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A little over a month ago, I finally got around to reading a book that people all over the polyamory community had been urging me to read: Christopher Ryan & Cacilda Jethá, Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. (Harper Collins, 2010. Oddly, no longer available for Kindle, even though that's where I got it?)

And today seems like as good a day as any to get around to writing up my review of it, for two reasons. One is that today is the opening day (finally!) for St. Louis's official sex-positive coffee house, Shameless Grounds, which shares a building with the excellent Koken Art Factory gallery. (I'm going by some time around dinner time.) The other thing that's pushing me off of the dime is a link in today's news to (of all things) a recent article from Redbook magazine, Lisa Taddeo, "Relationships: One woman goes undercover on dating site for cheaters," an article by someone who really should have read Sex at Dawn.

The premise of Sex at Dawn is quite simple, although the presentation is understandably more complex: Ryan & Jethá set out in this book to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that no matter how many times you've been told otherwise or by whom, no, monogamy is not natural for human beings. That is their goal, to debunk that one notion -- no more, no less. They're not advocating for any solution, they're not criticizing monogamy and holding up some alternative as preferable, they're not endorsing monogamy in spite of it all; at the end of the book, they're openly ambiguous about what we should do with the information they've given us. No, their sole concern, in this book, is to move the conversation about why our marriages fail off of the place where it's stuck, so that we can move in some direction, maybe, in hopes of making things better. They are saying that whatever we decide to do, we can't even begin to discuss it, we can't even begin to decide, until we face certain facts, and the fact they are most concerned with hammering home is that the statement "human beings are naturally monogamous" is a flat-out lie; not even a mistake, a lie, consciously told, by religious leaders and social scientists and biologists and doctors and psychologists who (they set out to show) knew better, and lied.

The proof itself is divided into three roughly-evenly-divided sections: the proof from primatology, the proof from anthropology and history, and the proof from the study of human reproductive anatomy. Then, and only then, do they even briefly touch on the question of, "yeah? well, even if you're right, so what?"

Primatology: Since professional book reviewers never seem to read anything more than the introduction, chapter 1, and the last half of the last chapter of any book before reviewing it, Sex at Dawn got slammed hard as "nothing new" because it starts where an awful lot of pro-polyamory and anti-monogamy books start and end: with "those damned hippy chimps," the pygmy chimpanzees, that is to say, the bonobos. But contrary to what impression I got from those reviewers, it hardly ends there. No, Sex at Dawn goes on to survey the mating and reproductive biology and social structures of every single primate species other than humans. And what the authors show is that if humans are naturally mate-for-life monogamous, we are the only species of primate that is so. They're extremely caustic about why you don't know that: a lot of early primatologists just flat-out lied about it. Some of them found the fact that all known species of primates "fool around" to be something their editors wouldn't print, so they left it out, or else they were afraid people would draw the "wrong" (right) conclusion from this, so they lied, or else their own innate prejudices caused them to write off all examples of non-monogamy in the species they were observing as "aberrant" behavior, "not normal," and therefore unworthy of being recorded (leaving it for future generations of primatologists to finally notice, as they now have, that these "aberrant" or "rare" exceptions are actually more common than the "normal" monogamous mating). This is a theme that they come back to in the next section, by the way ...

History and Anthropology: They assert that, contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, no, jealousy is not "instinctive" in human beings and no, monogamy isn't "universal." On the contrary, neither history nor anthropology record even one example of a pre-agricultural society that practiced strict monogamy. There's a diversion here into what they call "the standard narrative" of evolutionary biology, which distorted the thinking of anthropologists who didn't see what was right in front of them. Evolutionary biologists usually insist that monogamy is "natural" for human beings, evolved into us, because women are naturally better off if they can count on a man providing for them while they're pregnant and when they're raising infants, and since men are "naturally" only better off doing so if they can be 100% certain the child is theirs, women are evolved to barter sex to men in exchange for lifetime monogamous commitment. Again, as in the previous section, the authors of Sex at Dawn go to great lengths to expose the perfidy of dishonest and/or stupid and/or downright dangerous anthropologists who distorted the societies they were reporting on, or just flat-out lied in their reporting, to reassure their readers at home that the "primitives" were just as monogamous as the people back home claimed to be.

