on July 4, 2010
This review originally appeared in Seed Magazine: [...]
When we think of the first swinger parties most of us imagine 1970s counter-culture, we don't picture Top Gun fighter pilots in World War II. Yet, according to researchers Joan and Dwight Dixon, it was on military bases that "partner swapping" first originated in the United States. As the group with the highest casualty rate during the war, these elite pilots and their wives "shared each other as a kind of tribal bonding ritual" and had an unspoken agreement to care for one another if a woman's husband didn't make it back home. Like the sexy apes known as bonobos, this kind of open sexuality served a social function that provided a way to relieve stress and form long-lasting bonds.
For the husband and wife team Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá in their new book Sex At Dawn, this example is one of many that suggests the human species did not evolve in monogamous, nuclear families but rather in small, intimate groups where "most mature individuals would have had several ongoing sexual relationships at any given time." We are the descendants of these multimale-multifemale mating groups and, even though we've constructed a radically different society from our hunter-gatherer forebears, the behavioral and psychological traits our species evolved in the distant past still manifest themselves today. Ryan, a psychologist, and Jethá, a psychiatrist, argue that understanding human sexual evolution this way helps to explain our species' unique creativity inside (as well as outside) the marriage bed. It may also shed light on why fidelity has been such a persistent problem for both men and women throughout recorded history.
For Ryan and Jethá there is little doubt that human beings are an exceedingly sexual species. As an example they detail how in 1902 the first home-use vibrator was patented and approved for domestic use in the United States. Fifteen years later there were more vibrators than toasters in American homes (today this number could be as high as fifty million nationwide). In 2006, according to U.S. Pornography Industry Revenue Statistics, people around the world--the majority of whom were probably men--spent an estimated $97 billion on pornographic material ($13.3 billion in the U.S. alone), a figure that exceeded the annual revenue of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo!, Apple, and Netflix combined. To judge human sexuality based on consumption patterns, as Stephen Colbert would say, "the market has spoken." When this is combined with estimates that people engage in hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of copulations per child born (more than any primate, including chimpanzees and bonobos) there's little denying that the human animal is one sexy beast.
But why should a species often described as monogamous be so hypersexual? Monogamous animals by definition don't have to compete for reproduction and, as a result, are generally characterized by a low level of sexual activity. But according to Ryan and Jethá humans top a very short list of species that engage in sex for pleasure. "No animal spends more of its allotted time on Earth fussing over sex than Homo sapiens," they write. In fact, the animal world is filled with species who confine their sexual behavior to just a few periods each year, the only times when conception is possible. Among apes the only monogamous species are the gibbons whose infrequent, reproduction-only copulations make them much better adherents of the Vatican's guidelines than we are. In this way, Ryan and Jethá argue, repressing our sexuality should not be confused with reining in an "animal" nature; rather, it is denying one of the most unique aspects of what it means to be human.
The suggestion that humans did not evolve as a monogamous species is not as radical an idea as it may sound. In The Descent of Man Charles Darwin wrote, "Those who have most closely studied the subject [particularly the anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan] believe that communal marriage was the original and universal form throughout the world." Yet ever since the nineteenth century anthropologists have struggled over how to identify the mating system of human beings. In 1967 George P. Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas reported that only 14.5% of modern preindustrial societies could be classified as monogamous. Yet, in the West, researchers commonly refer to humans as "serially monogamous," based on the pattern of repeated monogamous marriages throughout men and women's lifetimes. But with over half of divorces occurring because of infidelity and one in 25 dads unknowingly raising children that they didn't father, this is not a picture that fits comfortably with monogamy of any sort, serial or otherwise.
However, by looking at modern indigenous societies and comparing the findings of anthropologists with the latest results in behavioral psychology and biology, Ryan and Jethá piece together a remarkably coherent pattern from an otherwise fractured understanding of human sexuality. From societies that believe that multiple men are necessary for a successful pregnancy (what researchers refer to as "partible paternity") to those where not having an extra-marital tryst will cause a man to be labeled "stingy of one's genitals" by his female suitors, the authors conclude that marriage may be an established social arrangement among many hunter-gatherers but it's one in which sexuality is decidedly fluid. A range of physiological evidence from Western populations is further offered to support this position, from the year-round libido in both sexes, to the unusually large size of men's genitalia compared to other apes, to the shifting sexual strategy during various stages in women's reproductive cycle (and lest we forget multiple female orgasms?). All suggest that our species is adapted for several concurrent sexual partners.
This is, of course, not a new idea in human evolutionary research. Primatologist Sarah Hrdy advocated a promiscuous mating system for humans in The Woman That Never Evolved (1999) while psychologist David Barash and psychiatrist Judith Lipton detailed their own argument in The Myth of Monogamy (2001). In Sex At Dawn Ryan and Jethá cover some similar ground as these previous authors but provide a great deal of additional material that was unavailable a decade ago. They also emphasize the ways in which monogamy has been used as a means of controlling women in patriarchal societies and make a number of insightful connections between the invention of agriculture 12,000 years ago and how sedentary societies influence the structure of human mating. However, with a relaxed writing style and numerous examples from modern popular culture, their discussion of these topics remains readily accessible even to those who may be encountering such ideas for the first time.
