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Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality

Christopher Ryan, Cacilda Jethá

(Harper Collins; US: Jul 2010)

“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 hundreds of 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 percent 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.”


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 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.” Scientists who insist on “innate monogamy” perpetuate a primal myth similar to the Fall of Adam and Eve: “sexual deceit, prohibited knowledge, and guilt.”


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.”


Instead, Ryan and Jethá emphasize in our desires and design a “natural structure”. They advance a model of “diffuse nurturing”, with all men called father and all women as mother. 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?” 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.” 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.” 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.” It seems 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.”


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 “esposas” 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.”


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.” Unlike our lusty ancestors, most mature moderns seem to draw the curtains, dim the lights, and lower the volume of “copulatory vocalizations”. At least they do 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.

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Born in Los Angeles but should have been born in my parental Ireland. Find me at:"Blogtrotter".


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