Honest anthropologists who've talked to actual immediate-consumption forager societies, though, like the ones all of our ancestors belonged to before the invention of agriculture, find that actual human beings figure the odds differently than evolutionary biologists predict that they would. Actual pre-agricultural human women conclude that they are better off if they can count on more than one man to think that the child is theirs, so that more than one man will care for them and their infant(s); men are better off if other men think they might be the father of their children, so that if something happens to the man, there are other men who will help take care of them. Indeed, the book documents more than one tribe who believed that it was biologically impossible for a woman to get pregnant by only one man, whether it was advisable or not. No, with eerie regularity, monogamy has been introduced in almost every society that had two traits: developed land that needed unambiguous inheritance law, and male ownership of property.

Reproductive Biology: The final section of the proof demonstrates, detail by detail, all of the ways in which human reproductive biology only makes sense, would only have evolved that way, if human females naturally mated with more than one male while fertile, and in fact did only evolve that way in other species in which that is the norm. (And, once again, there are a lot more such species than you are normally told, because, yes, once again, some biologists who were determined to prove that all of nature is naturally monogamous "just like we are" falsified their data.) There are a lot of examples, my personal favorite of which was about involuntary female orgasmic vocalizations: human women have the second loudest on record. What all species that have involuntary female orgasmic vocalization have in common is that they are species where a female in estrus seeks instinctively to mate with as many males as possible. They suggest that this is also the reason why it takes training and discipline for men not to orgasm much, much more quickly than women: we're evolved for him to get done, roll over, and get out of the way of the other men in her life, who are instinctively driven to come running as soon as they hear her starting to cum.

Another bit, from this section, that jumped out at me is the one that Lisa Taddeo should have read about before writing her article on AshleyMadison.com for Redbook: the role of sexual monotony. Ryan and Jethá's starting point, here, is a comment that many spouses who feel "driven" to cheat bring up, that after living with only one other adult for years, that person starts to feel more like a sibling than a spouse. Sex at Dawn argues that this phrasing is not accidental: that human beings are instinctively exogamous, instinctively compelled to have sex only with people who are somewhat unfamiliar, as an anti-incest and anti-inbreeding mechanism. Biologically, you're supposed to find someone who is part of your family, someone who has grown up with or around you, unattractive!

So What? OK, so even if you're not convinced, take it as a hypothetical. Suppose it were proven, beyond all shadow of a doubt, that human beings are not instinctively monogamous, not naturally monogamous. Suppose that monogamy really is an artifact of inheritance law and of post-agricultural economics, something imposed upon us by society. So what? Even if that is true, it doesn't answer the question of whether or not that's a good thing. It doesn't answer whether or not any alternative would work; indeed, that monogamy is as nearly universal in post-agricultural society as it is universally absent in pre-agricultural society suggests that maybe whether it's natural or not, it may be inevitable. So what do we do with this information? Ryan and Jethé conclude that there are only a few options.

One, we can go back to doing what our immediate ancestors did, before the no-fault divorce revolution of the 1960s and '70s, when divorce was legally difficult to get, and socially quite dangerous, heavily stigmatized, likely to ruin your life: we can all-but-completely stop having sex after our second or third child is born. It's a joyless, miserable life, and it's one that has been shown to impose some pretty negative health consequences, but (most of) our grandparents showed that it could, sort of, be done.

Or else, two, we can keep on doing what we're doing, which is serial monogamy: marry exclusively and monogamously, have a couple of kids, and then dissolve the marriage as soon as the instinct for exogamous sex overcomes social and legal stigma and one or the other partner cheats. Except that the problem with this is, we haven't yet shown that this can work, either. It imposes some of the same health and emotional consequences of compulsory monogamy, without even solving the problems that monogamy was supposed to solve, like inheritance. Worse, it poses possibly insurmountable problems for child rearing.

Or else, third, we can try what some of the polyamorists and the swingers and the "ethical sluts" advocate: "responsible non-monogamy." We can try to build a new society, with new social norms, now that we no longer all have to own a piece of immovable capital, a farm, in order to survive; we can try to go back to living like our pre-agricultural ancestors did, where groups of people all raise all of the women's children, together, because it's not difficult to get women to care for each other's children (try to keep women from rushing to cuddle some other woman's new baby, some time) and because the men think that all of the children might be theirs. However, Ryan and Jethá (perhaps not unreasonably) think that this would be not unlike trying to unscramble an egg; it remains to be seen if people who've been raised, for thousands of years, to think that sexual jealousy is an instinct can create a society that works otherwise. They express admiration for people who are trying, but also serious doubts that it will work.

