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Sex at Dawn (Book Review)


“Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Paul Gauguin Ronald Wright, in “A Short History of Progress,” looks at the patterns of great but fallen civilizations. In his examination, he questions the assumptions of progress since agriculture began. Rome and Sumer, Maya and Easter Island, all rose to increasing complexity but ultimately failed from similar historical trends. Some of these trends in progress came from overpopulation, the unsustainable extraction of natural resources over generations (without considering the long-term effects), the corruption of power in social hierarchies, and an insatiable consumption for more (power, land, shelter, food, etc.). What does this say about our human nature when we have cut down our last trees and polluted our rivers, destroying what was abundant for thousands of years? Furthermore, how can we learn from our past to know where we’re going? After all, for more than ninety-five percent of our existence, we have been hunter-gatherers, nomads who foraged and lived in small bands. We moved if we needed more food, never overextending ourselves in our expansive world. We lived in groups below the Dunbar number, sharing our livelihoods in egalitarian communities. We cultivated fires to warm our bodies in the nights of winter. Flames rose to illuminate the faces of our extended families. Like Ronald Wright, Ryan/Jethá challenge the assumptions of our nature. They go after the neo-Hobbesian view in mainstream evolutionary psychology, and ask us, “Where do we come from?” Rather than promoting that “life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” which has been an underlying assumption that has spread in the traditional narrative, “Sex at Dawn” is a book of detribalization. How much of our instincts, our intuitive feelings, are conditioned by our current communities and cultures, societies and civilizations? What historical prejudices have we inherited, which are not essential to our natures? Westerners generally have a repulsion for crunchy insects and saliva beer, even though these are perceived as delicacies in other countries. Similarly, some cultures are repulsed at a westerner’s desire for hotdogs and ground beef. There is a large variety of foods that exist, from lobster and shrimp to soil and rats, which are judged as acceptable in one group, but unacceptable in another. Marriage, as an historical concept, doesn’t come under one definition either. It may be monogamous in one culture, but polyamorous in another. Marriage may involve sharing mates, consist of one night or until death, God could oversee its conception, or it could come about in a courthouse. Men could marry men and women could marry women. In agriculturally-based societies, where there’s more of an emphasis on hierarchies and rivalries over land, marriage has often been enacted as a binding contract, a sexist form of ownership. In foraging societies, there are more egalitarian relations of multiple mates, interconnected in social-sexual bonds. Even under the most brutal governments, where infidelity is forbidden and severely punished, humans still engage in a diversity of sexual behaviors, only under different guises. Anatomically modern humans have existed for around 200,000 years. We share a common ancestor with chimps and bonobos, splitting off from them 5 million years ago. We are a great ape like they are. Most of our existence was as hunter-gatherers in tight bands, in communities of sharing and non-ownership. Although there was a considerably higher infant mortality rate, we had lived long lives, fasted and feasted, and moved on. Then around 8000 BCE, agriculture began to arise. “With agriculture, virtually everything changed: the nature of status and power, social and family structures, how humans interacted with the natural world, the gods they worshipped, the likelihood and nature of warfare between groups, quality of life, longevity, and certainly, the rules governing sexuality.” In the standard narrative of human sexuality, women are careful in choosing their mates. They are passive in pursuit and selective in their final decisions, desiring a man who can provide security in protection, wealth, status, food, and power. Her goal is to find a man who will invest himself in her child’s welfare. In turn, a male chooses a fertile female who he can reproduce with, thus ensuring that he passes on his genes. Is this our nature or have we been conditioned to accept this as our nature? As the authors have said, “The standard narrative of heterosexual interaction boils down to prostitution: a woman exchanges her sexual services for access to resources.” This narrative ignores that women can be sexually active throughout their menstrual cycle, which is unlike other mammals. They often have highly fluid sexualities too, being aroused by more stimuli than men (through blood flow to their genitals), even when conditioned to dismiss what they are aroused by. Furthermore, chimps and bonobos are great apes like human beings. They are highly intelligent, social creatures. One big difference, as De Waal notes, is that “the chimpanzee resolves sexual issues with power; the bonobo resolves power issues with sex.” While one ape is a Machiavellian, the other is flower-power. Humans are genetically tied to both, displaying similar traits, given the circumstances. Like bonobos, we use sex to reduce tension, bond, resolve conflict, or pleasure ourselves. We aren’t necessarily choosing our mates for only reproduction like other animals do. Sex is one aspect of our nature in our desire for “complex” and “subtle communication.” As a feedback loop, language creates us as we create it. We’re constantly updating our changing, adaptive social network. We’re multi-dimensional creatures. We have the capacity for selfish interest, but we shouldn’t ignore our inclinations for sharing and feeling connected. We grow, changing with our environment, evolving, but evolution is not necessarily improvement. It is adaptation to a current environment, but what was once best suited for one environment is detrimental in another. And the external conditions will always shift. Our brains evolved from an interconnection in tight groups. We shared our resources (like food and sex) with our communities, with people we intimately knew. They raised our children, they shared our beds, they were punished with communal shame if they harmed another member of our group. As we domesticated the plants and animals, we soon domesticated ourselves. We’ve become overpopulated, losing our intimacies with each other. Large numbers made us anonymous in civilization. In isolation, we forgot where we came from. While hunter-gatherers lived with an abundant mindset, “chronic food shortages and scarcity-based economies” and wide-spread diseases are artifacts of our farming. Hunter-gatherers mostly drank, socialized, played, with brief periods of light work. Now, CEOs work more than sixty hours a week, chasing after the highest percentage of wealth. What was once in ecological abundance is now under ownership. Power accumulated with agricultural practices, along with war and famine. Populations increased, dividing themselves. Civilizations arose and then crumbled away, until the complexity of our modern age. We have adapted to the structure of our civilization, but has our civilization adapted to who we are? As Wright says, “I want to see what we can deduce from the first progress trap – the perfection of hunting, which ended the Old Stone Age – and how our escape from that trap by the invention of farming led to our greatest experiment: worldwide civilization. We then have to ask ourselves this urgent question: Could civilization itself be another and much greater trap?”

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