Sex At Dawn is a provocative and engaging synthesis of the latest research on human sexual evolution that has the added benefit of being a joy to read. While the authors' conclusion that healthy relationships can be both committed and open may come as a shock to some readers, others will likely find it refreshingly honest. As their example of WWII fighter pilots emphasizes, human sexuality has numerous social as well as emotional functions and there has never been only a single path chosen by the human species. In offering a fresh look at a fascinating and controversial topic Sex At Dawn is a book sure to generate discussion, and one likely to produce more than a few difficult conversations with family marriage counselors.
Eric Michael Johnson received his masters degree in primate behavior and is now pursuing his PhD in the history of science. He writes on issues of science, politics, and history at The Primate Diaries.
on March 26, 2011
This is an amusing and light read, salted with sarcastic quips and, of course, covering a salacious topic. It endeavors to refute the "common wisdom" of just about every field (history, biology, anthropology, etc.) on the subject of human mating systems, and while it appears to succeed here and there, it is largely done by attacking an exaggerated straw man, or by refuting overstatements made in popular science books or in newspaper articles. The lion's share of sources includes the likes of Matt Ridley, Desmond Morris, E. O. Wilson, and Richard Dawkins -- authors who (1) are rarely actively pursuing primary scientific research in what they write about, and (2) are writing for the general public, with, naturally, a tendency to exaggerate and generalize -- so these popular texts are easy targets. At times, Ryan and Jethá demonstrate an imperfect understanding of evolution (e.g. no evolutionary biologist needs to ask the rhetorical question at the end of the middle paragraph on p. 53); at other times they allow inconsistencies to slip by unaddressed. For example, if the true state of hunter-gatherer humans is to share everything, show no jealousy, and for women not to barter with sex, how is it that the bride and groom at a Canela marriage must be instructed not to be jealous (p. 138), or that a Canela bride-to-be participates in orgies in exchange for meat (p. 120)? Overall, it's an entertaining, quick read, but not without flaws in some of its claims and conclusions.
The biggest shortcoming of this book is its epistemological framework: it seeks to uncover our true "human nature," but "human nature" itself is a flawed concept, and early sociobiologists were long-ago admonished for using this term. Biologists know that phenotype (i.e. what gets expressed) is a function of genotype (the genes), the environment (the sum of all external influences, food, temperature, etc), and ontogeny (our development). In its simplest form, any given genotype has a phenotype that responds in complex and varied ways relative to the environment -- this is known as a "norm of reaction" ([...]). When barley is grown a low altitude it behaves very differently form when it's grown a high altitude -- so it makes little sense to ask "what is the true nature of barley" because there is no such thing. Seeking the "true nature" of a species is a holdover from ancient notions of Greek essentialism, which we now know is fundamentally wrong. It is just as "natural" for an all-sharing-commune to also share sex freely, or for a married couple (where the husband invests considerable paternal care) to desire sexual exclusivity (even if this is not always achieved), or for new brides to willingly join in the polygynous family of a wealthy and powerful man -- i.e., depending on the environment, we should expect humans to behave quite differently, and each case is just as "natural" as any other. There is no single "human nature" to be discovered -- at best, we can say that there is a norm-of-reaction to be discovered.
Humans have clearly evolved complex and distinct behaviors capable of responding differently in each distinct environment. That by itself is remarkable, and although Ryan and Jethá are convincing when then claim that bonobo-like behaviors were common in human pre-history, they fail to show that human pre-history did not also include quasi-monogamy (as is now dominant), serial-monogamy, and various degrees of polygyny. Given the wide range of habitats that humans lived in (tundra, boreal forest, rain forest, savannah, estuaries, island archipelagoes, etc) it certainly should not surprise us that humans have adapted to a multitude of different circumstances. Ryan and Jethá argue that a history of intense sperm competition is written on our bodies -- and that may well be true, but it's not incompatible with quasi-monogamy, serial-monogamy, or polygyny. Who can say how many children, born to the king's concubines, were actually fathered by the game-keeper? And if, as some studies claim, some 10% to 20% of kids are not actually the children of the fathers who think they are his children, that by itself is more than enough selection pressure to evolve larger testicles. Finally, the two-fold size difference in European and Asian testicles would seem to imply that some radically different mating systems were present in the pre-agricultural years during the separation of these two populations.
Finally, Ryan and Jethá are guilty of the naturalistic fallacy -- believing that what is "natural" is also good. They may deplore the frustrated husbands who seek out porn to quiet their bonobo impulses, but how about the frustrated bullies who suffer in prison for merely exercising their evolution-given muscles to resolve a dispute? Surely many a dispute in pre-history was resolved by men using brute force to the reproductive advantage of the winner, which is why men are more muscular than women. Does that make it unfair for us to outlaw crime or domestic abuse? Why should promiscuity be any more "natural" than bulling?
Nonetheless, the general point that humans need to learn to relax about social morays is a good one. We are certainly capable of far greater latitude in our mating behaviors than what our priests, politicians, and grandmothers would have us believe. The advent of reliable contraception and an increasing number of self-sufficient women in the workplace ought to allow society to attenuate urges of sexual jealousy and liberalize our relationships -- but without having to give up our privacy, possessions, and suburban homes in favor of communes.
on September 21, 2011
Sex at Dawn is a popular exposition of the simple and compelling thesis that a casual sexuality was the norm for our hunter-gatherer forbears, and that faithful pair-bonding in the form of monogamous marriage is alien to our sexual natures as human beings. The authors hold that the shift to the norm of faithful pair bonding arose only upon the advent of settled agriculture some 10,000 years ago. Moreover, they argue, "promiscuous impulses remain our biological baseline, our reference point" (p. 46), and society would be better off if we acknowledged the ubiquity of these impulses and offered them social approbation.
