Saturday, July 31, 2010

From Out of the Past: Wild Sex

Here is a bit from a review of the book Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá published in Seed Magazine:
When we think of the first swinger parties most of us imagine 1970s counter-culture, we don’t picture Top Gun fighter pilots in World War II. Yet, according to researchers Joan and Dwight Dixon, it was on military bases that “partner swapping” first originated in the United States. As the group with the highest casualty rate during the war, these elite pilots and their wives “shared each other as a kind of tribal bonding ritual” and had an unspoken agreement to care for one another if a woman’s husband didn’t make it back home. Like the sexy apes known as bonobos, this kind of open sexuality served a social function that provided a way to relieve stress and form long-lasting bonds.
The article is filled with strange facts presumably from the book under review. The problem with an article like this: how can you tell what the truth is?

For example, I find this factoid completely unbelievable:
As an example they detail how in 1902 the first home-use vibrator was patented and approved for domestic use in the United States. Fifteen years later there were more vibrators than toasters in American homes.
Sorry, that doesn't fit my knowledge of that era. Sure there were groups and cults of "free love" but the majority of people were living under a Victorian view of sexuality and vibrators just didn't fit that mind set.

Assuming I ever get my hands on the book I would expect it to be heavily document to back up its claims. But my prejudice is that it isn't or that the references are obscure and not credible.

While I'm for removing the heavy hand of repressive sex laws, I this this is over the top:
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.
I think sex researchers need to get out into the broader community. I do know that Alfred Kinsey had a problem with signing up over-enthusiastic sex fanatics as the "subjects" of his supposedly scientific study of human sex. So his data is skewed. It strikes me that this couple suffer the same problem with their data. Simply put: humans don't behave like Bonobos. We don't behave like Chimpanzees either. My judgement: We are mostly monogamous with some extra-marital copulations and with a significant subset of the population (single digit percent) who are hyper-sexual.

I simply don't think there is real data to back up this claim:
However, 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.
This reminds me of the claims that Margaret Mead made in her "study" of "primitives". Her claims have since been debunked. She "found" the answers that matched her prejudice (and her wish to find "exciting" new human relationship styles). It wasn't science. But it made popular reading. I suspect this book is more "popular reading" and not much real science.

This is one book I would be especially skeptical about its claims. It is too easy to publish sensationalistic "material" to boost sales (or to boost a career).

I find this conclusion by the reviewer to be telling:
While the authors’ conclusion that healthy relationships can be both committed and open may come as a shock to some readers, others will likely find it refreshingly honest.
In short, the reviewer sounds more like a propagandist for a point of view expressed in this book that an objective scientist. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

Update 2010aug11: Here is a bit from a quickie review of the book Sex at Dawn on the Gizmodo blog site:
In Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá put to lie the notion of sexual monogamy as something intrinsically human, arguing we gave up sexual novelty for agriculture. "Agriculture" probably means "beer". We gave up orgies for beer?
The "review" is a bit light hearted, but it takes this book seriously and at face value. It doesn't question the claim that at heart we are sexy Bonobos who got side-tracked by agriculture into an over-zealous commitment to monogamy. Here's how Gizmodo distills the message:
Our genes, still tuned toward sexual novelty, cause us to really hate being monogamous, but societal pressures—including centralized codified religion—force men and women into an arrangement that brings with it just as many problems as it solves. Men cheat, women wither in sexual shackles (or, you know, cheat), wars erupt over resources or sexual exclusivity, cats and dogs almost start sleeping together except they're afraid the neighbors might find out—Old Testament, real wrath of God-type stuff.
I don't buy it. We are basically monogamous with an alpha male hierarchy which gives a dash of polygamy to our "nature" since dominant males can cut corners and redefine rules to their favour.

