Sex at Dawn
First Harper Perennial paperback edition cover
|Subject||Human sexuality, Anthropology|
|June 29, 2010|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|LC Class||HQ12 .R93 2010|
Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality is a book dealing with the evolution of monogamy in humans and human mating systems. First published in 2010, it was co-authored by Christopher Ryan, PhD and Cacilda Jethá, MD (Portuguese pronunciation: [kɐˈsiɫðɐ ʒɨˈta]). In opposition to what the authors see as the 'standard narrative' of human sexual evolution, they contend having multiple sexual partners was common and accepted in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. Mobile self-contained groups of hunter gatherers are posited as the human norm before agriculture led to high population density. According to the authors, before agriculture, sex was relatively promiscuous, and paternity was not a concern, in a similar way to the mating system of Bonobos. According to the book, sexual interactions strengthened the bond of trust in the groups; far from causing jealousy, social equilibrium and reciprocal obligation was strengthened by playful sexual interactions.
The book generated a great deal of publicity in the popular press, where it was met with generally positive reviews. A number of scholars from related academic disciplines such as anthropology, evolutionary psychology, primatology, biology, and sexology have commented on the book; many have been critical of the book's methodology and some of its conclusions, although some academics have praised the book.
They think that much of evolutionary psychology has been conducted with a bias regarding human sexuality. The authors believe that the public and many researchers are guilty of the "Flintstonization" of hunter-gatherer society; that is to say projecting modern assumptions and beliefs onto earlier societies. Thus they think that there has been a bias to assuming that our species is primarily monogamous despite what they believe to be evidence to the contrary. They argue for example, that our sexual dimorphism, testicle size, female copulatory vocalization, appetite for sexual novelty, various cultural practices, and hidden female ovulation, among other factors strongly suggest a non-monogamous, non-polygynous history. The authors argue that mate selection was not the subject of much intragroup competition among pre-agricultural humans, as sex was neither scarce nor commodified; rather sperm competition was a more important paternity factor than sexual selection. This behaviour survives among certain existent hunter-forager groups that believe in partible paternity.
The authors argue as a result that conventional wisdom regarding human nature, as well as what they call the standard narrative of evolutionary psychology is wrong. This "standard narrative" goes like this: Males and females assess one another’s mate value from perspectives based upon their differing reproductive agendas/capacities: "He looks for signs of youth, fertility, health, absence of previous sexual experience, and likelihood of future sexual fidelity. In other words, his assessment is skewed toward finding a fertile, healthy young mate with many childbearing years ahead and no current children to drain his resources. b) She looks for signs of wealth (or at least prospects of future wealth), social status, physical health, and likelihood that he will stick around to protect and provide for their children. Her guy must be willing and able to provide materially for her (especially during pregnancy and breastfeeding) and their children (known as male parental investment)." Assuming they meet each other's criteria, they mate and form a monogamous pair bond. Following this, "she will be sensitive to indications that he is considering leaving (vigilant toward signs of infidelity involving intimacy with other women that would threaten her access to his resources and protection)—while keeping an eye out (around ovulation, especially) for a quick fling with a man genetically superior to her husband. He will be sensitive to signs of her sexual infidelities (which would reduce his all-important paternity certainty)—while taking advantage of short-term sexual opportunities with other women (as his sperm are easily produced and plentiful)." They clarify: "we don’t see [the elements of the narrative] as elements of human nature so much as adaptations to social conditions—many of which were introduced with the advent of agriculture no more than ten thousand years ago."
The authors take a broad position that goes beyond sexual behavior, believing that humans are generally more egalitarian and selfless than is often believed. In an interview Ryan said, "we’re not saying that sharing was so widespread because everyone was loving and sitting around the fire singing “Kumbaya” every night. The reason that sharing was so widespread—and, so they claim, continues to be in the remaining hunter-gatherer societies in existence—is because it’s simply the most efficient way of distributing risk among a group of people." However, with the advent of agriculture people's lifestyle changed completely, leading to the advent of private property and the accumulation of power. This fundamentally changed the way people behave and has left the modern human being in a situation where their instincts are at odds with the society they live in.
The authors do not take an explicit position in the book regarding the morality or desirability of monogamy or alternative sexual behavior in modern society, but argue that people should be made aware of our behavioral history so that they can make better informed choices.
