602 of 657 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sexy Beasts
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...
Published on July 4, 2010 by Eric Johnson
594 of 660 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Amusing but flawed.
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...
Published on March 26, 2011 by Metepeira
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602 of 657 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sexy Beasts,
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.
594 of 660 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Amusing but flawed.,
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.
98 of 115 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Much that is True, but Remember: Is does not Imply Ought,
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.
167 of 202 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars This book presents a FALSE hypothesis as a solution to our common ignorance,
This review is from: Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships (Paperback)
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.
32 of 39 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Sigh. So sloppy with facts and editing, I don't know what to think!,
This review is from: Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (.) (Kindle Edition)
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.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Very Interactive Experience - But is the Argument Based on a Single Midwife Toad?,
This book will probably have you arguing back at it before long. It's bound to stir up a lively controversy between the two halves it will make of you - pro and con, liberal and conservative, optimist and pessimist. Its picture of human nature will both please and appall.
The two authors make a case for a human nature forged eons ago when we existed as a sparse species living as nomadic hunter-gatherers in generally peaceful, altruistic communal units. In their view, we are psychologically and physiologically geared to live, not so much in isolated nuclear family units or in constantly warring factions - but instead in sharing, egalitarian tribes. It's easy to grant at least some validity to the "It Takes a Village" picture they paint of human prehistory.
But the authors consequently also refute what's now become standard evolutionary theory - that our modern temperament is a product of male's and female's respective selfish strategies to finagle as much of their DNA into the next generation as possible. Toward this end, according to the dominant theory, males maneuver to gain exclusive sexual rights over females to ensure that they ARE the fathers of whatever children are produced - and females maneuver to be able to attribute fatherhood (rightly or wrongly) to those males who are the best providers in the vicinity. Ryan and Jetha say this paints a falsely pessimistic view of human nature. It dooms us to being manipulative, jealous, and possessive. By contrast, Ryan and Jetha argue that our human birthright is a happy sexual openness and sharing - one long swingers' party such as some of our closest primate ancestors (the bonobos and the chimps) and our prehistoric human ancestors enjoyed.
It's when they begin to detail the nature of what they think should be our rightful sexual dynamic though that the authors become the most controversial, and many readers will probably feel - wrong. This is particularly true regarding their assumptions that:
1)The invention of agriculture is to blame for a lot of our currently enforced tendency to jealousy and possessiveness. With agriculture came settled communities and the consequent necessity to defend these privately owned plots. The authors believe that without private property to defend, there would be no reason for war. (Part of you might argue back here - But what about individuals' need for antagonistic excitements? The authors apparently have never studied the dynamics of team sports or condo association boards.)
2)The female sexual drive would naturally manifest itself as being every bit as avid and lusty as the male's, except for our modern artificially imposed restrictions.(This is where I wanted to shout out at the authors to read Elaine Morgan's "The Aquatic Ape" to be set right about the reality of women's desires.)
In order to make their case for our human birthright of free-love cavorting, Ryan and Jetha lean heavily on evidence from the cultures of the few currently remaining hunting-gathering tribes and from what was reported of such tribes in the past, and on the findings of archeological forensics that they say seem to show our prehistoric ancestors didn't often die as the result of any brutish, nasty attacks upon each other. A lot of the evidence they cite seems questionable. But mostly, they seem guilty of hanging their optimist theory of human nature on too thin a thread. Reading along, I was reminded of Athur Koestler's book "The Case of the Midwife Toad."
In this book, Koestler describes the struggles of Soviet scientist Paul Kammerer to prove that Lamarck rather than Darwin was correct about how evolution proceeds. Lamarck believed that acquired characteristics are inherited. So, according to Lemarckian theory, if parents work hard and develop firm muscles, their children will be born fit and muscular. This sort of malleability of humankind fit in well with Communist ideology, and Kemmerer was under tremendous pressure to prove this version of evolutionary theory. After breeding several generations of toads, he thought he could detect some "nuptial pads" on a small group of newborns descended from toads he had laboriously coaxed to breed in slippery water conditions where the development of such callouses gave mating couples extra purchase on each other. Due to one laboratory accident after another, one misfortune after another, all these calloused toad specimens were lost - except for one, preserved in formaldehyde. Kemmerer's whole vindication of Lamarckian inheritance hung on the thin thread of that one suspect toad.
In the same way, it seems to me that Ryan and Jetha are often hanging their argument on the thin thread of evidence from the lifestyles of a few hunter/gatherer cultures. In fact, they rely most heavily on evidence from just one such remaining pre-agricultural society, the Mosuo people in a remote part of China. The authors claim the 56,000 members of this community live as we were all meant to live and as we all can live, freed of the shackles of our modern, hierarchical, industrial world. They claim the Mosuo lifestyle shows that we were all meant for a lively exchange of multiple sexual partners.
