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Friday, 2 July 2010

In the beginning: The Myth of the Modern Family

"Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality" is a new book I am putting directly onto my reading list, based on this fascinating review by Eeric Michael Johnson, a scholar who writes on issues of science, politics, and history at The Primate Diaries. So much hot air in the debates over marriage equality and about Vatican doctrine is wasted over assumptions over "natural law" and "traditional" marriage, that we do not pay enough attention to what truly is natural or traditional.

For the husband and wife team Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá in their new book Sex At Dawn, this example is one of many that suggests the human species did not evolve in monogamous, nuclear families but rather in small, intimate groups where “most mature individuals would have had several ongoing sexual relationships at any given time.” We are the descendants of these multimale-multifemale mating groups and, even though we’ve constructed a radically different society from our hunter-gatherer forebears, the behavioral and psychological traits our species evolved in the distant past still manifest themselves today. Ryan, a psychologist, and Jethá, a psychiatrist, argue that understanding human sexual evolution this way helps to explain our species’ unique creativity inside (as well as outside) the marriage bed.

And get this: while many people equate free sexuality with "animal" behaviour, the evidence is the reverse. It our frequent indulgence in sex for pleasure that sets us apart from other animal species, while the high frequency of sexual intercourse relative to the number of births gives the lie to any suggestion that sexual intercourse is "for" procreation.

But according to Ryan and Jethá humans top a very short list of species that engage in sex for pleasure. “No animal spends more of its allotted time on Earth fussing over sex than Homo sapiens,” they write. In fact, the animal world is filled with species who confine their sexual behavior to just a few periods each year, the only times when conception is possible. Among apes the only monogamous species are the gibbons whose infrequent, reproduction-only copulations make them much better adherents of the Vatican’s guidelines than we are. In this way, Ryan and Jethá argue, repressing our sexuality should not be confused with reining in an “animal” nature; rather, it is denying one of the most unique aspects of what it means to be human.


By looking at modern indigenous societies and comparing the findings of anthropologists with the latest results in behavioral psychology and biology, Ryan and Jethá piece together a remarkably coherent pattern from an otherwise fractured understanding of human sexuality. From societies that believe that multiple men are necessary for a successful pregnancy (what researchers refer to as “partible paternity”) to those where not having an extra-marital tryst will cause a man to be labeled “stingy of one’s genitals” by his female suitors, the authors conclude that marriage may be an established social arrangement among many hunter-gatherers but it’s one in which sexuality is decidedly fluid.

Ryan, Christopher, and Jethá, Cacilda: "Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality"

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