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Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality Hardcover – June 29, 2010

4.3 out of 5 stars 729 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

Sex At Dawn has helped me understand myself and the world so much more clearly.” (Ilana Glazer, co-creator of Broad City)

“Sex At Dawn is the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior in the Human Male on the American public in 1948.” (Dan Savage)

“Funny, witty, and light ... Sex at Dawn is a scandal in the best sense, one that will have you reading the best parts aloud and reassessing your ideas about humanity’s basic urges well after the book is done.” (Newsweek)

“Sex At Dawn challenges conventional wisdom about sex in a big way... This is a provocative, entertaining, and pioneering book. I learned a lot from it and recommend it highly.” (Andrew Weil, M.D., author of Healthy Aging)

“Sex At Dawn is a provocative and engaging synthesis... that has the added benefit of being a joy to read.... A book sure to generate discussion, and one likely to produce more than a few difficult conversations with family marriage counselors.” (Eric Michael Johnson, Seed Magazine)

“You clearly have an exciting book on your hands, whether people agree with it or not: these are issues that will need debating over and over before we will arrive at a resolution.” (Frans de Waal, author of The Age of Empathy)

“A wonderfully provocative and well-written book which completely re-evaluates human sexual behaviour and gets to the root of many of our social and psychological ills.” (Steve Taylor, author of The Fall and Waking From Sleep)

“One of the most original books I’ve read in years, Sex at Dawn manages to be both enormously erudite and wildly entertaining—even, frequently, hilarious. . . . A must-read for anyone interested in where our sexual impulses come from.” (Tony Perrottet, author of Napoleon's Privates)

“This paradigm-shifting book is a thoroughly original discussion of the origins and nature of human sexuality... These authors have a gift for making complex material reader-friendly, filling each chapter with humor and passion as well as dozens of revolutionary insights.” (Stanley Krippner, Ph.D.)

“Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha have written the essential corrective to the evolutionary psychology literature...” (Stanton Peele, Ph.D.)

From the Back Cover

Since Darwin's day, we've been told that sexual monogamy comes naturally to our species. Mainstream science—as well as religious and cultural institutions—has maintained that men and women evolved in families in which a man's possessions and protection were exchanged for a woman's fertility and fidelity. But this narrative is collapsing. Fewer and fewer couples are getting married, and divorce rates keep climbing as adultery and flagging libido drag down even seemingly solid marriages.

How can reality be reconciled with the accepted narrative? It can't be, according to renegade thinkers Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethå. While debunking almost everything we "know" about sex, they offer a bold alternative explanation in this provocative and brilliant book.

Ryan and Jethå's central contention is that human beings evolved in egalitarian groups that shared food, child care, and, often, sexual partners. Weaving together convergent, frequently overlooked evidence from anthropology, archaeology, primatology, anatomy, and psychosexuality, the authors show how far from human nature monogamy really is. Human beings everywhere and in every era have confronted the same familiar, intimate situations in surprisingly different ways. The authors expose the ancient roots of human sexuality while pointing toward a more optimistic future illuminated by our innate capacities for love, cooperation, and generosity.

With intelligence, humor, and wonder, Ryan and Jethå show how our promiscuous past haunts our struggles over monogamy, sexual orientation, and family dynamics. They explore why long-term fidelity can be so difficult for so many; why sexual passion tends to fade even as love deepens; why many middle-aged men risk everything for transient affairs with younger women; why homosexuality persists in the face of standard evolutionary logic; and what the human body reveals about the prehistoric origins of modern sexuality.

In the tradition of the best historical and scientific writing, Sex at Dawn unapologetically upends unwarranted assumptions and unfounded conclusions while offering a revolutionary understanding of why we live and love as we do.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1 edition (June 29, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780061707803
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061707803
  • ASIN: 0061707805
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.3 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (729 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #67,952 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Eric Johnson on July 4, 2010
Format: Hardcover
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.
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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.
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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.
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