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.