Duck Duck Book

67 – sex at dawn
12.31.2010, 8:47 pm
Filed under: social sciences

Sex at dawn : the prehistoric origins of modern sexuality / Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá.
New York : Harper, c2010.
[MCL call number: 306.7 R9883s 2010; 57 copies, 132 holds;
also in downloadable ebook format; two copies, 6 holds]

Most scholars of human sexuality agree about the basics of human sexual evolution.  The story goes something like this: a male and female meet and assess one another for their reproductive potential.  Each has a different agenda: he is looking for youth, health, fertility, virginity, and fidelity; while she is looking for wealth, status, health, and the likelihood that he’ll stick around to help raise children.  Once they each decide to take a risk on their opposite number, they settle down to practice monogamy and form a nuclear family.  After that, he worries most if she strays sexually, while she worries most if he strays emotionally.

This sounds awfully narrow-minded and unpleasant.  But familiar.  The conventional understanding of what constitutes “normal” human sexuality is breathtakingly judgmental and prescriptive (significantly increasing human misery).  Most of the scholars who conceived this “standard narrative” of human sexual evolution are a product of this relatively repressive contemporary culture.  Naturally it’s difficult for them divorce their intellectual activities completely from their own cultural contexts.

However, a few people are trying.

Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá refute this standard narrative in their book Sex at Dawn, and although their arguments aren’t perfect, they are helpful to anyone who is frustrated by the baby-focused, gender-stereotyping, hetero-centric, war-of-the-sexes slant of the standard narrative I described above.   Their most important (and their clearest) conclusion is that the standard narrative is very badly wrong.

Some of their evidence is quite interesting:

  • We have the same amount of genetic similarity to bonobos (who have sex all the time for an astonishing array of reasons) and chimpanzees (who fight a lot, about everything), so it’s crazy that scholars keep insisting that we’re more like chimpanzees than we are like bonobos.
  • People who live in small groups, who forage and do not bother to store food (as early humans seem to have done) have both an immediate and an evolutionary interest in enforcing a culture that preferences sharing and punishes not sharing (“fierce egalitarianism”); why wouldn’t this include sex?  In fact, in many contemporary societies of this type, the sharing does include sharing sex.
  • The animal species which are most thoroughly monogamous engage in sexual activity infrequently, and limit it to occasions when it is most likely to result in procreation.  The species which have sex regularly and enthusiastically are the ones that are the most thoroughly not monogamous.  Is there any reason to assume that humans, ostensibly monogamous but really interested in having lots of sex, are the only species which varies from this pattern?
  • Human genitals have some interesting anatomical features.  For example, we sport a very unusual penis, which has a glans on the end that acts like a suction machine during penis-in-vagina intercourse.  If someone else’s sperm is already in the woman’s vagina, this suction pulls it away from her cervix, thus clearing the field for the upcoming ejaculation.  This anatomical oddity lends credence to the notion that men’s sperm competes in a woman’s vagina.  And if the sperm is doing the competing, the rest of us can just have sex instead of fighting.

As you might expect, the book is also about prehistoric human life more generally — and about critically examining how modern academics do their work on the human past.  Ryan and Jethá’s pressure on other scholars’ assumptions is refreshing and interesting.  When discussing matriarchy, for example:

“As happens so often in trying to understand and discuss other cultures, wording trips up specialists.  When they claim never to have found a ‘true matriarchy,’ these anthropologists are envisioning a mirror image of patriarchy, a vision that ignores the differing ways males and females conceptualize and wield power.'” (page 133)

I would argue that a statement like “the differing ways males and females conceptualize and wield power” is problematic as well — it is a pretty sweeping generalization, especially when it’s intended to be inclusive of all human cultures over time.  But, no doubt if Ryan and Jethá’s analysis proves influential enough, thoughtful and thorough critics will help us examine their assumptions as well.

There are some other significant difficulties with Ryan and Jethá’s presentation.  One that particularly frustrated me is that they focus most of their attention on what might be called plain-vanilla straight sex.  No doubt this is because many of their arguments are rooted in evolutionary biology, a field that is concerned with the circumstances, actions and events that lead to procreation.  But they also draw on anthropology and archaeology, and on the work of evolutionary theorists who posit that cooperation is just as important a factor in evolution as is competition.  And so it seemed striking to me that there is so little in the book about homosexuality in general, or about specifically non-procreative heterosexual acts.  After all, the authors are concerned largely with the question of how humans developed our propensity to engage in sexual activity that absolutely can’t lead to procreation.  I would think that they would have more to say about how queer we are.

But, despite its problems, Sex at Dawn is very interesting, amusing, and thought-provoking.  It is also very readable: Ryan and Jethá do a good job of keeping their tone lively, which helps make the book accesible for interested laypersons who don’t already posses a great deal of knowledge of the subjects at hand.  I recommend it.

Sex at Dawn has a decent index, and a long but sadly un-annotated bibliography.

* * *

The NPR blog Monkey See is currently featuring an excellent series of my-favorite-book-of-2010 reviews by NPR on-air personalitiesSex at Dawn was the first book featured, in a review by Peter Sagal, in which he said, “it’s the only book I read this year that proved that I was badly mistaken about something.”  It is this review that first brought the book to my attention.


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