Read This: Sex at Dawn

by GK on September 17, 2011 · 11 comments

Pickup artists, biologists and conservatives have more in common than they think. Sure, they may not hit up the same parties, but they intersect here: all of them look at winner-take-all, monogamous relationships with “alpha males” and mutual double-crossing as the foundation from which our relationships have evolved.

I could see the truths in such theory over the years, but I also had doubts that I rarely saw answered. That’s why I was so glad to read “Sex at Dawn” recently, because it raises those doubts and does so with scientific, witty precision. To those who say we have evolved from isolated, monogamous relationships based on access to resources, sexual jealousy and “alpha” genes, the authors say they have it all backward. I’m no Oprah Winfrey, but I heartily recommend this book.

Beyond sex, the book is really about one word: nature.

It’s ironic that the authors emphasize the unnatural nature of Western marriage, lifelong monogamy and nuclear families when they are a married couple themselves. But Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha aren’t anti-commitment. Rather, they insist that for most of human existence, before agriculture, people lived in tightly knit societies and engaged in committed-yet-promiscuous relationships and shared the raising of kids.

The book refers often to a “standard narrative,” one that’s been fed to us by everything from religion to romantic comedies to Charles Darwin. It includes the following:

  • Women have always been passive when it comes to sex and naturally commit to one partner.
  • Males are sexually jealous of their partners because they don’t want to risk raising another man’s child.
  • Women always looked to men for access to wealth and status, though they would cheat to give birth to a child with superior genes.
  • Pair-bonding, marriage and the nuclear family are a fundamental condition of humanity.

No shortage of Ph.D’s and intellectuals have made such claims, and I love it that the authors refute them not only with hard facts, but also with a cartoon. Our attempt to apply modern views of everything from monogamy to war is no less anacrhonistic than the prehistoric characters of the “Flintstones” using telephones and cars.

The authors contend that one defining moment turned what was then into what is now: agriculture. Once our hunter-gatherer ancestors — whose descendents live on in scattered societies around the world — started forming civilizations and competing over scarce resources, women became a commodity too. And so monogamy was born as a contract of sex for food, with love as a vague justification for it.

 “Modern man’s seemingly instinctive impulse to control women’s sexuality is not an intrinsic feature of human nature,” they write. “It is a response to specific historical socioeconomic conditions — conditions very different from those in which our species evolved.”

The authors use ample anthropological evidence from the hunter-gatherers of yesterday and today, where food, sex and child-rearing are shared among everyone, and women aren’t shy or shamed when it comes to initiating sex. This isn’t some noble ideal, but rather a practical one: if everyone’s getting laid, everyone’s happy. Just look to Middle East terrorism and the promise of virgins in Heaven as evidence that deprivation can lead to problems.

And if that’s not proof enough that promiscuity is natural for us, Ryan and Jetha add the following regarding our animal cousins:

  • Of all animals, we are most closely related to two apes: the chimp and the bonobo. Both are social and live on the ground, like us, and are highly promiscuous. The only ape to practice monogamy — the gibbon — lives a solitary life in trees.
  • Among bonobos, sex is shared with everyone to relieve tension and strengthen social bonds, and with apologies to the seduction gurus out there, there is no such thing as an alpha male. In fact, the females have higher status than males because no alliances are formed to control them.
  • Men have big balls. Once again, we more closely resemble the more promiscuous chimp and bonobo in this regard, whereas gorillas — who do include alpha males and harems — and gibbons have small testicles.

Ultimately, though, the real evidence can be found in civilized societies such as America, where marriage and nuclear families are on the decline, with adultery and boredom a leading cause of divorce. Because it’s taboo to even discuss the idea that we’re not meant to be monogamous for life, we continue to wear a garment that doesn’t fit. And the seams are showing.

The authors don’t offer much of a solution to the problem, because while the standard narrative may be misleading, much of our culture is jealous and opportunistic when it comes to relationships. And discussing this with someone you care about is no easy task. But we have to start somewhere, so we might as well start from the beginning.


1 Gal @ Equally Happy September 19, 2011 at 9:15 am

Just because we have a biological imperative to do something, doesn’t mean it’s good for us. There are some things that our biology tells us to do which are not conducive to an orderly society or a healthy life.

For example, biology tells us to eat a lot of fat, sugar and salt because those used to be rare but following that biological imperative would lead to poor health.

Fact is, we’re no longer ground dwelling primitives occupied with day to day survival. So while I agree that we should admit our biology plays a large role in our behavior and stop treating it as some kind of taboo subject, I also think we should consider the fact that we’re no longer slaves to our biology.

2 GK September 19, 2011 at 12:27 pm

Thanks for the comment, Gal!

You’re right that we shouldn’t submit to every natural impulse. For instance, if someone tries starting a fight with me at a bar, I’m better off resisting the urge to fight and walk away. But that’s because it benefits me in the long run to do so.

