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A review of Sex at Dawn: anthropology, cultural diversity, and over-simplification

15 Mar

Sex at Dawn, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha.

I read this book because it was recommended by Dan Savage on his podcast. Afterwards, while reading other reviews, I saw that the book has won the top award from two major sex research and clinical organizations. Impressive! But despite the amount of research cited and scientists quoted, this book is not wonky or academic, and is easily digestible by non-experts. This book is an exploration of the idea that humans are diverse creatures and many attempts at describing one fixed ‘human nature’ fail fantastically. But what type of ‘human nature’ argument are they rallying against? Specifically, the authors argue that humans have had multiple sexual partners throughout history, and that the cultural suppression of this natural pattern in the present day in favor of monogamy is causing a lot of trouble in modern society. They further claim that we are biologically designed to have new and frequent sexual partners, which causes hormonal changes in our bodies resulting in happiness and health. Or, as Don’t Feed the Animals describes it, “Our bodies and minds are designed to fuck. A lot. With a lot of people.” Throughout the book reference is made to chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest genetic relatives, to suggest that it is natural for humans to have lots of sex with lots of different partners. Although there is research on the violence of chimps, Sex at Dawn attempts to discredit this research by highlighting its fundamental flaws, such as the introduction by scientists of new food sources into chimp societies, which changed behavior. Furthermore, as Chris Gladis wrote on Goodreads, the biological form of human beings, “from the way sperm behaves to the shape of the penis, to the anatomy of the clitoris to the noises women make in the throes of orgasm – all of these point to an evolutionary history of sexual promiscuity. The evidence of our bodies tell us that being locked into a lifetime monogamous pair-bond is not what we evolved to do.”

Although Sex at Dawn draws examples from food and social customs to describe how culturally diverse humans are (something that I am a big fan of), a greater focus of the book is the cultural diversity of sexual relationships and various types of male-female partnerships. Much of the book focuses on anthropological work and what sexual relationships were like in various historical groups of humans. There are some really interesting things that are vaguely applicable to modern life, such as female sexual plasticity being greater than that of men’s (women experiment with bisexuality more easily than men), different testicular and penis size among racial groups (Asian men get the short straw), men’s biological need for a diversity of sexual partners, and a genetic drive for human beings having multiple sexual partners, which stands in harsh contrast in contrast to the cultural insistence on monogamy (which often turns into monotony).

The authors bring forward evidence that hunter-gatherers had fairly comfortable lives, with nutrition, sexual companionship, and leisure all taken care of. Hobbes famously claimed that primitive humans lead lives that were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Like so much of classical armchair philosophy throughout human history, including Rossou’s noble savage, real anthropology has shown that quite the opposite was true. I think that this is pretty well established in the anthropology community, but might be news to some readers who aren’t well-read about the history of human beings on planet Earth. However, the authors support most of their claims by citing anecdotal and unsystematic anthropological evidence, referencing only that which supports their argument. That is a major weakness of their argument.

The authors mentioned the Mosuo, and with my former study of Chinese ethnic groups I was able to spot a few errors in their argument. They described the Mosuo as not forming long-term pair bonds, and that the biological father of the children has no social responsibility for his offspring. Both of these things are contradicted by what I read in my research, which indicated that eventually most Mosuo individuals have sex with one steady partner (although this is not a socially enforced partnership), and that the biological father will regularly make gifts to the mother’s family as a way to support his biological offspring. And I’m not even an expert on Mosuo culture. A major problem is how Sex at Dawn described the efforts of the Chinese government to wipe out the Mosuo mating system and to replace it with Chinese-style monogamy. Although what Sex in Dawn described was technically true, they failed to mention the context of the Cultural Revolution: The Chinese government was treating all of its citizens horribly, not just the Mosuo. So the characterization of these actions as an anti-polygamy crusade of modern culture is a huge mischaracterization. I think that if they failed at something so simple as this, it is likely that they have other errors as well.

I’m not the only won to have found some holes in the argument, apparently. Better minds than mine from evolvify have also found the book wanting. The audience for Sex at Dawn is clearly the general public, and any pop-science book is sure to be torn apart by the experts for anything ranging from a slight misinterpretation to being complete bullshit. Or, in academic speech, “its audience seems to be a general public with no serious knowledge of the underlying anthropology or evolutionary theory. The references provided seem to build a convincing case absent the context of a prior understanding of the referenced material.” This generally summarizes the book, although there are a few more specific issues which the Journal Evolutionary Psychology contests. Specifically, one of the writers whom the authors critique severely, Lewis Henry Morgan, seems to be quite a straw man argument, seeing as he died in 1881 yet Sex at Dawn uses his views to attack modern anthropology. This certainly seems like a valid critique of Sex at Dawn, which isn’t to say that the book is completely useless. Incorrect theories can still be quite interesting, even useful, as long as remember that they are not completely accurate depictions of reality.

Aside from some factual mistakes, this book offered and interesting overview of the sexual practices of various cultures (simplifications, I assume, but interesting nonetheless). My favorites are how “Mangaian youth are encouraged to have sex with one another, with particular emphasis on the young men learning to control themselves and take pride in the pleasure they can provide to a woman.” I really like this idea, and I think that it is something from which my own culture could benefit greatly. A somewhat witty quote that gets right to the point of men needing to be able to pleasure a women is how “a female body in motion tends to stay in motion, but men come and go.” I also liked how “the Muria of central India set up adolescent dormitories where adolescents are free to sleep together away from concerned parents. They are encouraged to sleep with different partners, as it is considered unwise to become too attached to a single partner at this phase of life,” another bit of wisdom which I think my own culture could benefit from, after I saw too many acquaintances become incredibly emotionally involved with their first partner during high school.

Although the evolutionary psychology and anthropology presented in this book may have some flaws, I would still strongly agree with the idea that non-monogamous partnerships should be more widely practiced and accepted. This comes partly from my intellectual anarchist/radical roots, but also just because I see monogamy as a cultural practice, much like eating with a fork as opposed to using chopsticks, or taking a shower in the morning (common in the United States) as opposed to in the evening (common in China). If one prefers chopsticks, why use the fork? ‘I do it this way because I’ve always done it this way’ doesn’t strike me as a very strong argument. Sex at Dawn specifically, and accurately, describes conventional marriage as “a full-blown disaster for millions of men, women and children right now. Conventional till-death (or infidelity, or boredom) -do us part marriage is a failure emotionally, economically, psychologically, and sexually.” However, as Herbert Gintis stated on his Amazon review, “the notion that we can infer from our genetic predispositions how we should behave, however, is simply illogical.” I agree with the conclusion, but not because of the evidence that the authors rolled out. Human nature, after all, is a flawed concept, and early sociobiologists were long-ago admonished for using this term. The authors of Sex at Dawn themselves recognize human fluidity, writing that “Asking whether our species is naturally peaceful or warlike, generous or possessive, free-loving or jealous, is like asking whether H2O is naturally a solid, liquid or gas. The only meaningful answer to such a question is: It depends.”