“We have good news and bad news. The good news is that the dismal version of human sexuality reflected in the standard narrative is mistaken. Men have not evolved to be deceitful cads, nor have millions of years shaped women into lying, two-timing gold-diggers. But the bad news is that the amoral agencies of evolution have created in us a species with a secret it just can’t keep. Homo sapiens evolved to be shamelessly, undeniably, inescapably sexual. Lusty libetines. Rakes, rogues, and roués. Tomcats and sex kittens. Horndogs. Bitches in heat.”
And if that paragraph doesn’t appeal to you, neither will this book, or the rest of this review.
The book is Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What it Means for Modern Relationships. It’s written by researchers Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá.
Like so much else that I study and seek to understand, this topic sends me running to our evolutionary heritage. This is, for me, the first step in gaining understanding, whether we are determining what we eat, how we live, why we act the way we do. This phase of information-gathering is not the end, but rather the beginning of the process. Our natural heritage is morality-neutral – nature cares not whether you eat/behave/live/die in this manner; it’s simply the manner in which our species have evolved to thrive. Natural selection isn’t inherently good or bad. But it is the framework upon which to study what behaviors have served us well in our survival through the millenia. (And a side note, which won’t surprise anyone who knows me, we learn again how things got sideways in our prehistory with the advent of agriculture.)
And our species has thrived on, not to put too fine a point on it, sluttiness. If you pause reading right here, you can probably answer the next question, WHY, without much help. But this book offers a lot of fun in seeking the answer.
It has long been known that we share an ancestor with other apes, and that our closest relative is the chimpanzee. What hasn’t been known until more recently is that we are as equidistant, evolutionarily, to the bonobo. It is in observing these two societies, bonobos and chimpanzees, that we get a full picture of social behavior that runs a broader spectrum than initially understood in terms of how we as homo sapiens have evolved. We have so many years of social/religious pressure adding to our history, it’s difficult to determine what is natural and what is cultural, and watching our not-so-influenced relatives give us insight into our own behavior.
What we have discovered is that while chimpanzees exhibit behavior that shows reproduction-based sexual activity, territoriality, exchange of female sexual favor for protection and food, bonobos behave quite differently. Bonobo societies use sexual activity for conflict resolution, tribal bonding, celebration, and includes multiple partners/genders/acts. Additionally, bonobos, like humans and unlike chimpanzees, have hidden ovulation, and therefore hidden paternity, which allows the entire tribe to take an interest in all the offspring of the group.
There are only a handful of books I have sent to all of my adult children, and this is one of them. My kids are all progressive, open-minded, hippie-types, and as with all things, I love getting their feedback and observations, particularly when it concerns science, culture, and relationships. They hold progressive ideas about marriage, monogamy, and relationships based on their own knowledge and experiences, and I look forward to having our family book discussion on this, fractured though it might be through time and distance!
The divorce rate in the US currently stands at about 50%. If you were a car manufacturer, and you installed brakes on your cars that failed 50% of the time, you would consider this an absolute emergency. If you were an investor, and you lost clients’ money 50% of the time, you should look for a new line of work. If your restaurant food made people sick after one of every 2 visits, you’d be shut down in a big hurry. There’s a problem with marriage in the United States, that doesn’t seem to be confined to any category: age, religion, region, or race. And because our religious and political entities have an interest in keeping the status quo, our citizenry finds itself, as it so often does, restricted from even asking questions and pushing back in the face of these dismal statistics. The authors of the book don’t do a lot of moralizing – don’t go out and join a hippie commune, but perhaps share the book with your spouse and marriage counselor. It’s a conversation we should be having.
“Could it be that the atomic isolation of the husband-wife nucleus with an orbiting child or two is in fact a culturally imposed aberration for our species – as ill-suited to our evolved tendencies as corsets, chastity belts, and suits of armor? Dare we ask whether mothers, fathers, and children are all being shoe-horned into a family structure that suits none of us? Might the contemporary pandemics of fracturing families, parental exhaustion, and confused, resentful children be predictable consequences of what is, in truth, a distorted and distorting family structure inappropriate for our species?”
Remember the documentary about the penguins? Remember how we anthropomorphised that charming movie? We aspired to be monogamous like the penguins, devoted to the nth degree to our offspring and to one another? Churches showed this as worship service, in an effort to make us learn how very, very, ever so important it was to be like the penguin! Calling them model parents, holding them up as an ideal example of monogamy, this film was lovely. Touching. And in its defense, that year spent with that egg on the ice was pretty accurately portrayed. Those raging Antarctic blizzards don’t lend themselves much to extramarital temptation. However….
“Once Junior is swimming with the other 11-month-olds – the penguin equivalent of kindergarten – fidelity is quickly forgotten, divorce is quick, automatic, and painless, and Mom and Dad are back on the penguin prowl. With a breeding adult typically living 30 years or more, these “model parents” have at least 2 dozen “families” in a lifetime. Did someone say “ideal example of monogamy”?
You should read this book. Every page reveals an interesting piece of the puzzle of human behavior. Some of it is laugh-out-loud funny, and some of it is “who’s reading my email?” accurate. I’ll throw in a couple of additional teasers: there’s a chapter on why a human penis is shaped like it is (try to guess first), and an entire chapter devoted to multiple female orgasm (as trippy as it sounds). I have a copy I’m happy to loan, and there’s a Kindle version too.
After all that good stuff, let me issue one final caveat. I HATEHATEHATED the final chapters. After 300 pages of serious science data, cross-referenced sources, humor, light, the perfect balance of every word, the last chapter devolved into a Dear Abby column, and I have no idea why. The authors have even added another chapter to the newest editions addressing all the complaints they received about that, but it was an unsatisfying explanation. However, the totality of the book still rises about that imperfection. This one’s a winner. Read it, then tell me about reading it!
I envy you getting to read it for the first time.
Thanks for reading!