Does committing to one sexual partner for life — something I’ve never done but seems unnatural to me — benefit us? Well, for some it does. But there are so many people out there, people who care about their partners and want to stay with them, who are living lives of quiet desperation because they’re bored or unfulfilled. Or they’re cheating, or divorcing to get their “freedom” back. And none of those results seems appropriate to me, especially with children involved.

And sadly, I would suggest we are absolutely primative when it comes to sexual matters — more so than hunter-gatherers. Whether it’s stoning women in Iran, China’s one-child policy or right here in America, where homophobia and sexual ignorance still abound.

3 Erich September 19, 2011 at 8:22 pm

It’s funny, I just recommended Dirk’s old blog recommendation of this book to the old CA forum mod Nonstop last week.

4 Hill September 20, 2011 at 11:48 pm

Betwee this bok and Dr. Atkinds, agriculture seems to have fucked things up good for a lot fpeople :) The thing I find interesting about this book beyon just the concept of sharing loversand childrearing responsibilities is the concept of non-ownership. Its very John Lennon. But, and mayber it’s the result of eons of social conditioning, it’s hard to conceive of owning nothing. Nt women, family, nor the bow and arrow used to hunt. Maybe it’s just so foreign to me that I find it hard to believe. Not that I find monogamy the natural order of thigns, but the concept of owning things, including people, seems quite natural for humans fgiven ourt history.

5 Ron O. September 21, 2011 at 7:11 am

Monogamy is a stupid concept. It is tailor made for people with low self esteem. It treats love not as a reaction to values that is can be earned by anyone at any time. Monogamy treats love as a static quantity that after one “finds” one can put in a box, put a padlock on, hoard, and feel secure. Only “the one” out of billions of people on the planet gets my love while none others do. Look, out of the 100-200 or so people I’ve dated in my life, I found “the one!” Amazing how lucky all those monogamous people are.

Monogamy is as sensible as saying I can only have one friend. I must commit all my time and energy to just this one friend. I cannot feel feelings of friendship for any other people, no matter how cool they are, or if I shamefully do feel those feelings, I must not express them or act them out by forming another friendship.

If I try to have meaningful relationships with two friends, they will get jealous of each other and maintaining the two relationships simultaneously won’t work because everyone knows true friendship can only be felt for one person. My one friend must fulfill all my friendship needs along every dimension of my personality. If things get a little stale and I want to explore a different side, or my friend don’t fit with me in one aspect of my personality, he must nonetheless put on a costume and pretend he’s something he’s not in order to fulfill my need. Or I must suffer unfulfilled. I cannot “cheat” on my one friend by becoming friends with another person as well.

6 Hill September 21, 2011 at 10:48 am

Its funnyt hat monogamies biggest opponents tend to never have been in love or even be currently dating anyone. I was like that too once young skywalker. It’s one thing to say monogamy doesn’t work for you or even for most humans. It’s another to put down those who do believe in it as simply those with low self esteem. Dating 100-200 people to have found the one is 100-200 more people than all the armchair critics have dated combind. Aren’t generalizations fun? 😉

7 GK September 21, 2011 at 10:06 pm

Interesting comments, guys.

Hill, I like what you had to say about ownership. It can be an abstract thing too — a person may own no exclusive access to a woman, but he might own his life better than the guy who is monogamous but bored or unhappy. Some people live to own a house, while others would rather own the freedom to leave town at a moment’s notice.

I think it’s going overboard to say all monogamous people have low self-esteem. I know that’s not true from the friends I have, in fact. And there’s a lot of gray area between 100 percent, lifelong monogamy and treating the world like your personal glory hole. I know that whenever I’m in a serious relationship again, I would want to be as monogamous as I could be.

8 Hill September 27, 2011 at 8:15 am

*mind blown*

9 Sal September 27, 2011 at 4:29 pm

I don’t know. How proveable are the authors’ theories with data from controlled experiments? Have their experiments been independently verified by other scientists?

To me, young attractive women these days seem more empowered than ever about who they allow to mate with them. If women in the past were naturally open to sharing sex freely amongst guys, how come we don’t see things returning to that in this day and age? From what I can see, dating among younger people (eg, people in their late teens and early 20’s) seems to follow the Pareto principle. A small share of the guys are being having the vast majority of the sex. This small share might not exclusively be the alpha males, but they have attractive qualities that make them stand above the rest. 

Anyway I haven’t read this book. Maybe I should be more keen to check this book out, but unless these scientists have run controlled experiments that can conclusively demonstrate their theories, how could anyone take their ideas to be anything more than conjecture? It would be unbelievably hard to design experiments that could test the ideas mentioned in this article, but I’d certainly open to learning more about it if the book details it. But trying to explain the evolution of our behavior eons ago by looking at how it has changed over historical events seems like an extremely flimsy way to construct an argument. All somebody would have to do is come up with another theory and have it make sense in the context of history and it would be equally valid.