Popular media reception
One month after publication, Sex at Dawn entered The New York Times best-seller list. The book was praised by syndicated sex-advice columnist Dan Savage, who wrote: "Sex At Dawn is the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior in the Human Male on the American public in 1948." Newsweek's Kate Daily wrote, "This book takes a swing at pretty much every big idea on human nature: that poverty is an inevitable consequence of life on earth, that mankind is by nature brutish, and, most important, that humans evolved to be monogamous. ... [Sex at Dawn] sets out to destroy almost each and every notion of the discipline, turning the field on its head and taking down a few big names in science in the process. ... Funny, witty, and light ... the book is a scandal in the best sense, one that will have you reading the best parts aloud and reassessing your ideas about humanity's basic urges well after the book is done... Ryan and Jethá do an admirable job of poking holes in the prevailing evo-psych theories and are more apt to turn to biological, rather than psychological, evidence. That doesn’t mean their thesis is bulletproof. But it does mean there’s a lot of value in reconsidering basic assumptions about our beginnings that we widely accept today as gospel."
Megan McArdle of The Atlantic criticized the book on her blog. She stated: "it reads like an undergraduate thesis—cherry-picked evidence stretched far out of shape to support their theory. The language is breathless rather than scientific, and they don't even attempt to paper over the enormous holes in their theory that people are naturally polyamorous."
Harvard University immunology graduate student and science blogger Kevin Bonham also responded favorably to the book. He called the argument of Ryan and Jethá that "pre-agrarian human societies were exceedingly promiscuous" a "convincing" and well-documented one. However, Bonham cautioned his readers that "I can’t be certain that the authors aren’t cherry-picking examples that support their conclusions."
A few scholars with established expertise in disciplines related to the book such as anthropology, primatology, biology, sexology, and evolutionary psychology have commented on the book, mostly in self-published blogs and reviews, a few articles in the popular press, and two reviews by the same academic in a peer-reviewed academic journal. Ryan originally tried to publish the book with academic publisher Oxford University Press, but it was rejected for publication after 2 of 3 peer reviews were negative during the publisher's internal peer-review process.
The book was criticized for its alleged "biased reporting of data, theoretical and evidentiary shortcomings, and problematic assumptions" in a pair of book reviews by Ryan Ellsworth, graduate student in anthropology at the University of Missouri. Writing in the peer-reviewed journal Evolutionary Psychology, Ellsworth argues that the book misrepresents the state of current research on sexual behavior. Ellsworth argues that while promiscuity has certainly been part of human behavior, it is "doubtful that this is because we are promiscuous at heart (this may apply to the behavior of most women more than the desire of most men), shackled by the trappings of a post-agricultural dilemma of our own devices, unable to return to the ancestral days of sexual communism." Noting that he could find no previous academic reviews of Sex at Dawn, Ellsworth frets that the book's positive reception in popular media will project "a distorted portrayal of current theory and evidence on evolved human sexuality" to the general public.
Ryan argues that although Ellsworth makes some valid points, he misunderstood his and Jethá's central argument. According to Ryan, they did not argue that human sexuality was the same as bonobo sexuality; but rather that coitus was more frequent than is generally acknowledged, and that a typical human being would have had multiple partners within relatively short periods of time (i.e. each estrus cycle of a female). He argues that the main point of the book is to discredit "the standard narrative." He believes reviewers read too much into the book, which merely seeks to challenge monogamy, rather than categorically reject it in favor of an alternative relationship model.
In an approving Chronicle of Higher Education review of Sex at Dusk—a rebuttal to Sex at Dawn written and self-published by Lynn Saxon—David Barash, co-author of The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People wrote that Ryan and Jethá "ignore and/or misrepresent reams of anthropology and biology in their eagerness to make a brief for some sort of Rousseau-ian sexual idyll that exists—and/or existed—only in their overheated libidinous imaginations." Barash favorably quotes Saxon's criticism of Sex at Dawn for being "almost all about sex and not much about children ... [even though evolution] is very much about reproduction—variation in reproductive success is evolution" and endorses Saxon's characterization of the book as an "intellectually myopic, ideologically driven, pseudo-scientific fraud."
Some reviews particularly praise the book for confronting some of the established theories of evolutionary psychology. For example, anthropology professor Barbara J. King wrote, "lapses do mar more than one passage in the book. Yet on balance, Sex at Dawn is a welcome marriage of data from social science, animal behavior, and neuroscience." Sexuality scholar Emily Nagoski also agreed with many of the book's criticisms of evolutionary psychology, and the book's proposal "that monogamy is not the innate sociosexual system of humans," but concluded that due to errors of reasoning and understanding of evolutionary science "they come to the wrong conclusion about the nature of human sexuality." Nagoski ultimately concluded the book was "sloppily reasoned, contemptuous, and ignorant."
Eric Michael Johnson, graduate student in the history of science and primatology, wrote that the authors' conclusion, far from being completely novel and unsupported, had been advocated for decades by a significant minority of leading psychologists and anthropologists. For instance, Sarah Hrdy, an eminent American anthropologist and primatologist, "advocated a promiscuous mating system for humans in The Woman That Never Evolved" in 1999. Additionally, psychologist David Barash and psychiatrist Judith Lipton presented similar arguments in 2001. Johnson credits Ryan and Jethá for advancing their argument using evidence not available to its previous advocates, and doing so using a "relaxed writing style and numerous examples from modern popular culture."
