Reviewing My Bookshelf: Part 1

Hello. This post is part of an ongoing attempt to review my bookshelf both as an attempt to promote texts I find important, but also to disseminate some important research to a broader audience.

Sex at Dawn: The prehistoric origins of modern sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, published by Harper-Collins

Sex at Dawn is a useful book to read. It takes a cheerful, informed look at what we know about the history of human sexual behavior,  with regard to biological factors, various cultures, and so on, and sets up a comparison between this and the contemporary ‘facts’ of sexual life. As such, it is structured around an intricate, although not altogether fluid, double movement between reader’s digest style statistics about modern day sexual behavior (a coffee table Kinsey) and in depth anthropological discussion about alternative practices, prehistoric evidence and comparisons with our recent ancestors. The goal of all of this is to undermine, if not coherently replace, the ‘dominant narrative’ about human sexuality. It is also a shamelessly joyful inquiry, and presents a compelling view of the centrally of sex in human society.

“No animal spends more of it’s allotted time on Earth fussing over sex than Homo sapiens – not even the famously libidinous bonobo. Although we and the bonobo both average well into the hundreds, if not thousands, of acts of intercourse per birth-way ahead of any other primate-their “Acts” are far briefer than ours. Pair-bonded “monogamous” animals are almost always hyposexual, having sex as the Vatican recommends: infrequently, quietly, and for reproduction only. Human beings, regardless of religion, are at the other end of the libidinal spectrum: hypersexuality personified…

…Does all this frivolous sex make our species sound “animalistic”? It shouldn’t. The animal world is full of species that have sex only during widely spaced intervals when the female is ovulating. Only two species can do it week in and week out for non-reproductive reasons: one human, the other very humanlike. Sex for pleasure with various partners is therefore more “human” than animal. Strictly reproductive, once in a blue moon sex is more “animal” than human. In other words, an excessively horny monkey is acting “human,”, while a man or women uninterested in sex more than once or twice a year would be, strictly speaking, “acting like an animal”. pp. 85

Throughout the work, it is the swathe of empirical evidence they accumulate, that really shines, as opposed to the somewhat more sketchy attempts to intertwine this into contemporary research and culture.  And then, there is the fact that the information, which offers a radical deterritorialization of sex, doesn’t engage with what can be done with the information. As the authors admit: “We are not advocating any particular response to the information we’ve put together. Frankly, we’re not sure what to do with it ourselves.” (24).  While I’m sympathetic to this, it doesn’t answer one of the fundamental ambiguities in the book which is, is sexual behaviour today is an adaption to changed circumstances, do these circumstances have to chance before behaviour can? Another is the question which always arises for me in these cases which is, what is the relationship between class and sex? Is sexual shame and pressure felt evenly across the classes? Are certain groups more willing to be egalitarian and/or promiscuous? If scarcity generates prudish behaviour, what are the impacts of luxury, and moreover, where to the injunctions towards shame really come from?

So how is the book structured? Well, this is part of the problem. The account is frontloaded with an account of the standard narrative of sexuality from a medical/scientific point of view, then goes into a vast survey of prehistorical evidence for about 100 pages, and then attempts to weave it together with an earnest and reasonable critique of the some of the harsher aspects of sexual ‘discipline’ (not their term) whether it’s the oppression of masturbation or monogamy being seen as a compulsory option. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but it would benefit from a tighter structure to make the punches really felt.

So what are we learning here? OK, so this is going to be one of my first attempts to break down the central arguments of a book. This isn’t an attempt at ‘fisking’, nor is it intended to help you blag your way into a dinner table conversation. Put simply, it’s an attempt to distribute some of the more interesting morsels of knowledge as food for thought and contribute to our collective understanding of an important issue. As ever, if you find it interesting, I would encourage you to buy the book.

1.     Our biology suggests that our sex is something we are well-designed to share.

Here is for me the most interesting part of the book. The authors ask: “Can we glean reliable information about the contours of ancient social life – even sexual behavior – from present-day human anatomy? Yes we can.” (215)

In practice, this means an inquiry into human genitals. From the intricacy of male biology and the sheer tonnage of sperm in question, the researchers argue that men are designed to fight in the womb rather than outside of it:

“The evidence that sperm competition played a role in human evolution is simply overwhelming. In the words of one researcher, “Without sperm warfare during human evolution, men would have tiny genitals and produce few sperm…There would be no thrusting during intercourse, no sex dreams or fantasies, no masturbation, and we would each feel like having intercourse only a dozen or so times in our entire lives.|” (242)

So yeah, the human penis and sperm production apparently exists in a manner which allows multiple sexual partners (as we all have to go there for the breeding aspect) but once ejaculation has happened the sperm itself fights for dominance. The special features which they argue demonstrate this: “a penis design to pull back pre-existing sperm, with extended, repeated thrusting; less frequent (compared to chimps and bonobos) but larger ejaculates; testicular volume and libido far beyond what’s needed for monogamous or polygynous mating; rapid-reaction DNA controlling development of testicular tissue, this DNA apparently being absent in monogamous of polygynous primates; overall sperm content per ejaculate –even today – in the range of chimps and bonobos; and the precarious location of the testicles in a vulnerable external scrotum, associated with promiscuous mating.” (243)

If we read this with an understanding of Darwinism, at least insofar as it claims nature to be very seldom wasteful, it presents the radical conclusion that swingers, orgy enthusiasts and wife-swapping circles might just have something right: human being are designed to experience sex as a communal activity. While this says nothing at all about whether monogamy is happier, sadder, more cohesive, or indeed more ‘moral’, it does at least offer a compelling case for it being an aberration, rather than anything natural. When you take into account the blood and thunder which was required to enforce it across the ages (the subject of future reviews) this conclusion seems quite compelling.