Not only did this strike me as reliance on one midwife toad specimen, but more generally, it struck me as being too much a high school boy's wishful thinking - the Playboy credo argued as valid science. The authors' contention that the current epidemic of male teenage rage might largely be due to male's frustrated sexuality, struck me as being an especially specious back-seat-of-the-Chevy argument. Aren't modern teens having more guilt-free sex than previous generations - and yet aren't they given to more rage than ever?
But as much as the authors sometimes seemed to be mere Hefner apologists, and as little as they seemed to take into account a whole range of women's real longings, I did find I had to concede some points to them. I found myself being convinced by more aspects of their arguments than I thought I would be. Their conclusions are especially compelling and timely, considering all the current scandals over the sexual peccadillos of prominent men. These authors argue that such behavior is an imbedded part of human nature, carried down from patterns that served our simian and prehistoric ancestors well. Rather than making such "indiscretions" the occasion for contentious divorce proceedings that catapult children and adults alike into bitter chaos, Ryan and Jetha argue that we should learn to accommodate these behaviors with living arrangements that are fresh, open, and inventive - and at the same time that contain a wisdom and acceptance of our animal nature that is eons old.
Whether you agree or disagree, this book will give you a lively read. It includes an extensive and eclectic bibliography, and pages of end-of-book footnotes sprinkled with some fascinating asides, ranging from the prevalence of used-panty vending machines in Japan, to the significance of different scrotal sizes. Be sure to read through these last pages. You'll at least end up with some provocative cocktail party conversation, and just maybe - a whole new slant on things.
50 of 65 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A book I wished was even more detailed!,
"Cheating Rumors Fly About 'The Bachelor''s fiancée": this pops up as I log on to type this. Why do Jake and Vienna spark headlines-- until the next couple, next week? What lures them to stray? After nearly two million years in the making, must we roam as randily as our bonobo cousins? After a hundred centuries of civilization and two millennia of convention, why hasn't monogamy won us over?
Psychologist Christopher Ryan and psychiatrist Cacilda Jethá present their findings about the prehistoric roots of our sexuality. They counter colleagues, clerics, and counselors who demand fidelity as our inborn, "natural" order. Ryan and Jethá assert that we carry within us another urge as we generate generations. "Multiple mating" occupied (at least) 95% of our ancestral experience. This replaces the accepted account in academia for men as "serial monogamists." For millions of years, most of our male and female predecessors "had several sexual relationships at any given time."(12)
Ryan and Jethá argue that we carry these patterns from foragers, who shared mates as they did goods and as they raised their young. It took a village to raise a child because any fertile father or mother in the village might have created that child. Before the fetishizing of paternity that accompanied the rise of agriculture, the surplus of wealth, and the imposition of fidelity to legitimize inheritance, foragers imprinted their wayward ways within us. The authors show why we, like Jake and Vienna, keep losing the battle of the sexes-- as if "cheating" can ever win us the dating and mating game-- against the innate urge to share ourselves intimately.
Part One explains why Darwin lacked sexual insight, and how Victorian inhibitions and his wife's censorship prevented biologists from advancing their own understanding of primate prototypes and parallels for human sexuality. Part Two applies anthropology. The authors dismiss "Flintstonization," our "widespread tendency to project contemporary cultural proclivities into the distant past."(32) Scientists who insist on "innate monogamy" perpetuate a primal myth similar to the Fall of Adam and Eve: "sexual deceit, prohibited knowledge, and guilt."(35)
The "double standard" of a caddish male and jealous female tells but half the story. It cuts out the woman's leading role as the mistress of her own reproductive and romantic fate. Helen Fisher and similarly acclaimed authorities "begin by assuming that long-term sexual monogamy forms the nucleus of the one and only natural, eternal human family structure and reason backwards from there."(75)
Instead, Ryan and Jethá emphasize in our desires and design a "natural structure." They advance a model of "diffuse nurturing," with all men called <em>father</em> and all women as <em>mother</em>. Such societies exist among today's foragers. "Could it be that the atomic isolation of the husband-wife nucleus with an orbiting child is in fact a culturally imposed aberration for our species -- as ill-suited to our evolved tendencies as corsets, chastity belts, and suits of armor?" (109) Might other familiar headlines-- of exhausted parents, broken families, and hostile children-- "be predictable consequences of what is, in truth, a distorted and distorting family structure inappropriate for our species?"