Update 2010aug15: Here is a bit from an article by Carl Zimmer that establishes that humans have less "wild sex" than chimpanzees. This goes contrary to the thesis that Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá are advocating in their book:
Scientists have noted for a long time that the Y chromosome has been shrinking for hundreds of millions of years. Its decline has to do with how it is copied each generation. Out of the 23 pairs of our chromosomes, 22 have the same structure, and as a result they swap some genes as they are put into sperm or egg cells. Y chromosomes do not, because their counterpart, the X, is almost completely incompatible. My Y chromosome is thus a nearly perfect clone of my father’s. Mutations can spread faster when genes are cloned than when they get mixed together during recombination. As a result, many pieces of the Y chromosome have disappeared over time, and many Y genes that once worked no longer do.

Scientists have discovered that Clint and his fellow chimpanzee males have taken a bigger hit on the Y than humans have. In the human lineage, males with mutations to the Y chromosome have tended to produce less offspring than those without them. (This is a process known as purifying selection, because it strips out variations.) But the scientists found several broken versions of these genes on the chimpanzee Y chromosome.

Why are chimpanzees suffering more genetic damage? The authors of the study suggest that it has to do with their sex life. A chimpanzee female may mate with several males when she is in oestrus, and so mutations that give one male’s sperm an edge over other males are ben strongly favored by selection. If there are harmful mutations elsewhere on that male’s Y chromosome, they may hitchhike along. We humans are not so promiscuous, and the evidence is in our Y chromosome.
You can add to this the fact that there is less dimorphism between males and females in the human species which is another indicator that we are a fairly strongly monogamous species.

As far as I know, male genitalia size is not an indicator of much of anything. The only "fact" that I know is that gorillas have a small penis because the males control a harem so there isn't much sperm competition. Human genitalia indicates that there is some limited sperm competition, but we all know this "fact" already from stories about marital infidelity. But infidelity isn't rampant. For all the claims that humans are a "sexy" species, I don't see the evidence of that. You don't trip over humans copulating in the hallways or behind the door of every closet. Copulations are pretty rare.


thomas said...

I have wondered many times, why humans through out time have looked to the animals for insight or education. There is are exercise routines based on animals and their actions. And, the American Indians with their spirit guides and such. Then their are people who place human standards on animals and even think of them as human or equal to humans..

Getting our sex education from animals seems a little out of whack and getting our moral conduct from them is even more so. Humans are not driven by instinct and I am not sure we should use animal instinct as a guide or life code. I know some things can be learned from them, but really humans should guide their young and not the family dog.

I have trouble believing that wife swapping made for closer relationships between the men. I would think that it would drive a wedge between them and their wives. I really think he has it a little wrong.

Maybe I am a little prudish, but in my experience some things should be observed as lines that we don't cross.

RYviewpoint said...

Thomas: I agree that the idea that wife-swapping can be a way to build closer relationships is not believable. In fact, it is propaganda from those who want you to adopt their lifestyle. Just as the video of Shirley Sherrod was a distortion, a lot of the "lessons learned from animals" is a distortion.

But humans are animals. Our behaviour is similar to other animals. Where we differ most markedly is in our culture and our mental skills. We can be an "ideological" animal, i.e. let our ideas guide us rather than what is "natural". Whether this is good or bad can be argued from different viewpoints.

I do want to correct one thing you said: "Humans are not driven by instinct and I am not sure we should use animal instinct as a guide or life code." We are driven by instinct, but it is relatively limited compared to other animals. Human babies focus on faces. We have an instinctual "physics" that guides us in interacting with objects. These are human instincts.

The game of peek-a-boo would make no sense if young children didn't have expectations guided by their instinctual physics that leads them to expect the same person to reappear when you peek out again from behind some blind. You don't teach a baby to "enjoy" peek-a-boo. It is built in because of a social instinct to zero in on faces and instinct about objects and the fact that we expect their persistence when out of view.