Herbert Gintis, economist and evolutionary scholar, wrote that although the authors' conclusions are "usually not far from the truth," "Ryan and Jethá justify their position mostly by deploying anecdotal and unsystematic anthropological evidence, and the authors have no anthropological credentials" in a book review on Amazon.com. Gintis critiques the idea that human males were unconcerned with parentage, "which would make us unlike any other species I can think of" and suggests that the their characterization of prehistoric human warfare is incorrect.
A couple of reviews argue that Ryan and Jethá set up a strawman argument with the "standard narrative." Both Gintis and Nagoski argue there is no "standard narrative" in modern scientific literature. Nagoski says, "At no point does the book even attempt to convince me that this is the narrative; it simply asserts that it is so and moves on. As a person who has read a great deal of the science they cite, I can tell you that among scientists, S@D’s narrative is not remotely 'standard.' I could buy the argument that it is a CULTURAL narrative, and if that were the claim the authors were making, a great deal of my struggles with the book would be resolved."
Among others to comment on the book, Eric Michael Johnson wrote a positive review of the book for popular science magazine Seed, saying that it had pieced together "a remarkably coherent pattern from an otherwise fractured understanding of human sexuality." Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker called the book "pseudoscience" in a tweet. Alan Dixson, professor of biological sciences at Victoria University of Wellington, also "took issue" with key arguments about monogamy in Sex at Dawn.
- Barash, David (21 July 2012). "Sex at Dusk". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 27 July 2012.
- Ellsworth, Ryan (2011). "The Human That Never Evolved" (PDF). Evolutionary Psychology. 3 9: 325–335. Retrieved 24 May 2012.
- Ellsworth, Ryan (2012). "The myth of promiscuity: A review of Lynn Saxon, Sex at Dusk: Lifting the Shiny Wrapping from Sex at Dawn". Evolutionary Psychology. 3 10: 611–616.
- Seidman, Barry F.; Arnell Dowret (March–April 2011). "Speaking of Sex". Humanist Magazine. Retrieved 7 February 2013.
- Ryan, Christopher. "Inquisition". sexatdawn.com. Retrieved 15 March 2013.
- Christopher Ryan, Ph.D. & Cacilda Jethá, M.D. "Frequently Asked Questions about Sex at Dawn". Sex at Dawn Official Website. Retrieved 7 February 2013.
- "Hardcover Nonfiction Bestseller list". The New York Times Sunday Book Review. August 8, 2010. Retrieved 8 July 2011.
- Savage, Dan (July 8, 2010). "Sex at Dawn". Thestranger.com.
- Patel, Khadija (2011-03-17). "'Sex At Dawn': shattering the monogamy myth, and more". Daily Maverick. Retrieved 2013-06-14.
- Dailey, Kate (July 26, 2010). " 'Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality' ". Newsweek.
- Sagal, Peter (2 December 2010). "Favorite Books Of 2010: Peter Sagal On 'Sex At Dawn'". National Public Radio. Retrieved 17 January 2013.
- Mcardle, Megan (30 August 2010). "Is Monogamy Unnatural?". The Atlantic. Retrieved 25 June 2014.
- Bonham, Kevin. (17 June 2011) Let’s talk about sex (at dawn), We Beasties. Science Blogs.
- Christopher Ryan (14 March 2013). "21 – Special Sex at Dawn Episode (B): Response to Criticism" (Podcast). Tangentially Speaking. Retrieved 14 March 2013.
- "Ryan Ellsworth". Academia.edu. Retrieved 25 July 2013.
- King, Barbara (August 2010). "Sex at Dawn (and at Noon, Dusk, and Midnight)". Bookslut.com. Retrieved 13 August 2014.
- Nagoski, Emily. "Book review: Sex at Dawn". The Dirty Normal. Retrieved 6 August 2014.
- Johnson, Eric Michael (29 June 2010). "Sexy Beasts". Seed Magazine. Retrieved 17 January 2013.
- Gintis, Herbert. "Much that is True, but Remember: Is does not Imply Ought,". Amazon.com. Retrieved 6 August 2014.
- Pinker, Steven (27 July 2012). "https://twitter.com/sapinker/status/228888697771266048". Twitter. Retrieved 6 August 2014.
- Priestley, Rebecca (21 August 2010). "Sex wars". The Listener. Retrieved 12 August 2014.
- "The Ira and Harriet Reiss Theory Award". Retrieved 9 November 2012.
- Sex at Dawn's official site archived Feb 2014