Using cross-cultural comparisons with foragers, Ryan and Jethá disprove any "universal" model of family structure or sexual behavior. "Societies in which women have lots of autonomy and authority tend to be decidedly male-friendly, relaxed, tolerant, and plenty sexy." (133) Men and women can get along, after all, if power and decision-making complement one another.
Why have such models been ignored or opposed? Western academics filter them through biases towards patriarchy; they perceive a matriarchy by distorting a mirror image that no society has been able to match. Ryan and Jethá correct this "confirmation bias" that leads scholars to look for "pair-bonding" as equivalent to lifelong marriage. They remind us how "mate" and "mating" convey, as does "love," (or "sleeping with" or "making love") our own socially constructed phenomena. Inspired by sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, the authors confirm that "human sexuality developed primarily as a bonding mechanism in interdependent bands where paternity certainty was a nonissue." (149) Many women in foraging societies never needed to barter their favors for child care, protection, food, or male fidelity.
Part Three detours into material foundations for such societies, not as we assume so poor, nasty, brutish, or short in lifespan (as Hobbes famously defined the primitive state). Communal belonging likely produced for many of our forebears less stress than we suffer. Conflicts could be avoided or neutralized.
An ancestral, open, relaxed sexuality gave way, with agriculture and wealth accumulation, to more toil, greater disease, and endemic inequality. Men enforced "an exchange of protein and protection for assured paternity." (99) We lost, as we turned civilized, our "innate capacity for love and generosity." Perhaps we bargained it away for refrigeration and dentistry, but we also produced slavery, discrimination, pain imposed upon women, and institutionalized fear of their sexual sway.
Part Four shifts back to our physical design. Why do we sexually endure a "symmetry of dual disappointment"? "It's as if we've been sitting down to dinner together, millennium after millennium, but half of us can't stop wolfing everything down in a few frantic, sloppy minutes, while the other half are still setting the table and lighting candles." (245)
Ingredients for boiling males and simmering females stir deep inside us. The authors teach us how we're engineered for "sperm competition" by penile streamlining, female capacity for multiple orgasm, and "female copulatory vocalization" as a way for letting the neighbors know that while one suitor might be soon spent, others might wait their roll on the savanna. By "sequential sex," the ready and willing woman could receive her multiple mates. Their ejaculated "post-copulatory" contributions maximized at a "cellular level" her fertility. Her body by "choosing among potential fathers" at a mechanical, non-conscious level of paternity -- as researchers now comprehend -- deepens profoundly the meaning of "natural selection."
This book moves briskly, but not all the sections show strong transitions. I sense Ryan's jocular tone balances his partner Jethá's sober data. Their chapters cram dense learning with a lively array of anecdotes and statistics on this endlessly engaging topic. You will learn how Pope John XXI died, whither the preference for "gangbang" over "reverse gangbang" among adult online offerings, why women's sense of smell may be better than men's, hear Mark Twain's rejoinders to morality, and tally Tiger Woods' scorecard. Despite casual organization, the verve and range of Ryan and Jethá's study ambitiously challenges norms of evolutionary psychologists.
The authors wonder if we might be moving into polyamorous relationships again today, as the nuclear family weakens. Instinctive patterns rewarding a non-moralized, positive promiscuity may in time, once and if our morality adapts, replace our rigid monogamy. They suggest sexual openness as an alternative to either male-female monogamy or the other configuration for "long-term pair bonding" as accepted by scientists in "the standard narrative," that of polygyny-- one man, many women.
Most adults lived in small bands, no more than "Dunbar's number" of 150, for nearly all of our evolution. Trusting their clan, people indulged several sexual relationships at once. This cohesive pattern endures in primitive societies studied today. While agriculture and privatization of property led to its suppression among ancient and modern cultures, its model of "open sexuality unencumbered by guilt or shame" offers us a rationale for Jake and Vienna's split. Part Five answers why even when bonded to one partner, couples may seek satisfaction elsewhere.
"Erotic plasticity" uncouples females from the male tendency, after a brief chance for open identity in their formation, to conform to a homosexual or heterosexual norm. Females throughout their lives show more acceptance of "variety and change" in mates of either sex. Males crave "necessary spice" -- if sprinkled by a partner in a different kitchen. Homosexuals (in too-rapid an authorial aside), persist due to a simple desire for bonding, one that can elude reproductive demands.
Couples seek emotional and sexual adventure so affairs go on; non-monogamy need not equate with debauchery. Our dominant culture that refuses to entertain "swingers" as other than as on a '70s sitcom episode suppresses even its therapists. Nowadays, when few would convince a gay man or lesbian to stop being such, our experts keep demanding divorce or "death-do-us part" as the only solutions to the embedded boredom, dissatisfaction, and incompatibility within many a "conventional marriage." The bonds of wedlock can be loosened, Ryan and Jethá whisper, without being broken.
