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Cooking Up A Storey
by Donna George Storey
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Holiday Ghosts
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Sex at Dawn:
The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality

by Christopher Ryan & Cacilda Jethá

Book Review by Rob Hardy

 

Sex at Dawn

Marriage seems so much a given in our society that it is peculiar to question how essential it might be.  And yet, if it were completely natural, would we have to have calls for laws to defend it?  If it were everyone’s basic nature happily to conduct a monogamous marriage, would we need such legislation as tax breaks to support it?  Why would we need to threaten to stone adulteresses?  Why would marriage need sacramentalization by churches?  Even with such social support, why can we expect half of marriages to end in divorce?  If the family unit of husband, wife, and children was so essential, why is it present in less than a quarter of households?  The answers may be that monogamy wasn’t part of our ancient ancestors’ culture and that we strain to instill it into our own.  This is among the lessons in the provocative and entertaining Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (Harper) by psychologist Christopher Ryan and psychiatrist Cacilda Jethá, themselves a married couple.  If we look at such evidence of how our chimp and bonobo cousins conduct themselves or how our anatomy (male and female) is designed, we can get ideas of how humans comported sexually as foragers, in the thousands of years before just a biological blink of an eye ago we settled down to farm.  The authors have given a guided tour of current research into these topics, and although the 300 pages of text deal with some weighty biological and social ideas, the summary here is engaging and presented with good sense and good humor.  Even if you are determined that yours and everybody else’s marriage ought to prosper and continue, and that marriage must be politically defended at all costs, you are bound to gain insight on why this is so difficult for many of us to accomplish.

The very first quotation in the book is from The African Queen, where Katherine Hepburn in the role of Miss Rose Sayer proclaims, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”  Hardly.  Oh, humans are special, and spectacular at times, but we have trouble accepting that we are merely one particular kind of ape.  “Like bonobos and chimps,” say the authors, “we are the randy descendants of hypersexual ancestors.”  The resistance to accept nature has played a role even in modern evolutionary psychology, and the authors critique what they call the “standard narrative of human sexual evolution” which goes like this: boy meets girl, the boy measures her for youth and fertility and the girl measures him for wealth and status, and they form a long-term pair bond during which she is alert for any sign he might abandon her and he watches to make sure any children she bears are his.  Researchers say they have seen this pattern in one culture after another, but the authors show that it can be seen as a response to social conditions, modern social conditions.  By modern, they mean in the past 10,000 years since the development of agriculture; but humans have been existence twenty times longer than that, and before farming, we lived in small groups on a large and fruitful Earth. 

It’s not the picture of the benefits civilization has bestowed upon us.  The authors repeatedly turn to Thomas Hobbes’s famous definition of the primitive state being poor, nasty, brutish, and short.  They do so only to show that the hunter-gatherers probably experienced none of that.  The groups lived communally, and members didn’t need to own things, and they didn’t need to own spouses.  They would have engaged in multiple ongoing sexual relations; this is what chimps and bonobos do, as do the few remaining hunter-gathering communities left.  There used to be more such foraging communities until western ideas of property and propriety were forced onto them, but it is pretty easy to find missionary priests writing about how shockingly little the newly-discovered natives cared about marriage or fidelity.  There are species whose males beat each other up and the winner gets to mate, but our ape branch competes another way, at the level of sperm itself.  (This is bound to be a lot less bloody and a lot more fun.)  The large size of human testicles and the large volume of ejaculate produced are dissimilar to the monogamous gibbons or gorillas.  A human male produces hugely exaggerated amounts of sperm and semen because he wants to wash out semen deposited by any predecessor.  In fact (and there are labs where artificial penises and artificial vaginas are employed to demonstrate this), the glans of the human penis is designed to help displace the semen it finds in a vagina before depositing its own.  Not only that, but there are researchers who analyze the different spurts of ejaculate, beginning, midstream, and ending.  The spurts are of different chemical content, with the first ones having white blood cells and antigens that can cancel out the final spurts sitting there from a predecessor.  Monogamous animals just aren’t that interested in sex, mating rarely because there is no competition.  Humans think of sex frequently and act upon the thoughts frequently, not the monogamous pattern.  Did you ever wonder why with men supposedly on the prowl and keyed up for sex that it is the female who tends to make the most noise during the act?  “Female copulatory vocalization” of many species is a topic researched by biologists with microphones, and humans fit nicely into the category of those who advertise coitus in this way, an activity many of us take pains to practice in private.  Why advertise in such a fashion?  To welcome all comers.  The men, glad to let their sperm fight it out, got off on the general sex party, and that might be a reason that among the most popular forms of video pornography you can find are of multiple men and one woman.  It is all a process of natural selection, but in a way that Darwin would not have expected.  Darwin (and the authors reassure us that they are not Darwin bashers by any means) was a product of his times and saw pair-bonding in a monogamous light, but even he allowed that some sort of communal marriage was the original way of doing things.

So why did we ever give up our promiscuous paradise?  (The authors remind us that “promiscuous” need not be pejorative; it comes from a root word meaning simply “to mix.”)  It does not take an evolutionary biologist to know that sometimes people do things for short term gain that fail to benefit them in the long term.  Settling down on a farm meant stability, and a relatively constant food source.  Surprisingly, it might not have meant better health or nutrition, for the farmers didn’t forage for that wide range of foods available in the wild.  It may have been that before farming, they didn’t have an idea about how sex made babies; some current foraging tribes, for instance, think that the developing fetus is helped by different men planting their contributions during the pregnancy.  With possession of domestic animals, however, the lightbulb may have gone on, and possessiveness for offspring may have started.  Cue the politicians.  Cue the armies.

It is unclear where we go from here.  The authors themselves say, “We’re not advocating any particular response to the information we’ve put together.  Frankly, we’re not sure what to do with it ourselves.”  It might be that our impermanent or unsatisfying marriages are the simple result of a societal distortion of a previous pattern of communal families and child-rearing, and some groups, of course are trying polyamory and group living.  There is surely something wrong with a marriage in which, for instance, a spouse has an affair and the immediate response of the partner is to assume all is irremediably over and to pack up and leave, but that’s a frequent pattern.  There are marriage therapists who themselves propose the dire dichotomy of “love it or leave it.”  It’s not what our ancient forebears would have done, and in some societies (think of France) having relationships on the side is an accepted pattern.  With tolerance, perhaps wedlock can be more pliant and not break with stress.  Perhaps accepting how we are equipped with hunter-gatherer morals will make such tolerance easier to get.

Rob Hardy
October 2010

Sex at Dawn
(Harper, June 2010; ISBN-10: 0061707805)
Available at:  Amazon | Amazon UK

_______
© 2010 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.


About the Reviewer
Rob Hardy is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbus, Mississippi, with his wife, two terriers, five cats, and goldfish.

He reviews nonfiction for The Times of Acadiana, but has been reviewing books as a hobby for years before that.
WebBio: Rob Hardy



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