Friday, June 10, 2011

Christopher Ryan & Cacilda Jetha's "Sex at Dawn"

This was a fun read. Lots of sweeping generalizations. Lots of unique interpretations of facts. Lots of bold claims.

Previously I had written a review of this book and expressed some scepticism about the claims in this book. Now having read the book, I remain dubious about the more sweeping generalizations in this book. But I now will admit that the authors have gathered interesting facts to build their case. I simply think they make claims that go beyond the facts they have.

I'm willing to accept their argument that viewing monogamy as "natural" for humans is silly. But the same has been discovered for all those "virtuous" birds who were thought to be true to their mates but have been found cheating on the side. Sex and love are much more complicated than the standard account. This is amply demonstrated in this book.

I think variability in human societies and in human nature is wider than more standard presentations of "virtuous monogamy". But Christopher and Jethá see outliers and want to claim they represent the "true" nature of humans. I don't buy it. When they talk about wild sex and wife swapping among the pilots of WWII, I think -- but don't have the data to prove it -- that this was one reaction to the fear and stress of war and am willing to allow that this was a noticeable, sizable fraction of pilots, but I doubt it was anywhere near a majority. Christopher and Jethá go on to claim this was the birth of the wild swinger clubs of the 1960s. I can see it as a thread, one small feed-in to a movement that got popularized by the rise in interest in sex and "alternative" lifestyles during the 1960s. But I don't see it as evidence about the "true nature" of human sexuality.

What I do know is that the radical left in the late 19th century had their adherents to "free love". This was mostly men of status seeking access to impressionable women in "the movement". But that's the same old story of the alpha male getting access to concubines in Biblical days.

My simple-minded view is that monogamy is the choice of about 80% of the population. But within that 80% there is an unhappy half who fall into divorce, affairs, and serial monogamy to deal with their unhappiness. At the same time there is a peripheral 20% who evidence the variability in human sexuality. These are the swingers, the bi-sexuals, and the homosexuals and even the chastity fanatics of religion, the fetishists, and the mentally deranged sex killers.

Science of complex phenomena like people, institutions, and societies is not the hard science of physics and chemistry. The subject matter of the soft sciences is simply too complex to be nailed down with simplistic laws. The fact that you can find polygamous and polyandrous societies as well as group sex societies simply proves there is a lot of variability.

I do accept Christopher and Jethá's argument that sexuality changed as humans moved from foraging to agricultural societies.

Here are some bits from the book that I found interesting:
If it's true that multiple mating was common in human evolution, the apparent mismatch between the relatively quick male orgasmic response and the so-called "delayed" female response makes sense (note how the female response is "delayed" only if the male's is assumed to be "right on time"). The male's quick orgasm lessens the chances of being interrupted by predators or other males (survival of the quickest!), while the female and her child would benefit by exercising some preconscious control over which spermatozoa would be most likely to fertilize her ovum.

Prolactin and the other hormones released at orgasm appear to trigger very different responses in men and women. While a man is likely to require a prolonged refractory (or recovery) period immediately after an orgasm (and maybe a sandwich and a beer as well), thus getting him out of the way of other males, many women are willing and able to continue sexual activity well beyond a "starter orgasm."

It's worth repeating that primate species with orgasmic females tend to be promiscuous.
And this:
Before the war on drugs, the war on terror, or the war on cancer, there was the war on female sexual desire. It's a war that has been raging for longer than any other, and its victims number well into the billions by now. Like the others, it's a war that can never be won, as the declared enemy is a force of nature. We may as well declare war on the cycles of the moon.

There is a pathetic futility animating the centuries-long insistence -- against overwhelming evidence to the contrary -- that the human female is indifferent to the insistent urgings of libido. Recall the medical authorities in the antebellum South who assured plantation owners that slaves trying to break out of their chains were not human beings deserving of freedom and dignity, but sufferers of Drapetomania, a medical disorder best cured with a good lashing.
And this:
Our journey into deeper understanding of the "feminine soul" begins in a muddy field in the English countryside. In the early 1990s, neuroscietist Keith Kendrick and his colleagues exchanged that season's newborn sheep and goats (the baby sheep were raised by adult goats, and vice versa). Upon reaching sexual maturity a few years later, the animals were reunited with their own species and their mating behavior was observed. The females adopted a love-the-one-you're-with approach, showing themselves willing to mate with males of either species. But the males, even after being back with their own species for three years, would mate only with the species with which they were raised.

Research like this suggests strong differences in degrees of "erotic plasticity" (changeability) in the males and females of many species -- including ours. ... Greater erotic plasticity leads more women to experience more variation in their sexuality than men typically do, and women's sexual behavior is far more responsive to social pressure. This greater plasticity could manifest through changes in whom a woman wants, in how much she wants him/her/them, and in how she expresses her desire.
And this:
In Hierarchy in the Forest, primatologist Christopher Boehm argues that egalitarianism is an eminently rational, even hierarchical political system, writing, "Individuals who otherwise would be subordinated are clever enough to form a large and united political coalition, and they do so for the express purpose of keeping the strong from dominating the weak." According to Boehm, foragers are downright feline in refusing to follow orders, writing, "Nomadic foragers are universally -- and all but obsessively -- concerned with being free of the authority of others."

Prehistory must have been a frustrating time for megalomaniacs. "An individual endowed with the passion for control," writes psychologist Erich Fromm, "would have been a social failure and without influence."
This book is interesting and is well worth reading. I would simply warn the reader that the authors have an agenda that colours their presentation of the facts. They are right to attack narrow-minded "monogamous only" theories of human sexuality, but then they over-sell the idea that humans are built for wild group sex. I would agree that some are, but not everybody. They've identified variation and then latched onto an extreme to declare it the "new normal". It isn't.

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