Ryan and Jethá justify their position mostly by deploying anecdotal and unsystematic anthropological evidence, and the authors have no anthropological credentials. Their style of argumentation is highly informed and informative for novices (I am not an anthropologist, but I have read widely in the professional anthropological literature), but it is completely unsystematic, and hence untrustworthy. I call it "Google research" because the data appears to flow from Googling one or two terms, such as "sex anthropology" and "human sex primate sex" and then cherry-picking the millions of citations.
Despite their lack of systematic research, the authors' conclusions from the anthropological literature are usually not far from the truth. The notion that we can infer from our genetic predispositions how we should behave, however, is simply illogical. Humans form strong pair bonds and humans, like members of almost every other species that forms strong pair bonds (including, for instance, almost all nesting birds) often cheat on their partners. But this fact does not imply that this behavior should be morally sanctioned or social encouraged. The most we can legitimately conclude from the evidence is that it is probably in the interest of a healthy and happy populace that lapses in fidelity be treated leniently.
Ryan and Jethá site several instances of societies which follow their ideal of relaxed sexuality, but they go too far in claiming that pair bonding is an effect of modern society in general and settled agriculture in particular. Pair bonding appears to be quite universal throughout human societies, whether in the form of monogamy, polyandry, or polygamy. By contrast, there is no pair-bonding primate species in Africa and only such species in Asia. It thus is plausible that pair bonding is a strong part of our genetic predisposition as a species, but that it arose rather late in our evolution as a species. This is not Ryan and Jethá's story, but it is fairly close, and I think much more defensible.
Amusingly, while Ryan and Jethá spout facts that are well known in the literature, they set themselves up as brave iconoclasts, overturning what they call the "standard narrative of human sexual evolution" (p. 7), which with its emphasis on the centrality of faithful pair-bonding. The standard story, they claim "hides the truth of human sexuality behind a fig leaf of anachronistic Victorian discretion repackaged as science" (p. 35). The fact is that there is no standard narrative that I know of in the contemporary scientific literature. Rather, human sexuality is clearly highly plastic, and we can learn little from other species because sexuality is even more plastic across primate species. The authors' mocking of anthropological opinion is particularly disingenuous because most of their argumentation is based on the work of professional anthropologists.
Sexual behaviors that we share with all or most primate species are likely to represent genetic predispositions. There is no question but that each primate species has a genetically specified range of sexual behaviors. We know this because this range of behaviors does not vary much across even widely separated groups. However, primate sexuality is highly variable across species. Therefore we cannot say that we are more like the polymorphically sexual Bonobos and the promiscuous chimpanzees than other more sexually discriminate primate species. However, true monogamy is very rare in both primates and sexually mating species in general, and the physiology of human male genitals suggests much male sperm competition, which strongly supports the thesis that strong pair bonds were regularly accompanied by a significant level of extra-pair copulations.
Some of the points the authors raise involve interesting questions that I cannot resolve. They assert that early human males were not concerned with parentage, which would make us unlike any other species I can think of. Of course, this position is necessary for Ryan and Jethá because it alone is compatible with the relaxed and tolerant attitude towards extra pair copulations that they consider the human norm. I rather suspect that humans are more like other pair-bonding species, in which males attempt to be promiscuous but are deterred by their mates, and females are carefully policed to reduce their opportunities for extra-pair mating. Despite the efforts of all parties in pair-bonded species, lots of extra-pair mating takes place, but sexuality is hardly tolerant and relaxed. However, there are several so-called "partible paternity" societies in which fathering is widely shared by males, who are tolerant of their mate's extra-pair sexuality. While this fatherly behavior must be taught to young men and is highly socially controlled the existence of these societies clearly shows that humans are capable of embracing a wide range of socio-sexual norms, however frequently they are honored in the breach.
Ryan and Jethá believe that it is an important part of their argument that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were fundamentally peaceful, war playing little role in everyday life and social organization. "hierarchical, aggressive, and territorial behavior is of recent origin for our species. It is...an adaptation to the social world that arose with agriculture." (p. 76). The reason, they argue, is that without private property, there was nothing to fight over. I believe this is just dead wrong. The archeological evidence points to a high level of warfare in hunter-gather societies. The goals of violent inter-group aggression were attaining valued, currently highly productive territory (e.g., a mountain pass) and obtaining women for mating, gathering, and child-rearing (see my book with Samuel Bowles, A Cooperative Species, Princeton 2011). The authors' evidence is scattered and mostly anecdotal, whereas our analysis is quite systematic, drawing on a large body of statistical evidence.
Ryan and Jethá are rather sloppy writers but they are good story-tellers, so this book is definitely worth reading.
on January 11, 2013
I have a copy of the book. I was amazed with the number of errors, the amount of misinformation, the flawed assumptions, and even more so with the degree to which the book has received positive reviews. I believe that this is at least partly because this book appeals to individuals who have already made up their minds on this topic.
However, the audience aside, this books seems to appeal to us because we know that having sex with one partner doesn't necessarily make us immune to thoughts of having sex with someone else. So we conclude that there must be something wrong with the idea that human beings develop bonds. We therefore assume that this book is correct in asserting that we are a promiscuous species.
Unfortunately, it seems too many of us have forgotten that the scientific idea of bonding never implied that we automatically become immune to feeling sexually attracted to alternative partners. In the field of biology and attachment, sexual bonding creates what is called a "partner preference." Note that the key term here is "preference"!