That leaves the fourth alternative, and while they really don't explicitly advocate it, it is the only one they don't argue against, either, leaving it the closest thing the book has to an advocated position: commit to monogamy, but stop freaking out when one partner or the other strays; treat it as no big deal as long as they don't do it often, as long as they do it responsibly, and as long as they come home afterwards. Which is, perhaps unsurprisingly, what post-agricultural human beings are already starting to do, or were doing already, in cultures a lot less dominated by religious fundamentalists than the United States.


( 33 comments — Leave a comment )
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Apr. 2nd, 2011 09:38 pm (UTC)
Most of the poly horror stories I know involve people who were trying something they approved of intellectually. Most of the poly success stories I know involve people who never felt monogamy was at all natural to them. Mostly among people who have gotten used to the idea that "social norms" are all open for debate :-) .
Apr. 2nd, 2011 10:23 pm (UTC)
I've been meaning to snag a copy of Sex At Dawn since Dan Savage recommended it. Clearly, I need to pick this one up.

Apr. 2nd, 2011 10:30 pm (UTC)
Great review.
Apr. 2nd, 2011 11:11 pm (UTC)
Thank you. I may actually get this one after all.
Apr. 3rd, 2011 03:18 am (UTC)
Well, as long as we can all agree that women are instinctually and psychologically adapted to securing the support of men.
Apr. 3rd, 2011 04:45 am (UTC)
Or that men are instinctively and psychologically adapted to seeking out and protecting fertile women.
Not sure if you're flame-baiting or just throwing out some sarcasm. The point I took was that the discussion should neither focus solely on hormones nor traditional, programmed responses, and that it might be one of those subjects where we naively believe an intelligent discussion is possible.
Apr. 3rd, 2011 05:37 am (UTC)
While monogamy may or may not be "natural", I suspect that jealousy is natural. Since non-sexual jealousy exists, that seems to me evidence that jealousy is natural. Maybe the situations that cause it to arise are somewhat culturally determined?
Anyway, I don't think non-monogamy necessarily requires non-jealousy. We all hold double standards in some things....:-)

so, in this book do they come up with an evolutionary explanation (that fits with the rest of their hypothesis) as to why fully 40% of post-menopausal women lose all of their physical sex drive? If it had to do with paternity and protection, would that happen?
Apr. 3rd, 2011 11:36 am (UTC)
Re: Jealousy
Menopause doesn't even come up.

The evidence from studying pre-agricultural societies is that jealousy is not a human instinct, but a human response to the existence of property. As soon as any society develops "property that not everybody can have," it develops envy and jealousy; not long thereafter or around the same time the same attitude develops towards "my" wife and "my" husband and "my" children. Prior to that, adults own themselves, not each other, and children belong to the whole tribe.
Re: Jealousy - dnwq - Apr. 4th, 2011 12:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Jealousy - lucretiasheart - Apr. 5th, 2011 12:48 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Jealousy - dnwq - Apr. 5th, 2011 12:50 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Jealousy - lucretiasheart - Apr. 5th, 2011 06:16 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Jealousy - bradhicks - Apr. 5th, 2011 01:22 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Jealousy - dnwq - Apr. 5th, 2011 01:36 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Jealousy - lysystratae - Apr. 5th, 2011 04:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 3rd, 2011 11:00 am (UTC)
Interesting Links for 3-4-2011
User andrewducker referenced to your post from Interesting Links for 3-4-2011 saying: [...] Sex at Dawn - on human monogamy and its unlikeliness [...]
Kendra Holliday
Apr. 3rd, 2011 01:05 pm (UTC)
I love how you read the book and then take up where they left off and list some solutions to the epidemic!

I think many people could do monogamy if they were given occasional free passes.

I also don't like how a woman will withhold intimacy from her husband but expect him to remain celibate. I call that "DIJ Syndrome" (Dick in the Jar)
Apr. 3rd, 2011 03:30 pm (UTC)
Re: Brilliant!
It's not just women who do this to their partners. Believe me, I know.

And of course there's stuff like OPP: The One Penis Policy.
For example, a man and a woman are in a relationship, and they decide to open the relationship. Both partners are "allowed" to engage in sexual activity with other women, but the woman is not allowed to engage in sexual activity with another man.