2.     In the ‘modern’ era, Western civilization has become rather perverted about sex.

While they never present a comprehensive list, the authors present several examples of the ways in which our current sexual practices cause suffering which could, at least theoretically, be avoided. Typically, the authorial technique is to take a phenomenon, highlight some of the suffering it engenders, and then demonstrate that it has not been the case all the time and so, at the very least, could be otherwise. A couple of examples follow below:

Jealousy: “So is jealousy natural? It depends. Fear is certainly natural, and like any other kind of insecurity, jealousy is an expression of fear. But whether or not someone else’s sex life provokes fear depends on how sex is defined in a given society, relationship, and individual’s personality.” (148)

Monogamy: Apparently men get high from affairs and become depressed without them. Who knew? According to the evidence presented here, a lack of  testosterone will make you miserable, and be a common result for sexual monogamy, at least after a while. On the other hand, the rushes of it which result from new sexual partners will make you think you’re in love, despite the fact that you’re probably not. Of course, if cheating is in some sense terrible then the alternative, despair, probably isn’t much better:

“According to the authors of He’s Just Not Up for It Anymore, 15 to 20 per cent of American couples have sex fewer than ten times per year. They note that the absence of sexual desire is the most common sexual problem in the country. Combine these dismals number with the 50 percent of all marriages that end in divorce, and it’s clear that modern marriage is suffering a soft-core meltdown.” (295)

If this is true, and novelty would indeed make everyone’s life a lot easier and more pleasant (I don’t really feel the need to take a show of hands) then it’s a sobering situation, as they note: “Only by arriving at a more nuanced understanding of the nature of human sexuality will we learn to make smarter decisions about our long-term commitments. But this understanding requires us to face some uncomfortable facts.”

3.            Evolutionary Psychologists are smug on the basis of insufficient evidence.

Finally, I’d like to discuss the ways in which the book takes issue with what can be understood as the ‘the standard narrative’ pertaining to human sexuality, which maintains that, as a result of our evolution, we pair up in breeder units, that female and male assessments are distinct in terms of what they seek (men want “a fertile, healthy young mate with many childbearing years ahead and no current children to drain his resources” whereas women want “wealth (or at least prospects of future wealth), social status, physical health, and likelihood that he will stick around to protect and provide for the children”). Once breeding, there will be vigilant jealousy and opportunistic infidelity. (8)

While they don’t really engage with the hetero-normativity explicit in this argument, they do confront the alleged “science” that makes such an account apparently universal and ‘natural’, as see it rather as a social construction. Comparatively, they argue that in pre-agricultural human society, in which we persisted for 95%, at least, of modern human history, the nearly universal sharing behaviour of foragers was extended to sex as well. They see agriculture as introduced a dark period for humanity, making us hierarchical and patriarchal.

They base these assertions on two types of evidence. One is anthropological data, which shows that there are a number of promiscuous societies who are still living close to foraging lifestyles. The second is the physical evidence that comes from our bodies, referenced above, that suggest a hyperpromiscuity as in our DNA.

Regarding the anthropological accounts, these are very interesting. As noted above, they see a great divide in pre-agricultural and post-agricultural human societies, which makes sense because the material basis of a society (how it puts food on the table) has been considered fundamental in society since before Marx. Naturally, I’d like to see a discussion of industrial society and sex, and moreover, sexuality in post-modernity, i.e. an analysis of sex based solely on relations of production and social distribution, but that will have to wait.

Thus, while taking Stephen Pinker to town for his sloppy historical methodology, (183-187) and his assertion that our society is less violent now than it was. They take issue because Pinker is not including ‘real’, (‘immediate-return’ is the phrase they use) hunter-gatherer societies and the ones that he is he’s getting very wrong. What do they argue against the tide of blood-stained literature about humanity’s barbaric nature?:

“A dispassionate review of the relevant science clearly demonstrates that the tens of thousands of years before the advent of agriculture, while certainly not a time of uninterrupted utopian bliss, was for the most part characterized by robust health, peace between individuals and groups, low levels of chronic stress and high levels of overall satisfaction for most of our ancestors.” (211).

In addition, they supply a number of good counter-examples to the common narrative that demonstrate high levels of promiscuity, low levels of jealousy, and a general social harmony that comes relatively free attitudes to sex. Whether it’s the Muoso in China, or the Warao, or villagers in rural Mozambique, what emerges is simply the possibility that free sexuality is possible and not terribly destructive. I would find it hard to argue with this conclusion, only going on to add that pursuing such strategies in our societies is relatively high, not just because of the social stigma it would attract, and all the emotional blackmail to which fiction subjects you, but also given the pressure on housing, jobs, and high levels of scarcity that put logistical obstacles in the way. It’s interesting how people will whine about the destruction of marriage due to certain ‘values’ being in decline, but the difficulty of love in times of turmoil and stress are seldom given much attention.

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