Saturday, August 20, 2011

Sex at Dawn

Sex at Dawn was written by Christopher Ryan (psychologist) and Dr. Cacilda Jethá (psychiatrist).  It is a book that I will never forget.  It’s packed with provocative ideas, intensely intelligent, well written, and quite funny, too.
The authors say that our deeply held beliefs about sexual fidelity and monogamy are largely at odds with millions of years of primate evolution, and this provides a terrific recipe for a dysfunctional society.  They perceive that “conventional marriage is a full-blown disaster for millions of men, women, and children right now.  Emotionally, economically, psychologically, and sexually, it just doesn’t work over the long term for too many couples.”
Chimps and bonobos are our closest relatives, and they are notable for being highly promiscuous, and absolutely non-monogamous.  The authors suggest that humans were cast in the same mold.  Life was free, easy, and very pleasurable in the good old days, prior to the emergence of agriculture.
Then came the farmers, and everything went sideways — property, wealth, poverty, warfare, masters & slaves — my field, my house, my cow, my grain, my wife.  With the privatizing of the planet, for the first time in history, men became very concerned about the issue of paternity.  Nobody wanted another man’s son to inherit their ranch.  Promiscuity lost much of its sparkle when mobs of crabby men started stoning adulterers to death.  But we have never given up a lusty interest in it, and we never will.
The emergence of agriculture radically changed human life.  It was especially a downer for women, who lost their respected and equal position in society, and were reduced to mere possessions of their husbands.  Wives were pushed into a prostitute-like role, where they were required to trade exclusive sexual access in exchange for food, shelter, and security.
Several chapters are devoted to challenging rusty old myths about the horrors of wild societies (i.e, prehistoric life was nasty, brutish, and short).  Our misconceptions are so deeply rooted that it’s difficult for us to seriously imagine a return to wild (and sustainable) living as a healthy alternative to our dying way of life.  We remain committed to a fervent blind faith that the Technology Fairy will miraculously save us, and enable yet another binge of moronic unsustainable excess.
The core idea of the book is that promiscuity is normal for humans, not naughty; and that monogamy is a practice for which sex-crazed humans are perfectly unsuitable.  Humans thrive in egalitarian clans, where everyone takes care of everyone.  Nuclear families don’t work nearly as well, especially when they are unhappy or broken.
One memorable side-trip in the book is a discussion of the Mosuo people in China, a society in which both men and women enjoy nearly absolute sexual freedom, and participate in hundreds of relationships.  Property and the family name are passed from mother to daughters.  They have no words for husband, wife, murder, war, or rape.  “Societies in which women have lots of autonomy and authority tend to be decidedly male-friendly, relaxed, tolerant, and plenty sexy.”  This provides a pleasant subject for euphoric daydreams.
The book provides few solutions beyond patience, expanded consciousness, and better communication.  But by questioning the foundations of our dysfunctional way of life, the authors provide a vital service.  If humans hope to survive, and return to a healthy way of life, everything needs to be questioned, and many things need to be thrown overboard, as soon as possible.  Open-minded readers are served a delicious banquet of food for thought.  Read it, you’ll like it.
Ryan, Christopher and Jethá, Cacilda, Sex at Dawn — The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, Harper Collins, New York, 2010.


Quizi said...

I came across your blog yesterday and became a member today. I must confess to being a really lazy writer (but a fairly keen visual artist) and what you write is what I think I should be writing :) It seems that this book you have reviewed also reflects my opinions and I shall have to read it. Thank you and I look forward to reading more of your blog. :)

What Is Sustainable said...

Quizi, yes, I read that book a couple years ago, and have seen nothing in the real world that would make me doubt their thesis. It's a messy thesis for those who are programmed for life in this society, but this is a messy society.