I agree with the part of your statement that says we shouldn't "use animal instinct as a guide or life code" but I do think we need to be aware of how our instincts put a limit to us. Most utopian wife-swapping all-sex all-the-time communities die out very quickly because they ignore the fact that as a species we are fairly monogamous (but not strictly monogamous). We aren't polyamorous, but there is hint of alpha male dominance with harems and there is more than a hint of the 7-year itch where males move on after their offspring leave their early childhood. But these are still fairly minor.

I would like to think that I'm not at all prudish, but I am realistic. People trying to sell "alternate lifestyles" are generally twisting facts to sell an ideology and not a reality.

So, it seems we broadly agree but disagree on some details. That is fine. Different viewpoints are healthy. They make you aware that there are alternatives and make you dig inside yourself to understand better why you think the way you do and (sometimes) force you to change viewpoints.

I love the quote from John Maynard Keynes: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" So I'm open to changing my mind. But I need facts (and analysis, and theory) to help guide me to change my mind. On a lot of issues I've been on different sides of the fence because my views have "evolved". I don't want to be wishy-washy and simply go with the crowd. But I do want to be open to new ideas and hear them out. I'm more than willing to read "Sex at Dawn" to see if my initial reaction is justified. I actually think it is healthy to approach any new experience with an "attitude". It helps you engage. The old idea that we are "blank slates" that simply soak up new ideas is false. Being rigid and doctrinaire is not healthy. But to approach some new information with a clear statement "I don't think I can agree with you, but I'm willing to hear you out." means you are ready to grapple with new information, test it against what you know, and -- occasionally -- change your mind if the facts (and analysis) lead you to that necessity.

thomas said...

We are hardwired and have certain things built into us.. So, you are correct about the instinct in humans thing (I think). I cannot deny that we instinctively respond to certain stimuli and situations.. I was taught for many years that humans don't have instinct, but if not instinct than we have very strong intuition and I doubt that that can explain so many things that we do. Sex is built into us for some reason or by some strange fate of nature. When young and forbidden from sex we have our strongest urges (I say this is a cruel twist). Anyway, I agree with you on the instinct points. I did not think of those things when commenting and I should have considered the whole sexual attraction thing as a matter of course. Thank you for the reply and for the great conversation..

RYviewpoint said...

Thomas: Sex is built into us because that's the mechanism to keep the species going. No sex, no kids, no kids and you go extinct. For some species sex is simply squirting eggs into the sea by females over here while over there males squirt sperm into the water. It is purely mechanical and driven by chemistry with no psychological dynamic.

Mammals tend to have courtship behaviours so the males have to show interest and the females have to be receptive. A "sexual instinct" or "sexual urge" is the obvious way to make this work. Cats and dogs have females that go into "heat" and the males are driven wild by the pheromones of the female. Humans have cryptic fertility cycles (women don't go into "heat") so this tends to reinforce pair-bonding which keeps the male around to help raise the kids.

We are only "forbidden" to have sex because modern culture is out of synch with our ancestors on the savannahs of Africa. For over a hundred thousand years our species had females in their early to mid teens pair bonding (ever notice how pubescent girls have "crushes"?) that created families for reproduction. But in a more complex society kids need education so forming families that young won't work. So we preach abstinence. It puts the kids under a terrible bind. But our species has been under worse binds in the past: think of the need for bigger heads while female predecessors had smaller pelvic openings. A lot of hominid females died putting evolutionary pressure to reshape the pelvic bone to its modern shape that allows big-headed babies.

Most people think evolution has ended for humans, but it hasn't. We are far less violent than our ancestors because our culture has put structures (laws & cops) in place to restrict retalliation and vendettas. I believe -- but have no data -- that selective pressure moved us toward less violence because in a civilized society the really violent end up dead or imprisoned where they can't reproduce.

Humans have variability, that's why that book "Sex at Dawn" can try to sell the idea of polyamorous are "normal". Sure, for something like 1% of the population this may seem "normal" but not for the other 99%. We might evolve in that direction, but I'm guessing it won't happen. There is a real value to child-rearing with a traditional functioning family unit: mother & father sharing responsibility. I don't think "the State" will step in and raise kids. If you notice, kids raised under "child protective services" run a much higher risk of dying, a risk level similar to being raised by foster parents, because the genetic instincts of looking after "your children" is much weaker if they aren't your children!

Life is complicated and it is shifting under our feet. Our evolution is going on but at a rate that requires thousands of years, meanwhile culture is changing at the pace of decades, and technology is changing at the rate of 20-40 year periods. There are no "eternal verities" in human behaviour.

Christopher Ryan said...

Hi. Skepticism is wonderful, but read the damned book, then be skeptical!

Seriously, it's funny to read someone saying, "I don't buy this argument," or "I don't think they back this up sufficiently," when they freely admit they're just talking about an article about a book they haven't even read. And these people often consider themselves to be paragons of critical thinking. It's a sight to see.

Anyway, the bit about vibrators comes from Rachel Maines' social history of the vibrator (extensively referenced) called The Technology of Orgasm. I'd love to read your thoughts on the book, but please, after you've read the thing!

Sorry to barge in on ya'll. Blame Google Alerts.

RYviewpoint said...

Christopher: Life is too short to read every book published, even every interesting book published. If you are going to pick and choose what you read, you need to have an opinion. I read a review and formed an opinion. So...

Am I to presume that every opinion you've held was the result of deep research and every book read cover-to-cover? Congratulations! Meanwhile, we mere mortals have to have a reason to read a book and that includes a belief that it will be factually correct or entertaining. I have no doubt your book is entertaining. But...

As for opinion over fact: having a theory to guide your evaulation of fact is the only intelligent way to feel your way through the world. I'm also open to new ideas, but somebody breathlessly reporting "facts" about UFOs don't get my attention. Those "facts" don't fit my model of the world.

As for vibrators... I'm sure you had a wonderful reference in Rachel Maines, but I still stand by my opinion that the following is a "fact" just like somebody reporting a UFO:

Fifteen years later there were more vibrators than toasters in American homes.

I'm pretty sure that even today the number of toasters exceeds that of vibrators and I would hazard a guess of 2:1. Back in 1917 I would guess the number to be closer to 100:1 unless Maines has posed a "trick" comparison...

I don't have the statistics for toasters, but a quick check of the Internet shows that their sales didn't take off until the 1930s when a standard thickness for commercially sliced bread was established. Given this fact, I can accept that sales of vibrators exceeded sales of toasters. But to use this "fact" is more confusing than enlightening. Both were scarce as hen's teeth! That one sold more than another is statistically meaningless, a fluke, and tells us nothing.

Facts need to be tested and put into context with a model or theory of reality that makes sense of them. Otherwise your book becomes a butterfly collection. Things you found "interesting" but why would they interest me?

I stand by my initial assessment:

the reviewer sounds more like a propagandist for a point of view expressed in this book that an objective scientist

and I believe your book is more likely propaganda than documentary. You apparently claim that:

the authors’ conclusion that healthy relationships can be both committed and open

is not fact. It is propaganda. It is akin to Maines' toaster "fact", i.e. your claim is correct for a minuscle number of people with variant sexuality and some intelligence to manage the resulting complexity of relationships. But for the broad mass of people, aberrant lifestyles are a disaster because they don't know what they are getting into and don't know how to handle the messes it creates. Even conventional marriages are too hard to handle for over a third of the population. To claim that people can handle "open marriages" is just plain nutty. A few might, but most can't. Advocating it is simply seducing people into misery.

RYviewpoint said...


I have now read the book, see my review.

While I enjoyed your book and appreciated your argument to demolish a narrow-minded view of human sexuality. I'm still convinced you have over-sold a position that paints humans at another extreme (group sex as the "norm" during the foraging era).

I buy variability in human sexuality, but I don't buy the new extreme you are trying to promulgate. I think your argument would be sounder if you used your insights to argue for "more variability" instead of advocating group sex and the insatiable female as the new norm.