"Novelty itself is the attraction," they insist, for male resistance to "monotomy," monogamy added to matrimony. They tell female readers this is an inexorable result of what another equation sums up in Spanish, where <em>"esposas"</em> means "wife" -- and "handcuffs." Where does this leave those vowed as pair-bonded? Ryan and Jethá hope this book will "provoke the sorts of conversations that make it a bit easier for couples to make their way across this difficult emotional terrain together, with a deeper, less judgmental understanding of the ancient roots of these inconvenient feelings and a more informed, mature approach to dealing with them." (305)
They don't dispense pat predictions about how "a more relaxed and tolerant approach to fidelity" might play out. A glance at polyamorous families and a remonstrance to therapists who force couples into "love it or leave it" hints at how this struggle towards acceptance might happen -- and how vehement the opposition might well be. Ryan and Jethá compare the slow advances granted to gay rights and same-sex marriage. Ryan and Jethá realize the odds against such tolerance attained by advocates of "free love," however ethically conceived by those daringly liberated.
Ryan and Jethá urge us "to seek peace with the truths of human sexuality." (310) They conclude this book with a (too brief) look at alternatives few promote even among the psychological and psychiatric professions. "But this we know: vehement denial, inflexible religious or legislative dictate, and medieval stoning rituals in the desert have all proved powerless against our prehistoric predilections."
They glimpse a future oriented towards love, cooperation, and generosity. Still, I reckon that, even in the most liberated of communities, free minded folks may likely hide their "low-key alternatives to standard, off-the-shelf monogamy." (308) Unlike our lusty ancestors, most mature moderns seem to draw the curtains, dim the lights, and lower the volume of "copulatory vocalizations." At least in my neighborhood.
Against social and cultural odds, Ryan and Jethá propose that we embrace a sexuality that does not diminish the energies wired into our essential selves. It might be too late for Jake and Vienna to kiss and make up. Savvier readers of this book -- rather than that headline -- may, however, reconcile themselves with these perplexing instincts, bred into us by our wandering progenitors over millions of years.
49 of 64 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Errors, schmerrors: pop science is nonsense anyway and you might as well stop blaming yourself for failling at monogamy,
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.
61 of 81 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Not based on anthropology,
This review is from: Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships (Paperback)
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.
15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not 100% accurate but cannot be disregarded,
I have mixed feelings about the book. On the one hand, it raises a very important issue about human sexuality that is so ingrained in our culture, that it seems to many to be a part of human nature. It makes a valid point of human beings having potential for succesful different sexual and relationship configurations than mainstream heterosexual monogamy. It is an important voice in the discussion, and cannot be disregarded.
On the other hand, the structure of the book collapses on itself at the very end. Having made a lenghty argument against the "standard narrative" it then repeats the points of the said narrative, only painting them in a different light. It actually confirms the thesis that it tries to disprove, but offers an alternative to the problem of attitude and cultural perception of the issue - while "standard narrative" describes the differences in male/female drives in terms of unresolvable conflict, putting one sex against another, the authors of this book offer an idea that perhaps it can be resolved by cooperation, understanding and taking an alternative look at human sexuality.
The main criticism of the book was that it manipulates the data, and contains some errors in interpretation of scientific research, mostly on apes. This perhaps is a valid point, but it does not disprove the general message. The strenght of the book does not lie in it relying on a single research or two, but in gathering alternative examples from various places, including some interesting anthropological data. A lot of criticism is also reactionary to an idea, that open relationships have any possible grounding in biology, and misreading the authors' point: the fact, that we have the potential, does not necessarily mean that everyone should do it, nor that everyone should sleep around with everyone else. To be fair, the book lends itself to this kind of criticism because of the false dichotomy that the authors seem to present - the "standard narrative" vs. "our narrative", as if these two were really opposite or mutually exclusive, which they aren't.
I disliked the fact, that a few dozens of pages at the beginning were spent on not very sophisticated argument why we should not believe authorities, and on setting up the strawman of "standard narrative". I would advise readers not to judge the book by these pages though - the real "meat" is in the middle. Also the language of the book was at times too colloquial for my taste, and some metaphors or arguments sounded rather childish or silly, and interfered with the main argument that was being presented. However overall, I would recommend reading this book, regardless of one's views on the subject. It is a relatively easy read, and offers hope to people who are not satisfied with the standard "one-size-fits-all" recipe for life.
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