WEATHER »

Sex at Dawn

A Conversation with Christopher Ryan


The ideas are familiar to most of us: Men are from Mars and women from Venus; men and women have different mating strategies wherein men focus on physical beauty and child-bearing hips and women on deep pockets and faithfulness; men cheat because they want to spread their seed far and wide, whereas women should focus on a good guy and making sure her kids survive to spread her genes.

Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, authors of the 2010 book, Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, say this is all wrong. They attack this “standard narrative” of evolutionary psychology and sexuality, which has become quite pervasive, as based more on moralizing and religious indoctrination than real science.

Tam Hunt

The book is a fascinating read, whether you agree with the arguments or not. It’s been very well-received by the public and also by professionals, for the most part. Though Ryan and Jethá take a number of contemporary anthropologists and psychologists to task for creating and spreading the standard narrative, their book has won widespread acclaim by sex therapists and many other professionals. It has also won its share of critiques, partly because it attempts to straddle the line between academic evolutionary theory/anthropology and a more popular style of cultural analysis.

Regardless, it’s a fun read. And the audiobook version is also very good.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan, who lives in Barcelona, via email, as part of my ongoing series of interviews with experts in various fields.

What’s your background and how did you get interested in the evolution of human sexuality?

My background is chaotic—or well-rounded—depending on your perspective. After getting a B.A. in English in 1984, I hitchhiked from New York to Alaska, where I worked two summers in the commercial salmon industry. My experiences there convinced me to abandon my plans for graduate school (I was slated to pursue a Ph.D. in literature at Oxford). Instead, I spent the next fifteen years or so backpacking around the world, intentionally opening myself to whatever came my way. I ended up having all sorts of adventures, and made money doing strange things like teaching English to prostitutes in Bangkok, managing commercial real estate in Manhattan’s Diamond District, and translating from Ebonics to English for a Spanish film festival. Meanwhile, I was moving around, paying close attention to the similarities and differences in the cultures I experienced. Eventually, I decided to get a doctorate in research psychology, as that would enable me to formalize some of what I’d learned in my wayward youth.

What’s your main point(s) in your book?

The main point is to explain that human beings evolved in a socio-sexual context very different from what we are led to believe, and that this misinformed view has huge repercussions in terms of marital stability, self-understanding, sexual shame, and so on.

Have you and your co-author been happy with the popular and/or professional reaction to your book?

Definitely. When you write a book these days, especially as first-time authors with no platform to speak of (no TV show or Harvard professorship), you’re very lucky to get it published at all. To have our book win professional awards, become a bestseller, and actually touch people’s lives is an incredible gift, for which we’ll always be very grateful.

You describe and strongly critique “the standard narrative” of evolutionary psychology. Could you summarize the standard narrative and your critique here?

What we call the standard narrative of human sexual evolution assumes that human beings evolved in nuclear family units founded on a “deal” in which a man traded his “investment” of goods and services (meat, shelter, status, protection, etc.) for the sexual fidelity of his mate. Her fidelity functioned as a form of paternity assurance, so he could be certain his investment wasn’t wasted on someone else’s DNA. As you can see, this is essentially a very economic view of human sexuality in which individualistic, capitalistic assumptions about human nature are deeply integrated. We call this tendency to project contemporary social mores into prehistory, “Flintstonization.”

Our critique basically says: Wait a minute! All four of the most relevant sources of information point toward a very different sort of sexual life for our ancestors—one of a casual, friendly promiscuity among close-knit nomadic groups. Primatology shows us that our closest primate relatives, the chimps and bonobos, both mate promiscuously, in what biologists call “mulit-male/multi-female mating.” Anthropology provides many examples of societies in which paternity certainty is either a non-issue or even avoided through rituals in which people must have sex with someone other than their habitual partner(s). Contemporary research into psycho-sexuality paints a XXX picture of our species very different from these prehistoric nuclear family-based tales. Finally, our own anatomy is clearly not that of a monogamous (or polygynous) primate. So this idea that we are an essentially monogamous (or polygynous) species has very weak scientific support. The standard narrative is a moralistic argument masquerading as science.

One of the many arguments in your book that I found extremely interesting and also fairly compelling is the idea that we have our sexual history literally stamped on our bodies. You discuss how our genitalia in relation to our body size, and related features, demonstrate our close kinship with bonobos in terms of our natural sexual behavior. And bonobos are famously randy creatures, and not at all monogamous. This was a pretty key argument in your critique of the standard narrative, along with the other strands you discussed above. Do you personally think, however, that the evidence is strong enough at this point in the development of our knowledge to be able to state with much certainty what the actual sexual behavior of our species was during prehistory? Or is it more that you believe strongly that the evidence for the standard narrative is far weaker than its proponents believe?

