Read “Sex at Dawn”, no really, read it.

I loved this book. I am only posting about the first two parts, so that the rest remains a mystery and you go and read it!

In the first two parts of the book, Sex at Dawn, authors Ryan and Jetha explicate and then seek to refute the standard narrative of human sexuality. The authors take exception with what the last hundred years of Western science purports human sexuality to be; that humans are naturally monogamous at the species level. The authors begin their analysis with Darwin, both his personality and his research, then expand to the field of evolutionary psychology to question where this scientifically supported belief that men are universally obsessed with paternity certainty and that women are universally concerned with access to men’s resources comes from. The first strategy is to question how anthropologists and sociologists interpret the evidence used to support this standard narrative. The authors seek to problematize the accepted conclusions drawn from potentially biased accounts. Ryan and Jetha endeavor to show how the traditional model of monogamy as the single, ie ‘natural’, reproductive strategy for human beings is not based on facts, but rather on a set of normalized assumptions. Scientists’ refusal to see anything other than pair bonding as normal human behavior is due, not to a lack of evidence, but rather to the scientists themselves being heavily influenced by their own pro-monogamous cultures.

The authors understand the goal of evolutionary psychology to be the identification of universal traits unique to our species. Evolutionary psychology gives credence to the standard narrative by providing evidence for the following assumptions: prehistoric women and children were dependent on men to provide them with meat and protection; this dependency resulted in an exchange where women offered sexual fidelity in order to assure men that they were only supporting the children that carried their genes. Ryan and Jetha suggest that Flintstonization is at work in this description of our prehistorical selves; with Flinstonization being “the widespread tendency to project contemporary cultural proclivities into the distant past.” In offering an alternative explanation, Ryan and Jetha use data from multiple disciplines such as anthropology, archaeology, human physiology, and primate biology to suggest that prehistoric human beings lived in egalitarian groups that shared food, child care, and sexual partners.

The authors are challenging the historic claims that monogamy was the natural response to our prehistoric ecology. They employ three strategies for this: first, by looking at the sexual behavior of our closest ape relatives; secondly, by suggesting our current paradigm of forced monogamy is in response to the ecological shift from hunter-gatherer to agrarian; and third that despite the evidence that supports other possible reproductive strategies in human beings, scientists refuse to acknowledge it.

By observing the social/sexual behavior of other apes we can attempt to understand our own behavior.  Sex at Dawn follows the evidence that situates humans most closely related to bonobos, then chimpanzees.  Both bonobos and humans are ascribed a hypersexual nature in comparison to the rest of the great apes. The very sexually active female bonobos who are also the leaders of their groups serves as an example that female sexual reticence in humans is more cultural than biological. The concept of socio-erotic exchanges, or SEEx, is introduced. Both species have continual sexual responsiveness of the female and both species have sex when reproduction is not possible, i.e. homosexual sex.  SEEx is observed in both bonobos and humans in small-scale nomadic, non-agrarian societies. SEEx functions to strengthen bonds among individuals within groups. The authors posit that, up until to the major ecological shift for humanity, sharing was the key to survival.  SEEx reduces group disruptions caused by jealousy and possessiveness observed in Chimpanzees and most human societies. SEEx also blurs paternity, which is a very important factor in the counter arguments to the standard narrative. The social-sexual strategy of bonobos is read as a possible example of pre-agrarian human behavior.

Ryan and Jetha also problematize an obsession with paternity certainty as a universal obsession by describing various strategies employed by other species and human populations not often included in the dominant discourse. Partible paternity, where the nurture of a child is shared by multiple fathers, and alloparenting, traditions of non-parental care giving, in humans are given as examples that paternity uncertainty is a successful reproductive strategy.

The language we use to describe social behavior is limited and often judgmental of anything we don’t expect to find. Examples of sexual autonomy are overlooked and ignored. Anthropologists claim that marriage is universal. Ryan and Jetha say this claim is based on an undefined concept of marriage.  Anthropologists see marriage everywhere because they want to see it; the evidence is compromised by confirmation bias. The insistence that patriarchy is universal despite evidence to the contrary hinges on an assumption of what matriarchy should look like. We expect that men would suffer due to their subordinate status under matriarchal rule the same way women have in our patriarchal societies. If men are happy, then a society must be patriarchal.

Ryan and Jetha assert that social construction occurs in both behavior and thought. Assumption of sexual monogamy as intrinsic to human nature supports ownership of women by men. Assumption of the zero-sum game of sex is a convenient way to make our western values into biologically determined universally human traits. Ryan and Jetha chastises social scientists like Fisher and Buss for universalizing their findings to “everyone everywhere always.” In their critique of Fisher, the authors claim that by ignoring social construction, Fisher’s work conflates the effects of social forces with pre-determined human nature. In the critique of Buss; the methodology used is flawed. The research is reliant on a subject population that is more convenient than it is representative. Use of college students produces insightful information pertinent only to the age and socio-economic class of those undergraduates. To make human universal claims based upon such specific samples is irresponsible science.

In closing part 2, the standard narrative of human sexuality produced by western science is described as a “moralistic bias packaged to look like science…rationalizing the present while obscuring the past.”

This book is a must read for those of us irritated beyond measure with evolutionary psychology’s obsession with affirming the status quo. I don’t have the patience to do this work but I am so very grateful Ryan and Jetha did!

Read “Sex at Dawn”, no really, read it.
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  • Christopher Ryan

    Hi Airial,
    Many thanks for helping to spread the word. We’re glad you’re enjoying the book and grateful for your kind words here.

    CPR & CJ

  • omgrey

    BRILLIANT book. I’m with you. I highly recommend this to *everyone* who wants to understand Human Sexuality better.