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Monday, February 11, 2013

Sex at Dawn and the Dawn of Property

This is my second review published on November 12, 2012:

Sex at Dawn has issues, but they are eclipsed in significance by one VERY important idea - the emergence of "property" in human behavior.

Yes, the book presents lots of other useful ideas, and the many challenges to the "standard narrative" are far more valuable than the minor confusion encountered when the book crosses the line from science to wishful thinking in its return to Eden. Discounting the value of civilization is naive, but this too does not get in the way of the book's most important concept - the emergence of property.

Most other reviews of this book deal with the obvious sexual consequences of a shifting culture, but this single underlying idea of how property became a critical behavior and distorted our primal nature puts Chistopher Ryan among Desmond Morris, Sigmund Freud and yes, even Charles Darwin when it comes to understanding the evolution of human culture.

Before 20,000 years ago humans "owned" only what they could carry. They were typically chasing game or grain. The property they might own would be as little as a spear, or a basket.  Even these simple things made sense to share, as portability was half the value. And when the tribe found food, it only made sense to share that too. After all, you couldn't "own" more than you could eat, or carry. There was little reason to "own" another person.  They were largely beyond control once out of sight.

But domestication of plants and animals changed everything.

Not only COULD humans own property, they HAD to own property in order to gain its advantage. Whether it was an acre of grain or a heard of cows, a person HAD to take responsibility for their care in order to enjoy the benefit from the behavior of husbandry.  You can imagine the first person to withhold and guard enough grain to plant again in the spring.  He might have been considered a sociopath for his hoarding of grain, but he became a hero at the next harvest.  A year is a long time to withhold gratification.  It requires a respect for property and the rule of law.  It also required the abstraction and appreciation of time.  These are not qualities we find in other primates.  Once mastered by humans, the behavior amplified calorie production dramatically.

Agriculture required holding title to things that were not only out of sight, but often out of mind. It required the concept of property ownership, but the results were a phenomenal leveraging of effort. This success lead these farmers to apply the abstract idea of ownership to everything in their environment, including other people, ultimately creating slavery and marriage.  From a cow to a wife, the property concept was extended literally by force, even though it likely conflicted with our historical and primal nature of sharing as is pointed out in Sex at Dawn.

The impact of owning property on our sexual behavior is what this book is all about. How this motive contrasts with our primal nature is the main reason we have so many issues with sex and monogamy, mostly because of our "ownership" of others. But that's only part of the consequence. The impact of property on religion, politics and relationships in general has a far greater scope. Ownership of property at a distance became the basis for feudalism, the most common lifestyle of the last few thousand years.

The idea of owning property now permeates and dominates who we are, even if it's not always respected in our primal behavior.  Wouldn't it be ironic if this primal behavior turned out to be more altruistic, and our new "civilized" behavior more selfish?  How do we begin testing these ideas?

Sex at Dawn opens one amazing can of worms.  And it's also a fun read.

This is my conclusion after a second reading. Below was my first impression:

First impression posted on 02-04-12:

This may well be the most significant book published so far this millennium.  OK, it's only been 12 years, but what Dr Christopher Ryan and Dr Cacilda Jetha have brought together in such a candid fashion is at the very least a breakthrough in the understanding of the human condition, if not a road-map to the entire field of primate psycho-sexual behavior.

Sex at Dawn doesn't just challenge Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and Desmond Morris; it drives a bulldozer right through their conclusions using their own observations as diesel fuel.  Like so many breakthroughs, this one starts with a whole new perspective.

The book starts by recognizing the standard narrative as a war of the sexes where women are less sexual and men need to "own" the outcome of the battle, until death do us part.  That this narrative doesn't really work is patently obvious to the most casual observer, and they point out the reasons.  For instance, why do we grow bored with our partners?  Why do so many cheat?  Why is it so difficult to live happily ever after?  Instead of blaming exceptions to the rule, Sex at Dawn actually provides answers to these questions by taking a fresh look at old data as well as drilling back into history in some interesting and creative ways.