PLEASE, see the 1994 study "Oxytocin Administered Centrally Facilitates Formation of a Partner Preference in Female Prairie Voles (Microtus ochrogasfer)" for just one example of this concept of partner PREFERENCE.
Funny thing is...we already know that, in the absence of alcohol, neurologically active hormones like Oxytocin are implicated in bonding. We also already know that Oxytocin affects the development of a woman's attachment to her romantic partner. I have no idea how the authors missed this. It's probably because they were never academically qualified to write a book on this topic in the first place.
For the latest study on the genetic evidence for HUMAN bonding, you can search for the 2012 study "An Oxytocin Receptor Gene Variant Predicts Attachment Anxiety in Females and Autism-Spectrum Traits in Males," by authors Frances S. Chen and Susan C. Johnson.
ADDITIONALLY: You can also see other research papers (which have found similar results). Here are some bits from the abstract (summary) of another one titled "Variation in the Oxytocin Receptor Gene Is Associated with Pair-Bonding and Social Behavior," by authors Hasse Walum, Paul Lichtenstein, et al. (Biological Psychiatry, Volume 71, Issue 5, Pages 419-426, March 1, 2012):
In specific vole and primate species the neuropeptide oxytocin plays a central role in the regulation of pair-bonding behavior. Here we investigate the extent to which genetic variants in the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) are associated with pair-bonding and related social behaviors in humans.
One SNP (rs7632287) in OXTR was associated with traits reflecting pair-bonding in women in the TOSS and TCHAD samples. In girls the rs7632287 SNP was further associated with childhood social problems, which longitudinally predicted pair-bonding behavior in the TCHAD sample. This association was replicated in the CATSS sample in which an association between the same SNP and social interaction deficit symptoms from the autism spectrum was detected.
These results suggest an association between variation in OXTR and human pair-bonding and other social behaviors, possibly indicating that the well-described influence of oxytocin on affiliative behavior in voles could also be of importance for humans."
IMPORTANT QUESTION 1: So, if the just-mentioned research article(s) show that we've discovered that certain human females vary in their degree of attachment anxiety to male partners depending on which Oxytocin gene variant they happen to carry, and, if we already know that this is the main neurohormone related to romantic bonding, doesn't this imply that we're NOT really a promiscuous species?
As for the main male neurohormone associated with bonding, it's called Vasopressin, and it's already been found to be associated with the modern human male's likelihood to enter and form "committed" (really: territorial/possessive) relationships with women. You might want to take a look at the 2008 article "Genetic variation in the vasopressin receptor 1a gene (AVPR1A) associates with pair-bonding behavior in humans," which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). As it turns out, males of many species tend to act possessively and guard their female partners from external threats (and especially from advances by other males) depending on the genes that regulate the density of Vasopressin receptors in their brains. Males with greater density of Vasopressin receptors tend to get sexually jealous more quickly, and thereby tend to guard their partners more carefully. In doing so, they tend to forego other opportunities to mate with other women. Tada! Yes, that's an effect that creates more monogynous behavior. Note that I did NOT just say that anyone loses his appreciation for the sexual attractiveness of other partners--but rather, that males tend to form "preferences" and then "mate-guard" these partners in a way that suggests bonding.
It's worth recognizing that scientists have already transformed more promiscuous/polygamous male voles into more monogamous and more partner-guarding males by manipulating a single Vasopressin-related gene (see the 2004 study published in "Nature," entitled "Enhanced partner preference in a promiscuous species by manipulating the expression of a single gene").
This sort of research has been going on for a long time. I'd suggest reading an article like the 2004 article "The neurobiology of pair bonding" (published in Nature Neuroscience) for more information on this. I've reproduced the abstract (summary) below for your convenience:
"A neurobiological model for pair-bond formation has emerged from studies in monogamous rodents. The neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin contribute to the processing of social cues necessary for individual recognition. Mesolimbic dopamine is involved in reinforcement and reward learning. Concurrent activation of neuropeptide and dopamine receptors in the reward centers of the brain during mating results in a conditioned partner preference, observed as a pair bond. Differential regulation of neuropeptide receptor expression may explain species differences in the ability to form pair bonds. These and other studies discussed here have intriguing implications for the neurobiology of social attachment in our own species."
IMPORTANT QUESTION 2: Furthermore, if certain human males vary in the degree to which they feel possessive towards their partners depending on which Vasopressin gene variant they happen to carry, and, if we already know that this is exactly the main neurohormone related to male possessive behavior, doesn't that imply that we're NOT really a purely promiscuous species?
But perhaps the most damning evidence against the authors' thesis is that the book's presented evidence does NOT actually support the thesis! Let's focus on chapter six ("Who's Your Daddies?"). Chapter six first explains that a large number of primitive Amazonian societies had no idea that only one man can father a child. In many of these "partible paternity" societies, pregnancy "is viewed as a matter of degree, not clearly distinguished[...]Over time...semen accumulates in the womb, a fetus is formed,[...]and additional semen causes the fetus to grow more." In addition, it is explained that "a woman from these societies is eager to give her child every possible advantage in life. To this end, she'll typically seek out sex with an assortment of men." The discussion then turns to one such society -- the Ache of Paraguay. The book then describes that when anthropologists attempted to discern the social relationships of 321 Ache, the 321 Ache "claimed to have over six hundred fathers. Who's your daddies?" After then describing that the Ache distinguished between four different fathers, such as "the father who put it in" versus "those who spilled it out," the book asserts that this is evidence of humanity's proclivity for multiple partners and promiscuity.
But upon closer inspection, the evidence actually *DOESN'T* point to promiscuity in this society where there is no conscious knowledge of singular paternity, does it? It is surprising that in such a society, the MEAN number of men that a woman would have had sex with in a 9-month period (or longer) is only two (2). Because of the natural variability in women's sexuality, this mean (average) of two men is in part certainly influenced by the promiscuity of a minority of women who will have had sex with dozens or more partners, averaged with a large number of truly monogamous women along with women whose sexual history and inclinations are somewhere in between. It is worth noting that this same variability among women is visible in society today! Furthermore, as described of the Ache, the typical child likely had only a total of *two* or fewer "fathers" (total men with whom the child's mother had engaged in sex during pregnancy). When you consider that this describes the scenario of a typical woman that might have had sex with a single man for a year while having had a single extra-pair dalliance with another partner (if even only once), you can appreciate what this actually signifies. It is actually evidence of the fact that women form pair bonds whereby they tend to have sex preferentially with a single preferred mate. For more about this, I strongly recommend the book "Partible Paternity and Anthropological Theory: The Construction of an Ethnographic Fantasy" (University Press of America, 2009), by Warren Shapiro.
And as for the idea that we evolved in peaceful, egalitarian groups where everyone had sex with one another, I am amazed that the authors haven't bothered to look at the high prevalence of homicide in hunter-gatherer societies. Unsurprisingly, the homicide is often committed over sexual access to women and/or the sexual assault of a female partner by a rival male. The main academic debate regarding prehistoric violence is not centered around whether it occurred, but rather whether it was a characteristic of inter-group war OR intra-group, one-on-one violence. Don't believe me? Please do some research on homicides in NON-AGRICULTURAL, HUNTER-GATHERER societies..you can start be reviewing the recent report entitled "Lethal Aggression in Mobile Forager Bands and Implications for the Origins of War" (2013) by authors Douglas P. Fry and Patrik Söderberg:
"It has been argued that warfare evolved as a component of early human behavior within foraging band societies. We investigated lethal aggression in a sample of 21 mobile forager band societies (MFBS) derived systematically from the standard cross-cultural sample. We hypothesized, on the basis of mobile forager ethnography, that most lethal events would stem from personal disputes rather than coalitionary aggression against other groups (war). More than half of the lethal aggression events were perpetrated by lone individuals, and almost two-thirds resulted from accidents, interfamilial disputes, within-group executions, or interpersonal motives such as COMPETITION OVER A PARTICULAR WOMAN [my emphasis added]. Overall, the findings suggest that most incidents of lethal aggression among MFBS may be classified as homicides, a few others as feuds, and a minority as war."
I would also suggest reading a "news" summary of the paper. If interested, you can search for the Science News article "War arose recently, anthropologists contend: Study of hunter-gatherers finds few lethal raids on opposing groups" (JULY 18, 2013), by Bruce Bower.
I am also amazed that the authors have completely dismissed all the archaeological evidence--all the skeletons we've found whose broken bones and spear wounds show signs of a violent and dangerous human past. More importantly, the genetic evidence has already shown that we did NOT evolve in a purely promiscuous evolutionary environment where all males and females engaged in sexual activity indiscriminately. We may not have ever fully finished evolving towards becoming perfectly monogamous, but our ancestors were definitely NOT promiscuous.
Please try searching online for the NewScientistDOTcom article "Polygamy left its mark on the human genome" for a little more SCIENCE, rather than the failed hypotheses of this book.
Thanks for reading my review. If I get enough favorable votes, I'll consider expanding this review with many more links and details.
on March 8, 2014
A friend recently brought up that she’s in an “open” relationship and recommended reading Sex at Dawn by Ryan and Jetha. I also bought Sex at Dusk by Saxon, which is a rebuttal. These are my thoughts after reading both books.
Stylistically, Sex at Dawn is superior – it’s funny, playful, and ambitious – while Sex at Dusk starts very slow, is more academic and relatively more boring.
Sex at Dawn highlights the problems of most modern relationships: high divorce rates, jealousy, fear, lack of trust, and bad and frustrated sex. The research is clear that single parent households are the worst for children, so something needs to be fixed.
I think Dawn makes two broad arguments. The first is that open relationships are better than monogamous relationships as evidenced by bonobos, chimpanzees, hunter-gatherer groups, and human anatomy. Dawn emphasizes that open relationships should be built on open communication, negotiating sexual boundaries, and avoiding unspoken agreements. The evidence seems to be that humans are not naturally sexually monogamous, and Dusk doesn’t dispute this. So far, in principle, if everyone agreed to the open relationship and communication worked well, I don’t see any inherent moral problem with open relationships.
However, Dawn next argues that society itself should be re-arranged: increased female receptivity leads to less male frustration & competition, leads to reduced male alliances, leads to obscured paternity, leads to increased female bonding, leads to female dominated alliances, leads to less infanticide and generalized parental care. The basic premise- increased female receptivity- is somewhat shocking and not very clearly defined given the importance of it to the argument. Does this mean women should be more open to sex even when they don’t want it or even with men they don’t like? Dawn points out research where women, unlike men, sometimes showed brain responses to sexual imagery that contradicted their conscious responses – again, is this saying that women really want it even when they consciously don’t? For a book seemingly about female (and male) sexual liberation, I must be missing something, because this doesn’t seem very liberating. Dawn rightly points out how female (and male) genital mutilation was horrible, as was the denial of female sexual libido until recently, but they seem to propose a worse solution.
As Dusk points out, while Dawn is correct that monogamy does not require sexual exclusivity, it also doesn’t exclude it – i.e. they haven’t shown that monogamy is the root cause of the problems.
This is why, I think, Dawn spends so much time on their second argument: that monogamy is male ownership of women which originated with agriculture and private property. Dawn calls this the zero-sum, free market nature of sexual monogamy. The book is peppered with Marxist arguments against property in general, at one point noting that the only thing Marx was wrong about was context: that Marxism doesn’t work with anonymity (i.e. with large populations). While it’s fine to debate Marxism, what I found really disingenuous about the book is the way they assert so much about political philosophy as self-evident fact without ever showing why. For example, why is the exchange of private property always zero-sum? Isn’t it plausible that in some exchanges, both sides can benefit?
Dawn argues for smaller population groups (less than 150 people each) for Marxism to work. In such groups, there’s supposedly no coercion as there are only temporary, natural leaders, such as the best hunter that will lead the hunting pack but who drops the leader role when the hunt is over. This seems to be a sort of anarcho-primitivist or anarcho-communist argument, but how is the sexual promiscuity enforced? Will women be shamed and ostracised for not wanting to have sex with some males?
Dawn further argues that there is plenty of evidence that such small, sexually promiscuous groups had higher quality of life, more egalitarianism, justice, low stress, group cohesion, that poverty is a social construct and they were not poor, while there were fasts & feasts, starvation was rare, groups were intimate, interdependent, generous, peaceful, with little murder, robust health, and security. There are obviously academic disagreements on a lot of these points (e.g. Pinker and Ridley on hunter-gatherer violence, Dusk on bonobo violence, etc.), but even if we suppose all of it was true, why haven’t Ryan and Jetha moved into or created such a community since they didn’t write about almost any negative potentialities? This is actually one case where implementing a political philosophy is straightforward since no existing aspects of the current systems need to be reformed or maintained as a prerequisite.
In summary, even if we take all of Dawn’s evidence as clear and undisputed, I think Dawn failed to prove that monogamy is inherently worse than open relationships, and made a disingenuously implicit argument that anarcho-primitivism/communism is the best political philosophy. All of this was wrapped in sexy lipstick, admittedly very well written and often funny, which makes the implicit arguments all the more dangerous for those (often young people) unaware of alternative views. I think the best part of Dawn is the emphasis that people should face the facts of history and their sexual predispositions, talk openly and honestly with their partners, and negotiate sexual boundaries. In my opinion, the root cause is not that open relationships are morally stigmatized, but that disagreement itself is stigmatized and avoided in a zero sum sort of way where one side has to win and one has to lose. People should communicate in a truly voluntaryist way: looking for win-win solutions to relationship problems.
I think Sex at Dusk made some thoughtful counter-arguments to some of the premises of Dawn: it’s equally sexist to think both sexes are “male” in their libidos, some males are clearly concerned about paternity, most bonobo research is based on small, captive groups, chimpanzees that weren’t provisioned with bananas for studying also showed the same aggressive behavior, some bonobo researchers think bonobo sexuality has been exaggerated, human infants need more and so the monogamy hook is for men, an experiment of shared women in Russia in 1917 failed, bonobos don’t have male-male bonding, and all hunter-gatherer groups ever found already had marriage even before private property. One failing of Dusk is that it often dramatizes the supposed “misquoting” that Dawn does. Most of the “misquoting” seems to be more of an academic dispute about meaning rather than wilful misrepresentation.
on November 20, 2013
What is the author's thesis? In brief, these are his his claims:
1. In early human evolutionary history ( he claims) sharing among the members of hunting bands extended not just to food, etc., but to sex.
2. Chimpanzees are our closest primate relative with 98.4% common DNA and they are notoriously promiscuous.
3. Ryan acknowledges that human males "seemingly have an instinctive impulse to control their women's sexuality, but argues that this tendency is of "recent origin", not innate, and developed because of cultural factors.
4.He argues that primitive tribes (like the "Ache") instead feel "gratitude to other men for pitching in to help create and then care for the children that result."
5. He argues that "partible paternity" - where the biologic father is unknown - "spreads fatherly feelings throughout a community. In this regard,he claims that children growing up without a known father have "a greater sense of belonging."
6. He cites many anecdotes such as Captain Cooks men who met Tahitian women who were willing to copulate for an iron nail. Or sports and rock stars who when they "score" are "only too happy"to share these women with team-mates. Jealousy does not appear with them, he claims, nor should it with us.
7. He questions whether "kinship" is at all an important concept for humans. Ryan on "traditional marriage": "Dare we ask whether mothers, fathers and children are being shoehorned into a family structure that suits none of us?"
Yes, Ryan is clever; he pepper his narrative with inapposite quotes of famous people: Seinfeld, Sartre, Cicero and Aristotle, etc. And he uses cutsey phrases like "Flintstonian." BUT IMO HE IS VERY, VERY WRONG. He ignores a vast amount of conflicting facts and data. Herewith a few samples.
