Ryan: Sex at Dawn

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Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, Sex at Dawn : The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. New York : Harper, 2010. xiii + 400 pages, with bibliographic references and index.

This is a book that gave me pause when I checked it out at the library. The book pushes two theses, one that I found persuasive, and one that I did not.

The authors are on strong ground where they take on the so-called standard narrative of evolutionary biology: that human males are profligate and human females selective in choosing breeding partners. According to the standard narrative, biological imperatives lead inevitably to concealed ovulation, continuous female receptivity, and ultimately a society based on long-term male-female pairs.

Looking to both other primates and at other human societies, Ryan and Jethá find plenty of evidence for other forms of societal organization that provide the same or better benefits to its members, but are not pair-based. As one example, they cite the Mosou people in China, whose society is matriarchal and matrilineal. Sons and daughters live together in extended families, raising children communally, the women taking temporary (and anonymous) lovers from other houses. Ryan and Jethá also talk about Bonobos a lot. Their purpose in gathering these examples together is to suggest that primitive human society may have been organized more along Bonobo frequent-group-sex lines than into stable pairs. Here they use sexual dimorphism, relative penis sizes, female vocalizations during sex and so on to support their case.

They make a persuasive argument for their first thesis, that anthropologists and sociologists are biased towards the standard narrative because it supports the status quo. It is with their second thesis that they fail to win me over. They argue that traditional marriage is ill-suited to modern society because it is "unnatural." As evidence, they cite the usual societal ills: high divorce rates, single-sex parents, lack of interest in one's long-term partner, and so on. They fail to win me over, and what's worse, the way they push their point of view diminishes their other argument. Are they presenting their evidence selectively? It makes me wonder.

They also pull their punches at the end. They remember the '70's and know that wife-swapping and group marriage were a failure then. So they have an idea (everybody should have multiple sex partners) but no good suggestions on how to implement it.

I wonder if I'm outgrowing pop-science books. A more rigorously-argued book might have been more convincing. But in that, I'm probably in a minority. The copy I read came from the Cambridge [MA] public library. It's only three years old, but it's already worn out and falling apart.

About my ratings choices:

Scienticity: 3. The authors have done extensive research and the book is well-footnoted. But as I said, I think their personal biases color their work.

Readability: 4. Easy to read, lots of interesting anecdotes and asides. For the general reader.

Hermeneutics: 4. Authors understood their subject well and made their arguments in a coherent fashion.

Charisma: 4. It's a book about sex. You have to work to make it uninteresting.

Recommendation: 3. A valuable critique of the "standard narrative" of evolutionary psychology, but colored by the authors' projection of their conclusions onto modern Western society.

-- Notes by RWB

Library of Congress classification : HQ12 .R93 2010
Dewey classification number : 306.7
ISBN : 978-0061707810

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