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

Sex at Dawn by Christopher  Ryan
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Humans were made for free love (and rock 'n roll)! Well, maybe. I have mixed feelings about this book, as it effectively debunks a number of misconceptions but replaces them with some new ones. I've yet to come across any books on sex that shouldn't be taken with at least a little grain, if not an entire shaker, of salt. When it comes to "sexology" or scientific attempts to study sexuality in general, there are always to major limitations. One is the obvious cultural bias that tends to run rampant when it comes to sex. The second is the difficulty in gathering data as we humans prefer to keep the hanky-panky in the bedroom and so observations in an experimental setting are difficult to do for quite a variety of reasons. Thus, so much research in this area relies on questionnaires and surveys, which are nearly worthless if you want anything approaching accurate and objective data.

With that disclaimer out of the way, Sex at Dawn dispatches with a plethora of popular myths, such as the idea that monogamy is the "natural" state of humanity, that women are "naturally" inclined to be less sexual, that men are "naturally" violent, horny beasts. A common criticism seems to be that the tone is polemical and incredibly snide and sarcastic at times. I'd agree, but I think anyone approaching this expecting a scholarly work is barking up the wrong tree. Frankly, after hearing the baseless tropes they deconstruct parroted so many times even by "great minds," it's admittedly cathartic to see said nonsense getting torn to shreds and spat on. Contrary to the way the authors seem to portray themselves, there is nothing new or revolutionary here to anyone with some background in psychology, anthropology, and biology, especially work done in these areas from feminist and queer perspectives. They are, after all, actually citing findings in these fields and their references point to other classics on this subject such as Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species. Big and juicy targets for the authors' snarking include pop evolutionary psychology of the David M. Buss school of thought and the projection of neoliberal economics onto pre-historic hunter-gatherer societies with their intuitively plausible, but ultimately unfounded "rational actors" and game theoretical models.

While the above aspects of the book are a welcome corrective to the myths of monogamy, Mars and Venus that clog up the media, there are substantial flaws. There are some oversimplifications and misinterpretations of evolution in some places. However, the most irritating are the treatment of paleoanthropology and the normative tone that creeps in at some points.

Anyone who's studied a bit of paleoanthropology knows that even the scholarly literature is littered with examples of authors who can't resist a bit of mythologizing and pushing pet theories and the popular literature is almost always little more than someone pushing a Hobbesian or Rousseauian agenda, to adopt Ryan and Jetha's terms. Because we in fact know so little about the social dynamics of pre-historic hunter-gatherers, Ryan and Jetha have to rely on a lot of circumstantial evidence and speculation to make their case for "the way things really were." This is a fatal mistake -- human pre-history covers thousands of years and multiple continents. With the diversity we see even in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, it's very likely that there was a wide range of social arrangements and behavior in pre-history as well. "The way things really were" probably varied wildly from place to place and time to time. Paleoanthropologists and archaeologists have generally abandoned the search for a singular narrative because the data (and lack thereof) simply does not fit into simplistic Hobbesian or Rousseauian morality tales, no matter how much some people would like them to.

Ryan and Jetha are clearly pushing a neo-Rousseauian line and, while social arrangements they describe probably did exist, there's no way to tell how typical or widespread they were. We simply don't know, and as a result, the book crosses into "noble savage" territory a bit too much. They also recycle Jared Diamond's "worst mistake" argument about agriculture. The terms "hunter-gatherer" and "agriculture" mask a lot of social complexity. The Living Anthropologically website, a good resource in general for the lay person, has a concise deconstruction of Diamond's argument:

Some of the other evidence they present doesn't hold up. They claim bonobos are a better model for human behavior, but we are separated from both chimps and bonobos by millions of years of history and evolution. Their evidence simply doesn't justify using one or the other as a superior model. They also include the "kamikaze sperm hypothesis," which was based on flimsy evidence to begin with and has been thoroughly discredited.

I have to agree with biological anthropologist Patrick Clarkin: Humans are (Blank-ogamous):

Their slide into normative suggestions toward the end of the book is disappointing. It's nice to see a corrective to all the regressive tripe that gets pushed in the popular media, but they come off as pushing way too hard to establish their own view of "human nature" (whatever that may be) as the definitive truth on the matter. The idea of one true unitary "natural" human sexuality belongs on the ash heap of history.

I guess I would say this is recommended with the above qualifications. It proves to be fun, easy, and mostly informative reading for the lay person, as long as it isn't taken as scientific gospel.
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Ambrosia Thanks for the alternative viewpoint. I'm enjoying the book quite a bit but don't have the background to analyze it as critically as I'd like. That said, I'm totally with you on how it provides a welcome relief from (and shredding of) the dominant sexual (and profoundly sexist!) tropes we all hear far too often.

Nebuchadnezzar Glad someone finds my blustering useful. :)

Pop paleoanthropology generally tends to be thinly disguised mythology and morality tales. I'm waiting for the book that says, when it comes to sex or anything else to do with how to live our lives, "Who gives a damn what Ug the Caveman did tens of thousands of years ago?"

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