I. CHILDREN RAISED BY THEIR BIOLOGICAL FATHERS IN AN INTACT TRADITIONAL MARRIAGE ARE FAR, FAR BETTER OFF THAN THOSE WHO ARE NOT. Among sociologists who have researched this question, there is simply no dispute. Even privileged children, raised with loving high income step-fathers, and alternate weekends with their real fathers will not have the "life chances" of children raised in a traditional marriage. The former will have higher incidences of criminality, addiction, low grades in school, sexual promiscuity, etc. And this does not even address the plight of children raised by poor single moms, or worse yet, children of "partible" paternity. As even the progressive NY Times states, 'elite, high income Americans who need the advantages of traditional family life the least, are most successful at it.' Traditional marriage, nearly all researchers agree, is "child friendly."
II. CLAUDE LEVI-STRAUSS AND THE "DEEP STRUCTURE" OF "RECIPROCAL EXOGAMY"
Levi-Strauss was a founder of modern anthropology. Reciprocal exogamy, he claimed is "the trading" of a group's "most valuable commodity" (its daughters) to outsiders who otherwise would be hostile. Weddings, by his view, are not just parties for two autonomous people, but a form of "communication and alliance" extended families who would otherwise have no connection. Alliance stretches back to grandparents, etc. and forward to later-born children and grandchildren. Reciprocal exogamy, according to Strauss, creates kin ties that become "social pathways" of mutual aid and solidarity. Without this "outreach", humans would not have gotten beyond small, xenophobic rival bands in New Guinea, etc., exactly the type Ryan is so fond of citing!Kinship, derided by Ryan, is the pathway that made modern society possible. It is, in short, part of modernity's "deep structure."
III. THE EVIDENCE FROM EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY AND PRIMATOLOGY. Ryan states that the promiscuous chimpanzee is "far closer" to us than the polygynous gorilla. He exaggerates. The chimpanzee is our closest primate relative with 98.4% common DNA but the gorilla is next with 98%. The gorilla lives in polygynous groups of one dominant male and two or more females. These gorillas are in stable breeding bonds- the offspring DNA testing shows are virtually all of this dominant male - it is just that he has multiple pair bonds! The male is a doting father to his own children but he will go out of his way to kill the off-spring of other males causing the mortality of approximately 37% of infants.This outright baby-killing by males is usually found in "tournament" species like the lion and gorilla. They, like all living organisms, have one fundamental imperative: to maximize the reproduction of one's own genes in living descendants. With tournament species, however, the male expends no energy helping to raise his offspring; his function is simply that of sperm donor. The female gravitates naturally to powerful alpha males who can protect her and her offspring.
The promiscuity of the chimpanzee is perhaps overrated. It is NOT true that chimpanzees will mate will any other chimpanzee. Where the chimpanzee is aware of blood-lines, he/she will not mate. Son will not mate with mother and sister will not mate with the brother with whom she has been raised. (This is the Westermarck effect: infants raised together, even humans, have little to no sexual attraction one to the other.)
Ryan is correct that the gibbon is the only monogamous primate....other than (maybe?) man. Both the gibbon and humans show low levels of "sexual dimorphism" ( dramatic differences of size, musculature and fighting teeth between male and female.) But as we know, humans males and females do have physical differences in size and strength. The gorilla is the classic tournament species, gorilla males being fully twice the size of the female. Males compete/fight with each other; the females are attracted to the alpha males who typically monopolize maybe 95% of the breeding within a tournament species.
So are humans tournament? Biologists will tell you that tournament species have a characteristic "marker" called an "imprinted" gene. An imprinted gene is one that does not follow normal Mendelian laws. Do humans have imprinted genes? Yes they do, though not so many as the gorilla or the lion. So biologists - when asked if we are tournament or pair-bonded - will say that we are "tragically conflicted."
For anyone who wishes to go into depth on just how badly Ryan ignores and/or misstates the primatological evidence, I would strongly recommend a 2013 book by Bernard Chapais,"Primeval Kinship, How Pair-bonding Gave Birth to human Society."He believes like Levi-Strauss that we humans in an evolutionary way gravitated toward pair-bonding with the key phylogenetic behavioral root being the development of an ability to recognize our blood relatives. Gorillas have this ability. Our intermediate primate predecessors, he believes, were initially, like the gorilla, polygynous with one male and multiple female "wives." As we developed a meat-eating diet, males would roam out farther and farther. Thus, he speculates, long ranging hunting caused a sharp reduction in sexual dimorphism in this ancestor; male bodies had to become leaner, smaller and faster. Hunting of animals as big as mastodons required a high degree of social coordination among the hunting band. It is Chapais' theory that when humans developed weapons, conflicts between males became too "costly and indecisive." With most species - where physical abilities are well differentiated - rank settles most conflicts; fighting taking place only between males closely ranked. Weapons, he theorizes, leveled the playing field so that ANY male of the hunting band could challenge any other who tried to keep him from HIS woman. Chapais cites the example of the Barbary macque, the males of which have extremely lethal physical weapons (teeth and claws.) Macque males, he notes, unlike almost all other primate males, rarely fight!
IV. RICHARD DAWKINS, JANE GOODALL AND DESMOND MORRIS ON MALE JEALOUSY AND HUMAN PAIR-BONDING.
Ryan quotes these famous authorities as holding views contrary to his own, but never (IMO) answers their challenge.
Dawkins in books like "The Selfish Gene" describes humans as innately "aggressive, selfish beasts." (Cf. the English doctor essayist, Theodore Dalrymple on "lower class" male jealousy; no matter how many sexual dalliances that male has, he erupts in fury like the gorilla, whenever he suspects "his" woman.)
Desmond Morris: ...."among humans, sexual behavior occurs almost exclusively in a pair-bonding..." Also, he says, "adultery reflects an imperfection in the pair-bonding mechanism" of humans.