Always acknowledging that there is a wide range of individual difference in any human behavior, I think we can confidently say that long-term sexual monogamy was not typical of our ancestors’ behavior. As we say in the book, if it were, men and women would be the same size, we’d have sex only when women were ovulating, men’s penises and testicles would be a fraction of their actual size, human intercourse wouldn’t involve repeated thrusting, women’s reproductive systems would function differently, and so on. Archeologists commonly say that behavior doesn’t leave fossil evidence, but when it comes to sexual behavior, it does, to some extent. Our living bodies very much reflect our ancestors’ sexual behavior.

One thing I felt was missing in your book was an acknowledgement that monogamy, even if not either normal or pervasive during the vast majority of our species’ history, does still work for a lot of people, and has become “natural” due to its cultural pervasiveness (we do a lot of things now, of course, that were never done during prehistory, like conducting email interviews, etc.). Was this intentional or am I being unfair to your book?

I don’t think cultural pervasiveness makes something natural, though it can make it feel that way. No matter how natural it may feel to drink a 20oz Coke with our chili dogs, our bodies aren’t fooled into responding to this onslaught of toxins and corn syrup as they do to a diet more typical of our ancestors. Having said that, our book is certainly not meant as a critique of monogamy. My parents, for example, celebrated their 50th anniversary two months after the book was published! In the modern world, monogamy can be the best available option for many people, but that doesn’t make it natural or easy. I often say that monogamy is like vegetarianism; it can be a smart, ethical, healthy choice to make. But deciding to be a vegetarian doesn’t make bacon suddenly stop smelling good. Long-term sexual monogamy is difficult for most people for the same reason bacon smells good to vegetarians, Jews, and Muslims: it conflicts with the evolved appetites of our species.

What is the most accurate critique of your book, in your view, from your colleagues?

I can’t say. I’m not even sure who my “colleagues” would be, as I’m not an academician or a clinician. There have been some stylistic complaints from people who think serious ideas can only be discussed in serious tones. Others have criticized us for “cherry picking” evidence that supports our thesis, which seems both a fair critique and yet somewhat non-sensical. We make an argument and present evidence supporting it. Others do the same. We certainly discuss the counter-argument in some detail, but the bulk of our book is going to be devoted to our position. Given our strong critique of conventional sex therapy and couples counseling, we were surprised and gratified when Sex at Dawn won prestigious awards from two associations of professional therapists and sex researchers (the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, and the Society of Sex Therapists and Researchers).

Have you thought much about the role of social media like Facebook in the broader framework of your ideas on human sexuality?

A little. We certainly crave community as a species, and Facebook appears to be appealing to that hunger (without really satisfying it). The same could be said of most dating sites, by the way. I’m afraid social media is to our hunger for community what junk food is to our nutritional hunger—an illusion of sustenance that leaves us full, but still empty.

You and Cacilda chose not to discuss how we should respond to, in terms of changing our own behaviors, your new insights and arguments. Are you planning a follow-up work that focuses more on solutions for modern living in a more polyamorous world? If not, what is the general outline of your views on how we should shift personally with this new insight into human nature?

No, we don’t offer any solutions because we don’t have any! There are very few “should”s in our book. We don’t see ourselves as qualified to give advice to anyone. People have to find their own paths through life. We have enough trouble finding our own…

Turning toward the political and social implications of your book, it seems to me, if we are indeed akin to tall hairless bonobos, that this has radical implications for how our societies are structured and, particularly, on the conservative political worldview, which views the monogamous family unit as the basis for modern and traditional societies. If the ideas in your book catch on, as they seem to be, how do you see social structures changing over time in the western world? For example, do you see open marriages or openly polyamorous groups becoming far more common?

I think these things are already happening at an accelerating rate. The acceptance of same sex marriage in the United States has been incredibly swift, for example. I think the approval rate has jumped over 10% in less than a decade, which is unprecedented. We’ve seen questions concerning different ways to configure our intimate lives thrust into the spotlight by the repeated scandals around infidelity among public figures, a process that serves to desensitize people to the notion that conventional marriage may not be the best situation for many. In the end, authenticity is a nobler goal than adhering to some arbitrary ideal that even the most judgmental, vehement political and religious leaders aren’t living up to in their own lives. If there’s any advice offered in our book, it’s just that: aim for honesty over conformity. To paraphrase St. Augustine—a well-known sexual hypocrite—”Love, and do as you please.” In other words, be true to yourself and open to others’ truths. Without all the shame and deceit around sexuality (which we hope a more accurate understanding of human sexuality will allow), it’ll be a lot easier to develop relationships that allow greater happiness and, perhaps counter-intuitively, greater long-term stability in marriages.