All my life I've read history full of inconsistency between dictum and action.  From your mother to Jerry Falwell or even the Popes down through the centuries, we've gotten the same message: do as I say, not as I do.  And sex is often at the core of this behavioral paradox.  Sex has almost created the concept of double-standard and hypocrisy all by itself.

Unfortunately for millions, this "fashion" has been driven forward by force of culture and law.  And the powers that be, have tried to explain away all the exceptions when at that end of the day, all there are, are exceptions. The modern industry called soap opera is proof of how silly the king looks without his clothes.

I've often observed about paradoxes, if something doesn't make sense, you simply don't have enough data.  But that's not the only factor.  Sometimes we aren't looking at the data in the most effective way.  Dr Ryan and Dr Jetha have found a fresh perspective on what we've learned about human sexuality over the last few hundred years.  Then they dig back thousands and millions of years in ways that make sense.  Sex at Dawn not only vividly present the contradictions of the narrative, it provides a more natural alternative.

Even though this is an easy and entertaining read, don't let that diminish the significance of these concepts: these are world changing ideas.  From linking ownership of property to agriculture, to shared parentage, these are significant changes in how we think about our ancestors, and by inference, ourselves. I believe these two have opened a Pandora's box that will not close.  I think these ideas will have the general public laughing at our recent sexual history in only a generation from now.

Before I conclude, let me say I don't think "Sex at Dawn" got it all right.  I believe they've under-represented not only the power of the prude, but how monogamy can sometimes be natural and healthy; at least for a while.  And I don't believe we can dismiss jealousy as entirely cultural or only the result of the agricultural age.  It varies from person to person but seems primal in some.  Also, it's hard to accept that a paradise won't expand until it's no longer a paradise.  And most hunter gatherers did not even start with paradise.  These points aside, there are enough great ideas in this book to prompt a hundred more books on the topic.

And Sex at Dawn is the place to start the process.

In any case, read Sex at Dawn.  Then tell me what YOU think.

Other opinions, reviews and notes flowing from our discussion group:

The most concise reason to read this book:

Let the Critics Critique

Let the critics critique. Then read this amazing book anyway., April 14, 2013

I love critics. All the time they invested in studying the critic arts. Going to critic college. Getting their critic's degree. Then taking the time to set up critic social programs that teach inner city children the ins and out of becoming critics themselves, so as to further enrich society's cornucopia of, well...criticism. Oh, none of those things exist? Probably because critics are too busy spreading negativity and self loathing to truly make a positive difference in the world. Ok, now that that's been cleared up...*ahem*...

* If you've ever had your heart broken from a cheating other, read this book.

* If you've ever felt like you were trapped in a dead end relationship, but didn't know why you felt that way, read this book.

* If you've ever wanted more than your significant other seemed capable of providing, but felt selfish about asking, read this book.

Basically, anyone in a relationship anywhere should be aware of the text in Sex At Dawn. After my wife and I separated because I felt neglected and trapped, I went searching for answers. This book cleared up so many things that she and I were both unaware we were dealing with that we're now reestablishing the friendship we once had. Who knows if we'll ever be a couple again? The point is that we're both better people for having taken the time to research where our troubles stemmed from. And this book could've saved all that heartache had we read it before getting married.

I tip my hat to Ryan/Jetha for tackling a side of human nature that has been cast aside into the shadow of shame for far too long. Take control of your love life and give this book a chance. It will change your life, and the life of those you love, forever.

The most significant Chris Ryan interview Chris Ryan I've found:

The Ultrasound Wars, a Better Use for McMansions, and the Surprising Truth About Group Sex: an Interview with Christopher Ryan, co-author of “Sex at Dawn”.

Here are a few other reviews:

Sex at Dawn

How Sex at Dawn is Blowing My Mind

And it's rare for me to link the International Socialist Review but:

Anything Went

Don't Feed the Animals

The Psychology of Human Sexuality Review

The book is always better, but if you'd rather see the movie...

This is another fascinating read on the topic.  While it's not a review of Sex at Dawn but illustrates many of the contradictions brought up in the book:

11 Strange, Horrific, or Just Plain Weird Ways Societies Have Policed Sex Throughout History

... and makes one appreciate the sexual freedom we now have.

