant sperm competition that itself points to multiple matings in short periods. Our sexual history is thus mapped out for us in a literally embodied way. In fact, “competing sperm from other men seems to be anticipated in the chemistry of men’s semen.” 

Via efficient data-wielding, Ryan and Jetha shred the tired old truisms of evolutionary psychology, for example the claim that world-wide, men seek youthful beautiful babes, while women clamor for older rich men. These sections are among my favorites in the book; the lax reasoning of evolutionary psychologists like David Buss and Steven Pinker is far too adored in the popular press.

As we read along, our sexual trivia buffs up: did you know that bonobos’ testicles are the size of chicken eggs, that by 1917 there were more vibrators than toasters in American homes, and that cornflakes were originally devised as a masturbation deterrent? 

Yet for all the good to be had in Sex at Dawn, Ryan and Jetha’s mistakes can be infuriating. Here’s my short list of pleas to the authors:

* Please don’t rely on the intensive and intelligent labor of field-tested anthropologists and then sneer at the generic “resident anthropologist” who stands “in the shadows of love,” (that is, of a quickie copulation) and says, “Aha, this culture practices marriage, too. It’s universal!” Cheap shot. 

* Tone down the sex-differences-in-sexuality stuff. You end the book by urging couples to have that “difficult” conversation about males’ evolved need for sexual novelty. Even a social constructionist may admit girls and boys differ, but in a book centered on myth-debunking, why link women (but not men) with sexual loyalty?

* Mute the power-of-biology stuff too. If our current sexual behavior is culturally flexible, as you rightly note, it cannot also be “powerless against our prehistoric predilections.” To ask, “If the nuclear triad is so deeply embedded in our nature, why are fewer and fewer of us choosing to live that way?” makes as little sense as to ask why, if meat-eating and hunting marked our past, more and more of us are choosing to do neither now.   

* And for a third crack at the same basic bat, don’t elevate hormones to primary causes of behavior. If girl meets boy while girl is on the pill, and they marry, but later during the child-bearing years girl loses interest, it’s because pill-avoiding girl’s hormones have shifted -- really?

* Recognize those who came before. Why no mention of Adrienne Zilhman and Nancy Tanner’s 1978 paper (“Gathering and the hominid adaptation”)?  Zilhman and Tanner floated the idea of ancestral females who could, together, defend themselves against males, and along the way proposed significant variability in the length of time a mating pair stayed together.   

* Check in with an anthro-savvy editor. Evolutionary theory is “an interpretive science”? Bonobo infants play with others only at a year and a half? Baboons are excluded from those primates that boast “brightly colored sexual swellings”? On all three counts (and others), no.  

Readers, feel free to pair Sex at Dawn with a dose of anthropological corrective when you share it with your book club, your students, or your lover(s) -- but do share it. In choking the life out of a cultural myth, it’s not deceptive infidelity that Sex at Dawn champions, but clean conversation about the normalcy of unconstrained, sapient desire.  

Underneath all the science in Sex at Dawn- some sublime, some silly -- is a call to freedom from nuclear-family tyranny, a call that will resonate with the exhausted married mother trying to care alone all day for young kids; with  the adolescent boy whose gay stirrings are to be “cleansed” by his church; with the older teenagers pressured into unrealistic pledges of abstinence; with old married folks who pine for something beyond convention; indeed with anyone who pays a heavy price for a culture’s buy-in to the constraining monogamy-myth of our sexual past.

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