Sperm wars attempted to do the same exact thing as this book, and to me the theories made intuitive sense. However, some of the fundamental theories in that book have since been contradicted (for example, there is no such thing as “killer sperm”). Just because a hypothesis makes sense doesn’t make it a fact. You gotta back it up with data from experiments.

My degree is in statistics and my job has me analyzing economic/financial data every day. I may not be an expert in women but I am an expert in data. It’s beyond the scope of this post, but human behavior is so unbelievably hard to model, and no matter how convincing or logical some socioeconomic theories sound, people act in unexpected ways.

While it’s great that scientists try to expand our understanding of how our sexual preferences got to be how they are today, it sounds to me like a very difficult thing to design experiments around. I’d be curious to learn more about how they designed their experiments.

10 GK September 27, 2011 at 11:16 pm

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Sal. My lazy response would be to tell you to read the book for answers, but I’ll try not to be lazy here. :)

In a sense, the book is pissing into a strong wind, because while I agree that we aren’t naturally monogamous, we do live in a monogamy-driven and jealous culture now (if not a hypocritical one). The book concedes that, and it doesn’t really offer a way to change it.

The writers didn’t conduct experiments of their own, but they do refer to reams of studies from scientists and anthropologists old and current. These may not all involve controlled experiments, but even Darwin’s theory (which they criticize to some degree) is full of conjecture. But it’s educated conjecture.

Here’s one recent experiment they include about female sexuality: men and women had their genitals hooked up to a device that measured blood flow as they watched erotic scenes of all kinds. Gay and straight men were found to tell the truth about what turned them on far more than women did. Whereas the men were only turned on by one thing (straight men preferred hetero porn, for example), the women were turned on by everything. Only they wouldn’t admit it. Either it’s because women lie more about sex, or it’s because they’re more malleable to social pressure. I suggest it’s the latter.

There is lots of firsthand, exhaustive anthropologic evidence that women initiate sex and that sex is shared among males in a village — not from thousands of years ago, but from today. The book mentions many of them. For example, in one Brazilian village, an anthropologist reported 88 ongoing affairs among 37 adults, and that the extramarital affairs brought people together.

There’s plenty more data, but I’ll tell you from my own experience that the alpha-male notion is a myth, then and now. I’ve coached plenty of guys who were either virgins or were having little sex in their lives, and with just a little help, guess what? Many of them got laid soon after. I spent 25 years of my life as a virgin, and now I’ve had many more partners than the average male (according to the stats). And I doubt anyone would call me alpha. Even so-called betas can have lots of sex if they know what they’re doing — our primate cousins are proof of this.

The evidence shows that women today, including young women, are having more sex partners than they admit (the book refers to a study on this). So if they’re only going for alphas, there must be more alphas than we realize.

Anyway, pick up the book when you find the time. It’s worth the read.

11 Sal September 30, 2011 at 8:46 am

Thanks for taking the time to write out a longer response than you needed to, Greg. When you mention that women are having more sex, I think it’s because they’re more empowered to do so, not necessarily because there are more type-A guys around :-)

I guess it leads me to question tho, who are the guys on the receiving end of all this sex with women?

I think you’re trying to say that it’s not exclusively alphas, and I’m trying to say that it’s still a small exclusive group of guys, who maybe aren’t alpha but they do have attractive qualities that lead them to chosen much more over other guys.

It is purely my opinion and I haven’t run any controlled experiments to back it up :-) but I think that these days the Pareto principle is at play, at least with hetero relationships — a small percentage of guys have a relatively large percentage of the sex taking place. These guys aren’t necessarily alphas.

But there is a small subset of guys that do have a much easier time with girls. I can’t tell you how many “beta” guys I know who have girls making it so easy for them because they’re over 6ft. On the flip side I can’t tell you how *many more* friendly guys I know who only look OK, work in lucrative careers, and put just as little effort as taller guys to get girls, but attractive normal women hardly consider them romantically. This leads to a lot of frustration. My guess is “Why there are no girls in San Francisco” is written by a guy with that kind of background.

My point is that while alpha males don’t rule the dating pool, it’s far from an equal-opportunity playing field for guys and some guys benefit way, way more than the rest.

Apart from the alpha point, I just wanted to share a quick story that relates to the study showing women being turned on by eveything. You mentioned that women didn’t always admit to what they were turned on by. It sucks that it’s like pulling teeth trying to get women to act on attraction.

One of my friends is bisexual and she complains about how difficult it can sometimes be to seduce young hot girls who are up for girl/girl action. Lately she’s been texting a hot 21 year old for weeks who she met at a pride parade, but the girl keeps putting on the brakes. It makes no sense to me why they havent hooked up because (a) she is aggressive but she also has enough social grace to lead well without being pushy, (b) my friend looks good, and (c) they met at a pride parade for F’s sake. It doesn’t look like there will be any hooking up taking place even though sparks were flying when they met and the logistics are good.  It’s just really sad that women appear to be hypersensitive about being judged for their choice of sexual partners.

Anyway I may just check out the book when I get a little more free time.

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