Here's one alternative to the standard narative:

Polyamory and the Elephant in the Room

Sexual Behavior in Pre Contact Hawai‘i: A Sexological Ethnography

Don't let the title scare you. Yes, this may be a bit academic for some but it's fascinating and supports Sex at Dawn in many ways. Some of it I read in Michener's Hawaii, but this work has much more detail.

What amazes me most is the contrast with western society. In many ways it's inverse. This makes me realize how arbitrary yet critical customs can become. For instance, one could be put to death for wearing a wet swimming suit in front of royalty (nude would be proper). It might be hard to believe but many western ideas are just as crazy.

OK.  Not everyone agrees Sex at Dawn is the book of the century:

01-23-13 - Still Trying to Read "Sex at Dawn" Without Actually Killing Myself

A friend of mine has given me permission to include her review here, which I'm doing because it's such a through and excellent counter-point to many of the important ideas of Sex at Dawn, and because she shares some of the political reservations I do.  Later I plan to read Sex at Dawn again and then review Roberta's review.  So standby for updates:

Roberta's Review of Sex at Dawn

"There are some subtle and many not-so-subtle leanings toward forwarding socialism and communism as the main point of the book. Aiming at a target audience that wants to hear that sexual freedom is good and natural, it attempts to connect the reasons they feel bad about it to the repressive capitalistic, property-based, dogmatic, religiously zealous, Western society they live in. It then posits that egalitarian, free-loving, communal tribes lived with no sociosexual repression, making the logical conclusion that a communist society would be free of the social repression that keeps polyamory repressed.

I have attached several Citation Points to show a clear spin in favor of communism and against all forms of personal property rights:

1) pg. 43, Marx is stated to be one of “three intellectual giants of his century, Darwin, Freud, and Marx”
2) pg. 13-14, Equating the rise of agriculture to the advent of personal property & possessiveness (unfounded and stated as undeniable fact in the face of contradictory scientific proof in archeological records; see below)
3) pg. 151-212, A complete narrative on the evils of capitalism, personal property rights, and how economic theory points to large-scale communism not as totalitarian, but “misguided”. (pg. 171)
4) pg. 172, Unintentionally negating the entire theory, one line states, “Marx’s fatal error was his failure to appreciate the importance of context. Human nature functions one way in the context of intimate, interdependent societies, but set loose in anonymity, we become a different creature.” This undermines the entire thesis that communism is misguided and reinforces the fact that it is unworkable beyond small bands of close-knit people. (anonymity defined as being part of a group of more than 150 individuals; the limits of the human brain to create close-knit personal relationships)
5) pg. 180, The assumption is made (without cited archeological evidence) that agriculture societies caused the chronic food shortages seen in fossilized skeletal evidence of the age while ignoring evidence that food shortages were in fact due to massive megafaunal extinctions during the Younger Dryas cooling, (the last ice age circa 10,900-9,500 BC) thus leading to the rise of agriculture-based societies in order to survive. (see Mithen, Steven J.: After The Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000–5000 BC, pages 46–55. Harvard University Press paperback edition, © 2003 which offers three alternate theories of the rise of agriculture) The authors even admit on pg. 13 that agriculture actually leads to food surplus, thus allowing for large population growth, leading to higher population densities. Such a statement is in direct contradiction to the thesis and the insistence that agriculture leads to famine. (one could argue it does lead to malnutrition through adoption of a mono-diet, but agriculture can hardly be blamed for the lack of dietary diversity through the Younger Dryas cooling)

My conclusion is that the entire concept of sociosexual repression is turned upside-down in order for the authors to promote a pro communist agenda. The hypothesis that humans are naturally promiscuous can be proven without the repeated attempts to undermine the validity of personal property rights as it relates to the objects we own. (but then the book would only be about 80 pages long instead of 416) One can have a deep sense of pride of ownership over things we have earned through our labors (such as land and other artifacts) and still not hold a sense of “property” over our partners. People are not things… they are people.

Archaeological evidence shows that the very hunter-gatherers that the authors state practiced open sexuality did in fact own personal possessions, evidence that undercuts the thesis that the concept of personal property did not exist prior to agriculture. For citation, see articles on the Wadi Hammeh 27 dig site in Jordan, dating back 14,000 years. (4,000 years before the rise of agriculture) “Although a lot of individual [sic] stone age tools and items have been discovered, it is very rare to find a collection, one person's possessions.” (emphasis added) Among the items found in the dig were “a cluster of gazelle phalanges (toe bones) which were used to make decorative beads”. These are not tools of necessity as the thesis states were the only possessions of the hunter-gatherers, but pure adornments, possessions that served no practical purpose, carried around simply because they were valued. Doesn’t sound like a society free from materialism, does it? Other archaeological evidence shows many ancient hunter-gatherers were buried with prized possessions (see Lieberman, Philip Uniquely Human: The Evolution of Speech, Thought, and Selfless Behavior pg. 153) to prevent anyone else from possessing them. That is not egalitarian, but highly possessive.

While the authors cite many experts that agree with the thesis, they omit others that offer refutation, even when presented with unbiased scientific reasoning. The book cites many examples of modern egalitarian hunter-gatherers as evidence of the way of life of ancient hunter-gatherers, but fails utterly to mention refutations that modern hunter-gatherers show historical evidence as having themselves once been pastoral agriculturists that had been displaced into returning to a hunter-gatherer life. Thus “tainted” by an agricultural ancestry, they cannot be used as scientifically viable evidence of ancient hunter-gatherer lifestyles. (see Kelly, Raymond (October 2005). "The evolution of lethal intergroup violence" and Wilmsen, Edwin (1989). Land Filled With Flies: A Political Economy of the Kalahari. University Of Chicago Press) Put simply, because they have no unbroken ancestral history to ancient hunter-gatherer ways of life, their behaviors and ideologies are completely original constructs, not examples of ancient societies reborn.

Furthermore, ideas that the pre agricultural hunter-gatherers were relatively peaceful are fallacious. Anthropological finds show cave drawings over 15,000 years old depicting battles fought between tribes of these “peaceful egalitarian people” over tribal god images, especially good hunting grounds, feuds between family groups, and so on. (reference Chris Scarre’s “The Human Past: World Prehistory & the Development of Human Societies” Copyright © 2008 Thames & Hudson) Certainly it gives lie to the thesis that agriculture created warfare if warfare existed 5 millennia prior. Again, the authors ignore these facts as inconvenient to their thesis that agriculture and the rise of materialism is the cause of most of our social woes. (including sociosexual repression)

The authors go so far as to cite the poorly researched dissertation by Professor Steven Pinker to demonstrate that accepted prehistoric war theories are invalid. This is nothing more than a blatant attempt to intimidate opposing theories by holding up one of the worst examples and calling it “typical”. (akin to stating that all spiritual beliefs are evil because of the Spanish Inquisition) The thesis tries to dismiss warfare among hunter-gatherers by raising the question, “What would they have to fight over?” while ignoring whole lists of reasons humans fight one another.

A note on disease: The authors pontificate on the evils of agriculture having introduced many diseases to humanity through close contact with livestock and make the unsubstantiated claim that disease was rare among the hunter-gatherers who lived prior to agriculture. Furthermore, they do so without citing any verifiable evidence. The authors’ citations on this matter, once researched, reveal only the unsubstantiated opinion of other theorists, not any actual evidence. Were there fewer diseases then? Scientific evidence says that bacteria and viruses have been a part of life on this planet for as long as there has been life here. (and unlike the authors, I can cite evidence in the fossil record; see Nesse, Randolph M., Williams, George C., Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine; Times Books, New York © 1994) Were humans susceptible to fewer diseases? Probably, but the diseases we fell victim to (like common infections from skin abrasions) were often fatal. (see previously cited text) Theory without evidence is not science; it’s opinion.

