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Review: ‘Sex at Dawn’ by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá

Review: ‘Sex at Dawn’ by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá post image

Title: Sex at Dawn
Author: Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2011
Acquired: From the publisher for review
Rating: ★★★★½

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:

  1. Boy meets girl.
  2. 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)
  3. 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.

Other Reviews: Books are my Boyfriends |

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Amy August 18, 2011, 2:13 pm

    Great review, thanks for sharing. Like you I’m also wondering how they are so quick to dismiss anything proving the standard but use anything and everything to prove theirs. But unlike you, at about half way through, I am just so BORED! It’s fascinating information but man oh man. I don’t at all like the writing (reading in my case) style. You know me though, I like it dry and scientific and fact-filled. The fun and comfortable style of saying things like “reeeeaaally” or “is that so?” and so on is just driving me crazy!

    • Kim August 20, 2011, 3:56 pm

      Ha, that’s so funny! I love the style of it, but I usually like conversational nonfiction like this one. I thought it was quite funny! I hope you’re able to finish it even though the style isn’t working for you.

  • Trisha August 19, 2011, 10:13 am

    I really enjoy books that explore both sides of an issue, primarily because there are very few things in this world I have a definite, unshakeable position on. The topic is still fascinating though!

    • Kim August 20, 2011, 3:58 pm

      It’s really fascinating stuff, especially since they’re arguments about human sexuality are so different from what we’ve been brought up accepting as true. I’m curious to read responses to the book, once I spend some time looking for them.

  • Aths August 19, 2011, 1:13 pm

    I have to admit that this title is really intriguing me and some of the questions/comments you raise have me very curious, since I have wondered about them occasionally. I will give this book a try.

    • Kim August 20, 2011, 3:59 pm

      This book made me think a lot, which I always like in my nonfiction, regardless of topic or style.

  • Jenny August 19, 2011, 1:16 pm

    I too enjoy reading about experimental methodology. I feel like there’s so many aspects to methodology that wouldn’t occur to me without having them explained to me in explicit terms. I always feel mightily grateful to authors who explain flaws in this or that kind of study and how those problems can be accounted for and at least semi-solved.

    • Kim August 20, 2011, 4:00 pm

      I’ve grown tot love books on methodology. I love knowing how things work, so getting to find out how studies like this happen and what makes good methodology always fascinates me.

  • Kailana August 21, 2011, 7:33 pm

    This sounds like something I would really like. Thanks for the review!

    • Kim August 22, 2011, 7:58 am

      I hope you get a chance to read it!

  • Cass August 21, 2011, 7:52 pm

    A little disappointed this isn’t an “academic and dry” book (and that it’s a “boy meets girl” situation, so yeah), but it still sounds interesting. I actually have it out from the library right now, so I might pick it up soon.

    • Kim August 22, 2011, 7:59 am

      It is very M/F centered. I don’t even really remember other types of sexual relationships coming up, but I finished reading it awhile ago so I could be wrong on that.

  • fred November 28, 2011, 10:42 pm

    Speculative is about the right description, much of their speculation has echos of Margaret Mead type naivety. Hate to say it, but jealousy is always a factor, ownership is always a factor, and people don’t like taking care of other peoples children or stuff, people don’t value other peoples children as much as their own, this is how families, tribes, countries are made, people do not simply consider all people to be kin, so fundamentally their idea of human motivations is flawed. In one interview christopher said that men should just get over it if their woman cheats, and that there is no practical reason why men are less likely to forgive such cheating when it is the woman at fault. This fails a basic test of logic, women ALWAYS know that they are raising their own children, whereas men do not, thus the different standard does come into play, being a cuckold is hardly genetically advantageous. Much of what this author is claiming is either totally unscientific or simply politically correct distortion of evolutionary psychology to fit his own biases.

    • Kim November 30, 2011, 6:51 pm

      For me, the interesting part of the book was the discussion of how it’s difficult to make conclusions about prehistoric sexuality and that most ideas, even their own, are speculative in many ways.