People do really screwed up things to one another to avoid jealousy, which is only a variation of insecurity. Both OPP and DIJ are variations of this.
Apr. 3rd, 2011 08:50 pm (UTC)
Sounds like a book that's worth picking up.

What's your response to the "criticism" that will arise that the book will be used as an excuse for people to go and cheat on their primary partners (with or without the slippery slope of "and then they'll start doing gay sex and bestial sex and the whole society will collapse, onoes!")
Apr. 4th, 2011 12:11 am (UTC)
My flippant response would be that no force on earth has been found that will STOP people from doing so. But yeah, that's an exaggeration. Do you know my rant about the three groups? Regarding every "vice," there are three groups: those who can't resist, those who can resist, and those who aren't tempted. And the goal of every anti-vice effort is to periodically crucify someone in a highly visible way to persuade as many people in the second group as possible to stay on the straight and narrow. How that applies to this, though, is that once we liberalized divorce, we lost all practical means of crucifying people who cheat on their spouses. So it's rather too late to be worrying about whether or not some book promotes adultery.

The slippery slope argument is a more interesting one, because every now and then, some pro-monogamy crusader (whether they live up to their own ideal or not) will come right out and say that the reason they prefer option #1 is specifically because people stop having sex after a couple of years. This then encourages them to seek pleasure in more socially useful ways: production of goods, consumption of goods, being praised for obedience to authority, and killing enemy soldiers. Their fear goes unsaid only for being so obvious: that people who are allowed to have sex whenever they and a willing partner want will be impossible to motivate to do anything else. What if they're right? What if civilization WOULD collapse if people would rather screw than screw people and get screwed, what if your nation WOULD be helpless against its enemies if its populace would rather make love, not war?

Because ever since Wilhelm Reich ripped the mask off in Mass Psychology of Fascism, that IS what we're arguing about. We just are very seldom honest enough to admit it.
(no subject) - silveradept - Apr. 5th, 2011 02:18 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bradhicks - Apr. 5th, 2011 02:57 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - silveradept - Apr. 5th, 2011 10:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jonathankorman - Sep. 5th, 2011 01:42 am (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 4th, 2011 04:43 am (UTC)
Shameless Grounds is a pretty excellent place. They stock real sugar coke!
Apr. 5th, 2011 03:20 pm (UTC)
Read the book, loved it but ...
... there's no proof that his wife really had anything to do with writing it other than her name is listed as a co-author. (http://fucksexatdawn.wordpress.com/)

I like that Ryan went after Darwin and pointed out how sexually naive he probably was. But the book gets muddled when he moves on to contemporary Western society with its legions of single moms raising kids in poverty and male politicians getting caught in a sex scandal every other week. Here, Ryan does seem to be arguing strongly for non-monogamy as some sort of half-ass solution. As if this might have prevented John Edwards from leaving his terminally ill wife for another woman??? Or all those under-30 young males who father multiple babies and then move on to their next sexual encounter without a condom or a backward glance?

-- Mel, http://heartseamonkeys.blogspot.com/
Apr. 5th, 2011 04:19 pm (UTC)
I've always been of the 'do what you want, just don't forget where "home" is' mindset; never could figure out why everyone gets so upset about wanting to play with others.
Apr. 6th, 2011 05:25 pm (UTC)
More stuff - 03(?)-05 April 2011
User silveradept referenced to your post from More stuff - 03(?)-05 April 2011 saying: [...] anthropological record to make it seem like humans and most primates are mate-for-life monogamists [...]
Apr. 15th, 2011 07:30 pm (UTC)
No title
User mysanal referenced to your post from No title saying: [...] also fascinating and thought-provoking. Sex in the News, Sex in a Coffee House, and Sex at Dawn [...]
May. 18th, 2011 10:16 pm (UTC)
you do often turn up with interesting viewpoints, but then, anything that isn't mainstream is by definition interesting as we've had the 'norm'al stuff hammered into us so much
just curious what your views would be about transgendered people
May. 20th, 2011 06:55 pm (UTC)
Personally, I view transgender as probably a subset of body dysphoria. Until/unless we find a cure for body dysphoria, I see no harm in surgically altering people with this particular set of symptoms to relieve their distress, for several reasons, probably the number one of which is that I'm not a strict gender essentialist.
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