On the primate ancestry front, the authors cite human common ancestry with bonobos more times than I can count, while understating the relative ancestral ties to the equally distant chimpanzee. (except where it benefits the thesis, see pg. 223) If one cites ancestral ties to the bonobo as proof of their hypothesis, it is scientifically irresponsible not to cite chimps as being equally valid comparisons. The authors do grudgingly admit that the two species are equally distant from us ancestrally, but dismiss chimp’s aggressive behavior as unique. Why are chimps unique from humans and bonobos aren’t? Did I miss something in the concept of “ancestral equidistance”? Shouldn’t we look at both for signs of common ancestral behavior? Trying to dismiss cited examples of chimp aggression as “tainted observation due to provisioning” (giving chimps food to keep them close enough for study) while failing to cite studies that support the theory lacks scientific credibility. You can’t just propose a theory and then state it as fact without evidence and simply citing a book where the results are not stated doesn’t count as evidence. (see pg. 189)

While I find a great deal can be learned from the commonalties between humans and bonobos, genetically there is just as much that we have in common with chimps… such as our innately aggressive nature. (and ability to cope with stress without dying, see footnote 22, pg. 338) Often in life, we find the truth lies not in the extremes, but somewhere in the middle. We are not chimps who aggressively kill strangers just because they wandered into our territory, but neither are we bonobos, satisfied to the ideal of “make love, not war”. (and drop dead from cortisol shock the first time we hear a large explosion) We are humans; a species of our own with our own drives, our own instincts, our own failings, built on millions of years of our own unique evolution. We are innately kind, yet innately cruel. We are innately generous, but innately selfish. We are innately gentle, yet innately harsh. We are innately tyrannical, but innately freedom loving. We are the unwritten books; mixed drives, emotions, and experiences that make us want to be the “horrifying saints” we are as a species.

From the bad to the good, the chapter on the biomorphic evidence for human polygamy is very well considered. Comparative gender dimorphism is very clear that humans males are not designed to compete physically against other males for the “right” to father a woman’s children, but rather they are designed to let their sperm fight it out in the womb. (though as a woman I find Mr. Ryan’s obsession with penis sizes a bit too self-interested) But even through this section, the authors take a time-out to bash industrial capitalism for poisoning men’s testicles into reduced fertility without mentioning the more likely cause being the natural human response to overpopulation.

I half-remember a study I read years ago that compared fertility rates to population density. I was unable to find the study to cite, so I did a quick comparison of 222 countries comparing fertility rate versus population density. The results are clear and immediate: the countries with the highest population densities all had the lowest fertility rates with an average deviation of less than 6.5%. (data obtained from CIA World Factbook, 2011)

For reference, here are the ten countries with the lowest fertility rate to population density ratios:
Pop density (#/km²)
Fertility rate (births/woman)
Hong Kong
Gaza Strip
Saint Marten
And to compare, ten countries with the highest fertility rate to population density ratios:

Pop density (#/km²)
Fertility rate (births/woman)
Republic of the Congo
Central African Republic

Note that with a few exceptions (generally caused by countries such as Canada with large tracts of unoccupied land and most of its population in high-density cities) the countries with the highest population densities have the lowest fertility rate. Of note, Macao has both the highest population density in the world and the lowest fertility rate, while Niger has the highest fertility rate and is in the bottom 10% of national population densities. When so many countries show the same pattern, and are a mixed variety of lifestyles from 3rd world to industrialized, with such a small deviation, the reasonable conclusion is that low fertility rates are linked to putting too many people in one place. Sounds to me like biology is just adjusting fertility to compensate for overpopulation.

The authors also make connections between low fertility and the consumption of red meat and soy. While reasonable sounding at first, one has to ask the question, “If red meat causes infertility, why were the people who lived 50,000 years ago more fertile than people today when they ate even more red meat per capita than we do?” (see Smil, Vaclav “Population and Development” ©2002 Colorado State University Press pg. 604 “Eating Meat”) The fact is that there is no scientifically verifiable link between male infertility and the consumption of any particular food, but there is a direct correlation between infertility and population density. The authors are using the fear most men have about their virility (or perceived virility) to try to spur changes in their behavior. The fact is that most men are very concerned about their virility, even if they are not interested in conception. So much so that they will go to great lengths to avoid anything that they believe may jeopardize it, even when no evidence can be cited. Humans have been eating soy and red meat for 700,000 years that we know of, but certain activists intent on altering our innate behavior are misleading people to believe that now it is causing infertility. Peak US per capita beef consumption was in 1976, long before the “fertility crisis” had been conceived of. (see previous citation, pg. 613) Why does eating red meat now cause infertility and not 35 years ago, or 50,000? What changed? (hint: nothing changed except the demonization of “big beef” corporations by radical vegans)

