Title: Sex at Dawn
Author: Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá
Acquired: From the publisher for review
Review: A long while ago, I asked blog readers to give me some questions about books on my long list of unreviewed titles. I then proceeded to do nothing with those questions, posting a scant number of reviews on this here book blog. But now I’m back, so I can start in with that reviewing thing.
The first book I’m catching up with is Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá because a bunch of my nonfiction-loving compatriots and BAND-Mates (Cass, Kit, and Amy) wanted to hear some thoughts. So, thoughts:
Like most lovely nonfiction, you can learn a lot about Sex at Dawn if you get the full title — Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (or How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships if you have the paperback). Although the title sounds academic and potentially dry, I can assure you that’s not the case. Ryan and Jethá’s book is a funny, irreverent, provocative, smart, and lewd look at the way the “standard narrative” of human sexual evolution developed and why all of the things we think about sex might be completely wrong.
According to Ryan and Jethá, the standard narrative is pretty simple, and one most people have already heard:
- Boy meets girl.
- Boy and girl assess one another’s mate value from perspectives based upon their differing reproductive agendas/capacities. … (Basically, men look for youth, fertility, and fidelity while women look for wealth, health, and parental investment)
- Boy gets girl: assuming they meet one another’s criteria, they “mate,” forming a long-term pair bond — the “fundamental condition of the human species,” as famed author Desmond Morris put it. (After this bond happens, women look for signs of emotional infidelity and men look for signs of sexual fidelity).
Ryan and Jethá accept that this pattern does happen in various human societies — as other scientists have demonstrated. However, they disagree that the repetition is because humans have evolved to be this way:
These behaviors and predilections are not biologically programmed traits of our species; they are evidence of the human brain’s flexibility and the creative potential of community.
As the book continues, Ryan and Jethá explain how many of the things we’ve grown to accept as normal (or at least not entirely unusual) facets of human sexuality — the difficulty of sexual fidelity, the way sexual passion fades, the unavoidability of sexual jealousy, and male and female sexual tendencies — are actually not normal at all. Instead, they suggest that our early human history was a time of “decidedly casual, friendly … human sexuality.”
One question about the book came from Fyefly, who asked: “I definitely need to read Sex at Dawn, although from what I can tell, it’s evolutionary social psychology, which is really, really, (really) hard to do right. So I’d love to hear about your skepticism, and whether or not the book’s arguments convinced you.”
Her question points out at least one of my major sketicisms of the book — the kind of argument Ryan and Jethá are trying to make, one based on scientific evidence rather than one informed by cultural norms or assumptions, is extremely difficult because there just isn’t that much evidence to work with. There’s just not a lot of evidence about what life was like for our ancestors (pre-farming nomads), so much of what Ryan and Jethá try to argue seems speculative.
I also noticed the authors are quick to dismiss anecdotal evidence that supports the standard narrative, but often use anecdotes to support their point. I’m not saying I necessarily think they’re wrong, just that it’s hard not to read a book like this without having questions, since what it is arguing is almost entirely opposite of what we accept now. When I’m not an expert on a particular subject, I guess I just tend to carry some skepticism with me when reading. I’d love to hear more about what other scientists have to say about the argument the book is trying to make.
Another question came from Jennifer, who wanted to know: I’d love to hear about what fascinated you and what left you feeling skeptical. Ultimately, what is one major factoid that you are walking away with that surprised you?”
Despite some skepticism, I was fascinated learning how different disciplines approach similar questions, and how a scientist or reader goes about asking intelligent questions about things others accept as fact. Ryan and Jethá draw from a huge number of fields to make their arguments, and spend a lot of time discussing experimental methodology. Maybe I’m a nerd, but I was very interested by that.
As for one fact that surprised me… I’m not sure I can pick one! I guess one that sticks out was a debunking of the age myth — the one that says life back in the day was extremely short. Turns out, if you could survive past childhood, life expectancy was actually quite good (66 to 91 years). However, when you look at the statistic “life expectancy at birth,” the huge number of infant deaths skews the number. It’s more accurate to look at “typical life span.”
I suppose that’s not a hugely amazing statistic, but is a good example of the way that the book helps to explain how current data and experiments can be misleading if you don’t take a more careful look at the assumptions embedded in it.
One disappointment I had with the book was that Ryan and Jethá don’t really offer any solutions or suggestions for what to do with this new idea about human sexuality. I mean, I guess it would be a lot for them to ask (“Solve the problems of monogamy!), but the book left me feeling a little adrift and unsure what to think. Even so, I imagine this is the kind of book that would be a great conversation starter, and I’d definitely suggest picking it up if the topic seems interesting.
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