Jane Goodall: "Marriage... is the ultimate human contract. Men and women in all societies marry in nearly the same way. Marriage is normally a `permanent' mating between a man and a woman... with the woman nurturing the infants, while the man supports and defends them. The institution of marriage "is older than states, churches, and laws."
Ryan never really addresses these views. His is a clever book, but a misleading one.
on May 20, 2012
I find it jarring when a book contains sloppy errors like: "The year 1968 ... began with the 'velvet revolution' in Prague ... Robert Kennedy was felled on a Los Angeles stage."
It was "The Prague Spring" that took place that year, whereas the Velvet Revolution was in 1989. And RFK was fatally shot in a hotel kitchen.
If the authors and editors failed on such easily-checked data points (I knew those were incorrect without even looking them up), I can't help but doubt their credibility with harder-to-verify claims.
It's a shame, because Ryan and Jethá do put forth some interesting ideas; I just have no idea whether they are grounded in fact.
on March 6, 2012
When the book speaks in psychological terms, it's fine. The assertions made based in anthropology are presented as fact as opposed to speculation. Comparisons with extant (still living) apes is like comparing apples to oranges- which is fine if the audience is well acquainted with primates, or a more in depth approach is used. No theory in anthropology is accepted across the board and the best theories talk about the opposing views. This book is fine if you are reading it to get a dialogue going or want to see an alternate point of view but this is not hard science. This is also not the view of most of the experts in the field and when I say "this" I am referring to monogamy being tied to agriculture, and hunter gather societies using a fission-fusion ape social structure. I gave it one star because people who read this book and are interested in the past are given a point of view that is not supported by the field this book is drawing from. Note the authors have degrees in Psychology, not Anthropology and there is reason for that. Also, one has a PhD in prehistoric sex- notice "prehistory" is something attributed to the anthropological field, yet that is not the field that granted the degree. The definition of prehistory is before written record. The way behavior is inferred concerning prehistory is through physical markings on bones left by muscles, garbage heaps called middens, by analyzing man made materials, and by drawing from behaviors of historical societies and societies still living. Comparisons with primates tend to be used for earlier lines of homo and even those preceding homo. If you compare us to primates today a lot more needs to be addressed than what is covered here. When reading this book just keep in mind it's heavily biased and if you are interested in the anthropology; research the aspects that appealed to you further, before discussing it with others. Especially before discussing with individuals familiar with anthropology. He says some stuff-- the bonobos come to mind--- that if repeated, make some implications that could really embarrass.
on June 23, 2011
Drs. Ryan and Jethá have accomplished the rhetorical equivalent of barging into a cocktail party for evolutionary psychologists (EPers) and turning over every table, setting them all on fire, stripping naked, and having sex in front of the flames while the "oontz oontz oontz" of the dance music continues into the night and the shocked partygoers stare at the horny couple thinking "OK WTF do we do now?"
EPers HATE this book. Professional EPers merely hate it. Alternative-right sex-negative social darwinist armchair EPer scumbags REALLY hate it. People who think of themselves as successfully monogamous feel all butthurt that their sacred lifestyle is under attack. The other 97% of the population have to be thinking "excellent, let's call all our friends up and schedule an orgy on Friday."
Yes, this book oversimplifies the science on the subject. Pretty hilariously in spots. So what? It contains JOKES, for crying out loud. Good ones, I might add. And therefore this could not possibly be a serious review on the science, and anyone who decries it for representing itself as such is merely silly. No, this is not a work of hard science. It is more of a psycho-political work, much in the spirit of Fanon or Sartre, but applied to matters of the groin rather than colonialism and postmodern meaninglessness and other depressing stuff like that.
Really, there is only one point to this book: the human world post-agriculture is a stultifying, miserable, nightmarish place, and the highly industrialized world of the 21st Century is quadruply so, so you might as well not feel bad about being horny. And it's a great point. If you, yourself, are polyamorous, THIS is the book you should have your friends read, not "The Ethical Slut" or "Loving More" or any of that other self-congratulatory nonsense.
on January 17, 2013
I've picked this book hoping it adds something to the field of evolutionary psychology. It turned out that no, it does not add anything.
It was quickly became apparent that the authors are biased. In fact, the first 10% of the book (as measured by Kindle) are devoted to attacking "standard narrative" of evolutionary psychology without really introducing it. Then, things become somewhat better, with a number of facts I did not knew, described in good language. Ultimately, authors claim that it is "natural" for humans to have unrestricted sex, with no preferences, competition or conflict.
Now, that conclusion is pretty bizarre. People express quite strong preferences and competition and conflict, and form pairs everywhere, and it hard to assume that these impulses are purely cultural, and introduced just recently, in agricultural period. Given that the conclusion makes no sense, the exact logical problems in the narrative are of secondary importance, but I particularly noticed that they make no distinction between what was "natural" (that is, adaptive) million years ago in the middle of Africa, and what is adaptive these days in the middle of a city. They also confuse "natural" with "good". With all that, I'd give 3 stars, just for new information.
But then, I read "Sex at Dusk". That book demonstrates most facts in "Sex at Dawn" to be very selectively picked from the references. When those references are slightly expanded, we find that peaceful bonobo actually have conflicts, and the nice tribes have not so nice rituals, and so forth. Maybe, in some cases we can talk about different interpretation, overall, it looks most of the foundation of "Sex at Dawn" is destroyed.
Seems like this is not a scientific book, but rather pure fiction.