Moving on, the authors’ treatments of the suppression of female libido in Chapter 18 is heartbreaking in the knowledge that any society could be so cruel to it’s wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers. False diseases such as hysteria and the horrifying practice of clitoridectomy are as evil a practice as slavery. To take from a woman her natural right to have sexual pleasure is a fate nearly worse than death. (Death might be kinder, for what value is your life even to yourself once you are doomed to toil without reward?) That this evil is still carried out in parts of the world today sickens me near to tears of rage. If any proof were needed on the nature of the potential of human evil, one need look no further than this infamous practice. I cannot help but become angered at the evil of men who thought it a good way to enslave their wives and daughters. Disgusting! (any wonder why I’m a lesbian?)

Speaking of being a lesbian, the authors demonstrate an overwhelming tendency to focus strictly on heterosexual intercourse and give only fleeting mention to homosexual attraction. In the section on the anatomy of female bosoms and buttocks, the attraction is only noted by the authors as a “transcendent influence over heterosexual male consciousness”. (pg. 259) This, and other sections of that chapter, push the idea that a woman’s body is specifically attractive only to heterosexual males and that this is the purpose of the beauty of the female body. God forbid you should suggest that a woman’s body be universally considered attractive, even by heterosexual females and homosexual males. To do so might drag the topic off into discussing human sexual behavior and away from agriculture bashing.

On the section regarding female copulatory vocalizations, that term is in itself heterocentric. Copulation is defined as sexual intercourse between males and females. Calling it “copulatory vocalization” implies that women are only vocal if a man is having sex with them and that heterosexual sexual excitation is it’s only purpose. (as if women don’t ever get turned on by the sound of another woman’s orgasm, even if they are heterosexual) This phrasing is not only insulting to me as a woman, but to me as a homosexual.

Further on that, the book is absent a significant set of data: namely the vocalizations of female bonobos when engaging in homosexual activity with other female bonobos. With all the time and page space that the authors dedicate to making comparisons between humans and bonobos, the complete lack of data on how female bonobos vocalize during homosexual encounters is notable in its absence. If the authors are so adamant that human sexuality is very closely related to that of bonobos, why this complete dead space? Does the data show something that could be used to negate the author’s thesis? The biology of female sexual vocalizations (a much more accurate term) when engaged in sexual activity with other females could give great insight into the sexual appetites of women in general. (but again, we might get dragged off the real topic of blaming capitalism for all our woes)

That the authors completely ignored this line of inquiry makes me suspect that the findings were not supportive to the claim that female sexual vocalization is designed to spur multiple male copulation. Could it be that female vocalization is simply a side effect of the fact that a woman’s orgasm is just better than a man’s and women can’t help but cry out because it just feels that good? (i.e. men would vocalize too if their orgasms were nearly as good as ours) I’m not trying to start a ‘women are better than men’ fight, but I have a unique perspective on the issue. I was born with male anatomy and went through puberty as a male and enjoyed intercourse before transition, however I can attest that sex before transition was a much lesser experience. True, I had body image issues then (wouldn’t you if you were a woman trapped in a man’s body?) which could have inhibited my enjoyment of sex as a man, but the actual degree of pleasure was greatly increased after Hormone Replacement Therapy, by multiple orders of magnitude. (both in duration and intensity, as well as the ability to have multiple orgasms)

Mr. Ryan likely did not include data on bonobo female sexual vocalizations in homosexual experiences because it forced him to face the uncomfortable fact that sex is just better for women than for men. Biology doesn’t care about fairness though, it only cares about results. A female that enjoys sex more than the male of the species will have sex more often than the males, including with other females, which creates social bonds between the females to strengthen the tribe’s unity. That males are turned on by female sexual vocalization is not conclusive to the thesis that it spurs sperm competition because females are aroused by it as well. It would seem that its purpose is to spur the entire tribe to sexual activity with whoever is willing in order to bind all closer together as a tribal unit, not just the males for the purpose of reproduction.