In terms of solutions, I guess I find it hard to accept that you don’t have additional ideas on how we should respond to the ideas you raise. Can you share how you and Cacilda cope with the knowledge that we aren’t made for monogamy?

Cacilda and I don’t talk about our private life publicly, other than to give our stock answer: “Our relationship is informed by our research.” We made this decision partly just to honor the discretion essential to any intimate relationship (including ours) and partly because what’s going on between us is irrelevant to the issues we raise in our book. The book is about science, not relationship advice.

Believe me, publishers pushed very hard for us to write a “Five Steps to Perfect Sex” type book. No thanks. How can I give you advice? I don’t know anything about you. Are you straight? Gay? Bi? Something else? Married? Kids? How old are you? Are you healthy? Is your partner? How strong is your libido? Do you feel oriented toward novelty or safety? What’s your STI status? Relationship history?… Shouldn’t someone know at least this much about you before they start offering you advice? Books that purport to give advice to utter strangers about how to live their intimate lives strike me as supremely arrogant, at best.

You live in Barcelona, Spain. Europe is well-known in the U.S. and around the world for being pretty sexually liberal, particularly compared to middle America. Do you think, as a good starting point, we should or could try to emulate the more relaxed European attitude toward sex and fidelity here in the U.S.?

No doubt. In my experience, there’s a cultural maturity in Europe that can sometimes feel kind of smug and tired, but when it comes to sex, there’s a much more accepting sense that sex is part of life that needn’t be a huge issue. American society often seems adolescent about issues like sex, violence, drugs, corruption. We’re fascinated, titillated, and embarrassed by these things. It would be a step in the right direction if we grew up a bit in our approach to these parts of life.

In Holland, there’s an expression that translates to, “One must tolerate to control.” If you pretend teen-agers don’t have sex, for example, you end up with widespread ignorance, high teen pregnancy and STI rates, and abortion rates many times higher than in places like Holland where life is accepted as it is. Denial doesn’t work as public policy. It’s amazing to me how resistant some political and religious ideologies are to this simple truth.

Turning to the non-sexual aspects of your book, I was very intrigued by your discussion about the effects of agriculture on humanity. You describe it as a “catastrophe” because of the relatively immediate effects on life expectancy (worse), disease (worse), quality of life (worse for most people), etc. This was news to me because, of course, agriculture and the increasing efficiency of harnessing energy from our environment is framed as progress and good for humanity in almost everything else we read. In terms of the present day and our ongoing technological revolutions, do you think technology is still taking us backwards, or should we learn how to harness technology to somehow allow us to enjoy the benefits in life that we enjoyed before the agricultural catastrophe?

I fear technology is taking us ever further away from the sort of life we evolved to live, which is—not coincidentally—the sort of life that generates the most health and happiness for us. Facebook “friends” are a poor replacement for real friends. A flurry of texts back and forth are nothing like a conversation. A digitized thunderstorm soundtrack playing on a sound-system isn’t quite the same as lying in a tent with rain pattering a few feet from your sleeping bag… On the other hand, the tent and sleeping bag are also examples of technology, so one cannot demonize technology in general. But still, I think it’s clear that as a species, we are moving further and further from anything resembling a life that would come naturally to us.

I was also very taken with the evidence you present that men and women aren’t that different when it comes to sex. Women find novelty almost as much of a turn-on as men do. And you present some pretty humorous findings regarding women finding various sexual situations more of a turn-on than men do, who are apparently more traditional. How do these findings help level the sexes further in terms of power and gender roles in modern societies, if at all?

I think the take-away from that section of our book is that women’s libido tends to be both very strong and yet more easily ignored or hidden than men’s. Women are much better at keeping their sexual appetites under wraps, both because of biological traits and lessons learned through many centuries of brutal repression. Men need to understand that the scarcity of women willing to participate in friendly sex isn’t biological. It’s an artificially-created scarcity they worsen every time they disrespect a woman for being openly sexy or allow her to feel threatened in any way. Respected, high-status women who know that they and their children will be respected and cared for are far more likely to be the kind of women most men claim they want in their lives.

What is your next writing project? Are you planning any kind of follow up to Sex at Dawn?

I’m working on a book now called Civilized to Death, to be published by Simon and Schuster in 2013. It’ll be a comprehensive look at many of the less obvious points of conflict between our evolved tendencies and the cultural demands we face.

event calendar sponsored by: