Apr 032011

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D. & Cacilda Jethá, M.D.

Sex at Dawn: the Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality
Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá
Harper, 416 pp., $25.99
ISBN 9780061707803

John Gardner’s lovely On Becoming a Novelist claims that readers have two big incentives to get through long blocks of prose: story and/or argument. In Sex at Dawn: the Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, Christopher Ryan (PhD) and Cacilda Jethá (MD) offer a little of the former and plenty of the latter. With kilos of scientific homework, not home-wrecking confessions, they tell the polyamorous story of human evolution as an argument for contemporary tolerance for open relationships and other strategies for more sexual-social-spiritual contentment and less work for divorce lawyers.

Those of us who teach know that few lessons are as powerful as Thomas Kuhn’s revelatory paradigm shift. Ryan and Jethá start their polyamorous argument in a double bind: Western culture has been so thoroughly and punitively mired in the monogamy paradigm that even the scientists (from Darwin to Stephen Jay Gould) who should be helping create an accurate reflection of open human sexuality often misinterpret, misrepresent or misguide us with physiological and historical evidence that should be a clear argument for some divisions of sex, love and family. To their credit, Ryan and Jethá (a couple) turn this challenge into a key opportunity for this measured, informed account of human sexual mutability. This wake of human intellectual development and the social management of knowledge (plus 65 pages of notes and references) make Sex at Dawn much more than a martini-soaked argument for a key party.

Taccola’s Piston, 15th century

The antagonists of the Sex at Dawn story are (recent, proprietary) monogamy, close-mindedness and unwise policy. Its various protagonists are human and (other) primate anatomy, evolutionary survival, wide-eyed history, and brave honesty. In emphasizing that humans, our closest primate relatives, and proto-humans are physiologically hard-wired for polyamory, Ryan and Jethá make a historical and biological argument, not a revolutionary one. With fact after fact they demonstrate that we almost always have been polyamorous and are physically if not evolutionarily equipped to be so. Citing past precedent and current failure, their argument is much more palpable and significant than any proselytizing campaign. Sex at Dawn doesn’t argue that we should convert to polyamory; it argues that we almost always have been polyamorous and should be again given our current failure at monogamy. Their citation of Schopenhauer’s 1851 essay “On Women” gains additional relevance as we consider contemporary divorce rates, what American literature profs Carmine Sarracino and Kevin M. Scott call The Porning of America, and the global sex trade: “In London alone there are 80000 prostitutes [in 1851!]. Then what are these women who have come too quickly to this most terrible end but human sacrifices on the altar of monogamy?”

Ryan and Jethá’s attention to human sexual anatomy is crucial to their argument that if we want healthier bodies, relationships, and societies we should revert to polyamory. Their comparisons to other primate genitalia and sexual behaviour foreground that theirs is an argument from science, nothing faddish like ‘alternative lifestyles.’ A handy diagram summarizes their repeat and varied attention to the large penis and testicle size of polyamorous humans, bonobos, and chimps (where males aren’t too much bigger than females) compared to polygynous gorillas, where males tower over females to fight off other males then impregnate multiple females with their (relatively) miniscule penis and testicles [truck size joke anyone?]. Gibbons are monogamous and equally sized between the sexes, but they also don’t shag very often and don’t, unlike randy humans and bonobos, ever copulate facing each other. The testicle size issue is illuminating. Male gorillas fight to be the one inseminator of multiple females, so they have put their evolutionary work into arm and chest strength and have “kidney-bean sized” testicles buried up in their bodies. The primate playahs (humans, chimps and bonobos) have evolved sizeable testicles to frequently produce large volumes of ejaculate so their sperm, not their arms, compete within females who have multiple partners.

Vanessa Woods’s public image of the high-empathy bonobo.

Ryan and Jethá’s attention to male and female anatomy is illuminating [oh the back-pumping male penis; oh the attacking acids in the first spurt of male ejaculate], and they augment it with genuine curiosity and intellectual history. In a truly remarkable connection they observe the intellectual taint of biases and reception chronology shared between our current (misinformed) monogamy paradigm and the massive research preference for chimps over bonobos. Genetically, humans are equally similar to combative (and horny) chimps and cooperative (and really horny) bonobos. However, chimps were discovered and brought into comparative research earlier, and various lasting comparisons were cast. Their quotation of Frans de Waal’s Our Inner Ape is a cri de coeur for the social improvement, not just sexual adaptation, Ryan and Jethá advocate:

I sometimes try to imagine what would have happened if we’d known the bonobo first and chimpanzee only later or not at all. The discussion about human evolution might not revolve as much around violence, warfare, and male dominance, but rather around sexuality, empathy, caring, and cooperation. What a different intellectual landscape we would occupy!

As a (rational and compassionate) argument, Sex at Dawn draws as much evidence from history and anthropology as it does from anatomy. In a forthcoming book of poems about evolution, I use a corporeal dramatization of planetary evolution to illustrate the same evolutionary timeline so central to the Sex at Dawn argument. Stretch your arms wide and imagine the creation of Earth at your right fingertips. For the vast majority of planetary history, past your left shoulder, only bacteria existed. Sex didn’t evolve until past your left elbow, as complex plants began to reproduce sexually. Dinosaurs roamed around in the palm of your hand and humans arrived in just the end of your fingernail. Ryan and Jethá treat that fingernail paring forensically and anthropologically, stressing that the vast majority of proto-human and human evolution was spent pre-agriculturally in hunter-gatherer tribes. Nomads who needed to band together to survive were evolutionarily rewarded for cooperation and sharing. The vast majority of human history was spent sharing food, genes and child-rearing. Ryan and Jethá compare early humans and twentieth-century hunter-gatherer tribes in which rotating sexual partners meant any man could be the father of various children and therefore all men provided for all children. Later they contrast that cooperative child rearing with the high divorce rates and the very large fraction of single-parent families in contemporary America, citing studies which show that single-parent children under-perform on “every single significant outcome related to short-term well-being and long-term success.” As Ryan points out in one of his two stimulating appearances on Dan Savage’s sex-advice podcast, only with the very recent human switch to agriculture did humans shun cooperative, communal ownership (and polyamory) for private ownership of land, seeds and their heirs (through monogamous marriage).

How Reymont and Melusina were betrothed / And by the bishop were blessed in their bed on their wedlock. From the Melusine, 15th century.

While the thoroughness, variety and balance of Ryan and Jethá’s case are crucial to demonstrating what to many will still be a radical thesis, the abundance of evidence actually becomes a rhetorical challenge. Admittedly, logic and organizational ease do favour a loosely chronological development from proto-humans to (racier) later chapters on the West’s policing of the female orgasm. In general, the first half is more anthropological and the second, much more gripping half, is anatomical. Readers interested in—forgive me—hard persuasion may appreciate anthropological example after example, but there’s a risk of losing sight of the argumentative forest for its evidentiary trees. References to South American tribes, remote Chinese communities and enlightened Indian provinces are important reminders that divisions between sex and love are healthy and that human behaviour, not just anatomy and bonobos, favour multiple sexual partners. Nonetheless, chapter after chapter of anthropology may prevent readers from getting to the later, better chapters. Without Sex at Dawn, who would know that “By 1917, there were more vibrators than toasters in American homes”? The argumentative foreplay is great. For a while.

—Darryl Whetter


Photo: Nicole Dixon

Darryl Whetter’s latest book is The Push & the Pull, a novel of bicycling and bisexuality. In April 2012, he will release a debut book of poems about evolution (including the evolution of sex). He’s also at work on a novel about polyamory.


  7 Responses to “Wanna Groom? A Review of Sex at Dawn: the Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality — Darryl Whetter”

  1. Hi Lynne,

    Those are examples of religious abuse of power. In each example, religion provides the power for the abuse, not polyamory.
    Also reconsider the equation of consensual adult sex and child abuse. Why is it that sexual options outside the status quo are immediately equated with child abuse? This same argument was/is fired at homosexuality. Monogamous heterosexuals can be abusive.

  2. Hi Darryl,
    I hear you. Believe me, this is not knee-jerk conservatism on my part. The court case in BC right now to decriminalize polygamy has been intense. I agree with everything that you say in your response, except to note that the situation is not so simple as “sexual options outside the status quo are immediately equated with child abuse.” Not at all. There are lots over open minded intelligent folks engaged in the debate and they are not crying for decriminalization. There is an atrocity happening and very few tools available to combat it. I have nothing against polyamoury or polygamy as laid out in your review. My point is that our society has some serious issues to sort out before moving forward – not that we should not move forward.

    • Hey there Lynne,
      You’re taking up a fight against polygamy in the wrong place. There’s nothing in S@D advocating polygamy (One man married to multiple women). If anything, the authors are *against* polygamy. Please understand that polygamy and polyamory are two very different beasts, and read the book if you want to understand more…

      • The authors of Sex at Dawn consider female status in many instances within their book, and I agree with their take. The fact is that [most] post-agricultural societies are known for cracking down on female sexual freedom, but it hurts everyone in the end. I don’t see the advantages to polygamy. Your challenge in finding a man that could please you is a common one for women, in my opinion. Dissatisfaction would be multiplied in a polygamous marriage. The average woman is still just warming up for sex while the average man has already finished. I can’t imagine that working out if there were two or more women. If we take male and female sexual function and response into consideration then polyandry, one woman married to many men, would be the more fair configuration. Still, there would be a lot of issues there as well (men lose sexual interest in familiar women after so many years, it’s what viagra has capitalized on in our society). S@D doesn’t prescribe a solution, they leave that up to us, but my take is that a model in which males’ and females’ sexual choice and autonomy is respected is the best way to go.

  3. @Darryl: sorry, but almost all child abuse is carried out by would-be monogamous or entirely unrelationable would-be heterosexuals with the accompanying huge issues around healthy sexuality. Lynne’s remark is not simply wide of the mark, it is the opposite of the truth. In any case, polygamy and polyamory are two totally different things. Polygamy is just monogamy meets patriarchy: i.e. bs squared.

  4. Great review, Darryl. It’s tempting to get diverted into this discussion about polyamory.

    It seems you may be placing some words in Chris and Calcida’s mouths, since Sex at Dawn barely uses the word “polyamory”, but we don’t mind. Most people are confused about what it means.

    And the book provides extraordinary evidence that monogamy isn’t as natural as we’ve been led to believe.

    The fact is that non-possessive non-monogamy can be, and is, practiced ethically without deleterious effects on children and society. Tens of thousands of unsung polyamorous Canadians are evidence of that, many more than the polygamists in BC’s infamous insular commune, and there are many, many more worldwide.

    The CPAA is not only an intervenor in the Canadian that case Lynne brings up, but online we are also becoming somewhat of a source of information about polyamory and the debate surrounding Canada’s outdated “polygamy” law. (Which sadly criminalizes polyamorous people if they choose to enter committed partnerships.)

    Those interested in knowing more about polyamory, the role of polyamory in this constitutional debate, or in asking direct questions are encouraged to find the CPAA online at http://www.polyadvocacy.ca and on Facebook at http://facebook.com/polyadvocacy.

    Vancouverites who see this post in time also can attend a public panel Monday evening entitled, “What is Polyamory?” the details of which can be found here: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=201449269888661

  5. @Lynne polygamy is only one type of polyamory (and if the female is not allowed multiple partners but the male is allowed multiple partners, then that doesn’t sound like polyamory at all). When people talk about polyamory, they are talking about all genders being able to enjoy multiple relationships, not just the men. No wonder there is harm done when men are encouraged to take multiple wives but the women aren’t! This book has NOTHING to do with polygamy (there is NOTHING polygamous about bonobos). Try visiting rather than perpetuating sterotyped information.

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