Again, bias forces the subject away from the purpose of the book. (the truth of human sexual history) Even though the admission of human sexual gratification dimorphism (the difference in the pleasure that men and women perceive during sex) would serve to prove that humans are naturally promiscuous, that’s not what the authors want to hear or write about, so it gets ignored.

Think about it logically, simply as a numbers game. Just using average figures, the following data points are known:
1) A woman would generally need 2-3 male partners over the course of one sexual experience to be fully satisfied
2) Men only generally are able to copulate with one woman in that same time span
3) Men and women crave sex with an equal frequency
4) There are an equal number of males and females
If viewed as an equation, this set function demands that women must be designed to enjoy sex with multiple male partners as well as with other women to balance the equation, otherwise we have to conclude that women are designed by nature to be unfulfilled. (which makes no sense from an evolutionary point of view) This would explain why nearly all women are turned on by the sexual vocalizations of other women, however it implies another uncomfortable truth; that likely only about 10% of women are heterosexual, 10% are homosexual, and the vast majority (80%) are bisexual.

If the set function is altered to force there to be an equal number of bisexual females as bisexual males, the result is that 49.6% of the time, women will not be satisfied with their sexual encounters. That is, there are not enough men to keep an equal number of women satisfied when women require 2-3 times the time spent having sex versus the males. The only way to balance that equation is to add an additional data set requiring men to have sex 2.5 times as often as they wish to. (or 2.5 times longer than the time it takes for them to be satisfied) From an evolutionary point of view, this serves no purpose, so why would nature breed for a species to have females that crave more sex than they can get, even in a promiscuous society? The answer is that it wouldn’t, unless a large amount of sex between females is allowed. Interestingly, the book touches on that on pg. 276-279, but quickly abandons the subject in favor of bashing the Catholic Church. (pg. 281)

Back to the good, the section on “The Perils of Monotomy” is very well considered for a while. The idea that we have a built-in desire for sexual variety and to avoid the overly familiar as a feedback against incest makes a lot of sense from a biological viewpoint. Of course, the chapter loses my interest by focusing completely and totally on male heterosexuals, so it’s a mix of good and “where’s the rest?” To make it worse, the authors imply that women have no “need” for sexual diversity when on pg. 300 they say “if you’re a woman whose husband is ‘cheating’, your options are no better… have your own revenge affair (even if you don’t feel like it)”. The implication of the choice of language is staggering and flies in the face of the idea that women seek sexual diversity just as much as men do. Reversion to the ‘standard narrative’ is also found in other passages about women when discussing male sex drives, leaving me to question the authors’ scientific objectivity.

In conclusion, I cannot recommend this book for a serious exploration of human sexual nature. It is too rife with overtly socialist propaganda and male egocentrism that the few nuggets of truth are so buried you can’t see the light of day. As a Libertarian bordering on Rational Anarchist, I find the scientific conclusion of agriculture being the root of sexual repression as presented suspect at best and fraught with intentional lies of omission at worst. The authors would have been better to just write about their social concepts within the bounds of a book on that subject and left the conclusions regarding the natural promiscuity of humans to another volume that is actually interested in exploring the subject without prejudice and with scientific objectivity."

Here's another excellent  review from our group:

And now, from a woman’s perspective… 
Sex at Dawn is a book that needed to be written.  It is time to open up the discussion not just about the theoretical/evolutionary underpinnings of sexual pair-bonding but how we view male and female sexuality generally. The book is important because it sets the stage for discussion.  Is it scientific literature?  No.  But in the same way that Desmond Morris’ work brought the discussion of evolution to America’s dinner table, Ryan and Jetha’s book brings sex.  Well, maybe.  So far, we have not shown ourselves to be capable of having a conversation about sex without titters and awkward innuendo.
Most of the book reviews I have read on Dawn found fault with it for the right reasons (according to me, and I am writing this review) and loved it for the male reasons.  That’s because almost all of them were written by men.  Allow me to digress so you might gain some understanding of my perspective before dismissing me as a strident feminist whose mucous membranes are all dried up. 
The science fiction view of the future in the 1960s and 1970s was one of sexual freedom without the bonds of monogamous marriage.  It was a sexual freedom that included young, scantily clad or body-painted women.  The men would take care of the women and treat them well in exchange for sex on demand.  The women would enjoy being sex objects because they were creatures borne of the author’s limited vision:  They would have no unmet needs of their own and they would enjoy the sex.  What could possibly be missing?  It was a strictly male perspective on sexual freedom that projected the stereotypes of the day into the future. 
Any speculation about the future or the past is necessarily colored by the present.  I think Dawn is guilty of some of the so-called “Flintstone-ization” it heaps on others, but its agenda is based on a different model than the monogamous ‘ideal’ we’ve been hobbled by for many years. It pushes this agenda while it denies having one.  It is an important book.  I enjoyed it.  I recommend it. I would respect it more if it would own the truth:  Like science fiction writers, the best any of us can do is to interpret a body of evidence subject to our own necessarily biased perspective. It does not make Ryan and Jetha right while proving Helen Fisher wrong.  And it does not allow that there might be other interpretations.
The male reviewers of this book seem to embrace Dawn’s perspective as a more accurate and, perhaps less damning explanation of their experience.  This is legitimate as far as anecdotal evidence is acceptable.  Anecdotally speaking, in my experience as a woman, monogamy has not been so much a choice as a perceived social expectation.  At some point in longer-term relationships, exclusive access becomes an issue as part of our social order.  The only time I feel “naturally” monogamous is when I have strong love feelings; under their influence I simply lose interest in others. 
Dawn’s arguments against monogamous pair-bonding (woman exchanging exclusive access to her body for access to a man’s protection and resources) are welcome and refreshing.  (I once got into a very vocal disagreement in my college dorm when a young man equated marriage with prostitution using  similar reasoning.)  The truth is that men know women enjoy sex as much or more than they do (the orgasm differential being a sore spot, ahem).  And men have put a lot of time, energy and creativity into controlling the female sex drive: clitorectomies (sp?), chastity belts, etc. The present day GOP presidential candidates would have women only participate in sexual activity for the purpose of procreation.  They better not push too hard – they might just get what they push for!  
In the rush to equate our sexual needs and to support the notion that neither males nor females are “naturally” monogamous, let’s take care not to say that men and women are alike.  That has not been my experience and is not, I think, what Ryan and Jetha’s book is trying to put forward either. Part of the traditional formulation is that women seek sex for intimacy (rather than for pleasure) while men seek sex for pleasure.  This suggests that intimacy is not pleasurable.  To whom?  Women  seek sex for pleasure and for intimacy and not always at the same time.  Men also seek intimacy.  Do they do it differently?

Intimacy is a rare commodity – aren’t we all seeking it in the sex act literally naked and vulnerable?  Among my male and female friends, there is pretty good agreement that the best sexual experiences are those that involve emotional connection and physical attraction.  Once again, this is only anecdotal evidence.   But I say: Get as much of that as you can.


  1. I agree, except with your last para, though I think there is a point within it. Have a look at what I wrote here: http://aruhea.wordpress.com/2011/06/22/our-tribal-nature/

  2. I agree with much of Roberta's review.
    With regard to her questions about bonobos and vocalizations, perhaps you could tell her about a 2012 paper: "Communication during sex among female bonobos: effects of dominance, solicitation and audience." Clay & Zuberb├╝hler.
    This paper is referenced in "Sex at Dusk: Lifting the Shiny Wrapping from Sex at Dawn" by Lynn Saxon.
    Apparently females are more likely to call with male rather than female partners but the patterns of the calls are very similar in that females call more with high-ranked partners regardless of the partner's sex. With a female partner copulation calls are consistently produced only by the lower ranking of the two females - the high-ranking females remain silent. Low-ranked females generally remain silent during interactions with other low-ranked females. It seems to be much more about advertising social connections than about what is being experienced regarding sexual pleasure.