Leah's Reviews > Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality

Sex at Dawn by Christopher  Ryan
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Mar 23, 11

bookshelves: anthropology, nature, science, summer-reading-2010
Read in March, 2011

I definitely found this book to be thought-provoking. Even if you disagree with the book's central point, you can't deny that it's thought-provoking, which is where its strength lies.

The central premise of Sex at Dawn is that the human institution of monogamous relationships is a socially-constructed one, and, more significantly, one that goes against evolutionary biology. With the shift from forager societies to agricultural societies, humans shifted from a value structure that placed sharing (of resources and, it turns out, mates) at the top, to a value structure that emphasized possessions and hierarchy, which created the need for purity of bloodline (for inheritance purposes).

This change, according to the authors, is a kind of social veneer on our biological instincts. This explains the seemingly-insane tendencies of well-off people to sabotage their lives, livelihoods, and families to have affairs, as well as various mid-life crises, high divorce rates, and marital boredom.

Most of the book is given to refuting the dominant narrative in most (?) modern human society. That dominant narrative is as follows: men want to impregnate as many women as possible, while wanting their own wives to remain faithful in order to maintain bloodline purity. Meanwhile, women want to bond with rich, strong men who can support and defend them, while having fun on the side with young, handsome men who can broaden the genetic pool. These conflicts of interest are what contributes to the rifts in human relationships. OK, that's the dominant narrative. The authors spend most of this book trying to disprove it.

They use a lot of evolutionary biology and biological anthropology as source material, as well as some psychological studies, to support their points (though I have no training in those areas, so I can't speak to their sources' validity).

Their other major point of support is the sexual practice of the bonobo apes in central Africa. They're our closest cousins, genetically speaking, and their sexual practices differ significantly from chimps, baboons, and gibbons. For one thing, unlike nearly all other mammals (besides us!), bonobos don't confine their sexual activities to females' fertile times. Sex, for bonobos and for humans, seems to be as much about pleasure as about procreation.

The authors also use existing human societies that still practice non-monogamy: a group of people in China, a handful of forager societies in Africa, and, in an example of a matriarchal society (to disprove the notion that hierarchical patriarchy is natural), an indigenous group in Sumatra.

The writing in this book is a little on the salty side, which could be seen as positive or negative, I guess, depending on your perspective. I found it pretty amusing most of the time, but some other reviewers found the superior tone annoying or offensive.

A few criticisms: the book is organized into large sections that don't seem to have a lot to differentiate them from one another. Additionally, because of the nature of their arguments, of the book feels like literature review. I kept waiting to get out of the literature review-ish sections and into the meat of the book, but that never happened, so I was a little distracted. I should probably read it again so that I don't have that distraction in the back of my mind. Because they're evaluating a lot of existing research (some of it goes all the way back to the nineteenth century, or before), I should have expected the lion's share of the book to contain a literature review-ish quality.

Another small complaint is the tiny amount of space that the authors give to homosexuality. I found myself curious about their take on this, but all I got was a brief mention about bonding. I suppose that the authors would simply fold that kind of human relationship into all the others, which is to say that since human sexual relationships (in their hypothesis) *aren't* simply about procreation, that homosexuality makes complete sense. Just another example of humans enjoying each other. But it would have been nice to see that spelled out more clearly, since it does give validity to a gay equality argument.

I really enjoyed reading this book. I mostly enjoy anything that pokes holes in any dominant narrative: it's my contrarian nature. But I really do agree that my own society's unhealthy attitude toward sexuality causes strife and tension where it could be avoided. Whether or not one agrees that monogamy is an unnatural state, surely the authors' final point is the most important: the key to healthy relationships is to acknowledge what you personally need from your partner(s), and then to communicate those needs.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Sara (new)

Sara Just bought this a few weeks ago, though haven't started it. Kelly has read a portion and said it's interesting. Now that I've had the experience of child-rearing in a couple, I can certainly see the wisdom of rearing one's young in a more collective setting (though it would not be without its pitfalls)!


Leah Yeah, I'm really looking forward to this one. I have to wonder what the ILL folks think of the extreme diversity of my orders.


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