Sex at Dawn - Review and Summary

sexatdawn

The book challenges the standard sexual model and offers an alternative way to think about how our ancestors may have lived. It focuses on sexuality, but goes much further and paints a pretty comprehensive picture of probable prehistoric human life. It’s a long read, but also entertaining and the boring bits are easy to skip. All those details serve a good purpose though. They put your own inclinations, behaviours, desires and relationship issues into perspective and make you feel like “aha, that’s why…”.

The book has been nothing short of an eye opener for me. I am in no position to validate or argue against the scientific basis, but even if some of the science were not right, the standard model deserves to be challenged, because it has failed. This book is a great attempt.

The most surprising thing about the book is that the picture it paints of human sexuality is not every man’s dream come true. In fact, it can be a pretty bitter pill for the macho male to swallow. If the book is correct, women’s sexual desire is insatiable and they are evolved and capable of having sex with a dozen or more males one after another, which is supported by the fact that women can easily have long lasting and series of orgazms, while men are single shooters and can finish very quickly. The book deploys a host of other reasons.

That of course goes 180 degrees in the face of the standard narrative and what any “decent” woman would be willing to believe. But it’s exactly taboos like that that prevent us from having honest conversations and that are ripe to be destroyed.

What the book does not do is it does not tell you what to do with all this information, which is of course the biggest question of all. The authors actually admit they don’t have an answer either. Life today is so vastly different from life in prehistoric times that we can hardly imagine have the same sexual patterns  these days. And yet, by helping us understand where we are coming from, and what our evolutionary psychology predisposes us to seek, this book can be a first step towards more authentic, long lasting and joyful relationships.

Excerpts (italic) with my notes

The standard sexual model (what we condition ourselves to believe)

  • Relatively weak female libido
  • Male parental investment (MPI)
  • Sexual jealousy and paternity certainty
  • Extended receptivity and concealed (or cryptic) ovulation

The basic premise of the standard sexual model is the sex contract. Males provide goods and protection in exchange for sex, exclusivity and child bearing. In this model, there is an “exchange of services”, jealousy is inevitable and while love is not out-ruled, it’s certainly not the basis of the male-female relationship. The standard model also implies that females will look for the provider husband, but cheat on him with a genetically superior male in the hope of having his children. The male strategy is to control his woman’s sexuality to guarantee paternity certainty, but at the same time have sex with as many females as possible to spread his seeds and increase getting his genes across to the next generation. Diametrically opposed interests, not a pretty picture. And yet, that’s the model we use and that governs our our behaviour. 

Conventional theory suggests she’ll marry a nice, rich, predictable, sincere guy likely to pay the mortgage, change the diapers, and take out the trash—but then cheat on him with wild, sexy, dangerous dudes, especially around the time she’s ovulating, so she’s more likely to have lover-boy’s baby.

According to the standard narrative, the evolved behavioral strategy for a man is to cheat on his pregnant wife while being insanely—even violently—jealous of her.

At our most basic levels, we’re told, heterosexual men and women have evolved to trick one another while selfishly pursuing zero-sum, mutually antagonistic genetic agendas—even though this demands the betrayal of the people we claim to love most sincerely. Original sin indeed.

Apparently early humans were the only animal that had sex with a large number of partners in a short period of time throughout the year.

Sex for pleasure with various partners is therefore more “human” than animal. Strictly reproductive, once-in-a-blue-moon sex is more “animal” than human. In other words, an excessively horny monkey is acting “human,” while a man or woman uninterested in sex more than once or twice a year would be, strictly speaking, “acting like an animal.”

Early humans lived in small tribal communities where property pretty much did not exist and everything, sex included was shared or a team activity.

For those of us born and raised in societies organized around the interlocking principles of individuality, personal space, and private property, it’s difficult to project our imaginations into those tightly woven societies where almost all space and property is communal, and identity is more collective than individual. From the first morning of birth to the final mourning of death, a forager’s life is one of intense, constant interaction, interrelation, and interdependence.

Each of the societies we’re about to discuss shares a belief in what scientists call “partible paternity.” These groups have a novel conception of conception: a fetus is made of accumulated
semen.

Anthropologists Stephen Beckerman and Paul Valentine explain, “Pregnancy is viewed as a matter of degree, not clearly distinguished from gestation … all sexually active women are a little pregnant. Over time … semen accumulates in the womb, a fetus is formed, further acts of intercourse follow, and additional semen causes the fetus to grow more.” 2 Were a woman to stop having sex when her periods stopped, people in these cultures believe the fetus would stop developing.

She’ll solicit “contributions” from the best hunters, the best storytellers, the funniest, the kindest, the best-looking, the strongest, and so on—in the hopes her child will literally absorb the essence of each.

You know that if you die, there’s some other man who has a residual obligation to care for at least one of your children. So looking the other way or even giving your blessing when your wife takes a lover is the only insurance you can buy.

There are modern time examples where “wife swapping” and intersecting relationships are used as a team building device. The most interesting is probably the group of pilots that had a highl likelyhood of dying in battle and wanted to make sure their families would be cared for by those who survived.

For professional athletes, musicians, and their most enthusiastic female fans, as well as both male and female members of many foraging societies, overlapping, intersecting sexual relationships strengthen group cohesion and can offer a measure of security in an uncertain world. Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, human sex isn’t just about pleasure or reproduction. A casual approach to sexual relationships in a community of adults can have important social functions, extending far beyond mere physical gratification.

There are countless examples of tribal people living in groups and sharing sex between members of the group in chapter 4.

According to the standard model a prehistoric mother and child needed the meat and protection a man would provide. A woman would have had to offer her own sexual autonomy in exchange, thus assuring him that it was his child he was supporting. That was the best arrangement to ensure the survival of the next generation supposedly.

But group wide sharing of food, protection and sex is actually much better suited to prehistoric conditions. There is a bat species that does the same: the ones that got lucky share blood with the ones that didn’t. Almost all studied simple forager tribes followed an egalitarian path not because they are particularly noble, but because it offers them the best chance of survival.

Institutionalized sharing of resources and sexuality spreads and minimizes risk, assures food won’t be wasted in a world without refrigeration, eliminates the effects of male infertility, promotes the genetic health of individuals, and assures a more secure social environment for children and adults alike. Far from utopian romanticism, foragers insist on egalitarianism because it works on the most practical levels.

The abundance of sexual opportunity makes it less worthwhile for males to risk injury by fighting over any particular sexual opportunity.

Could it be that the atomic isolation of the husband-wife nucleus with an orbiting child or two is in fact a culturally imposed aberration for our species—as ill-suited to our evolved tendencies as corsets, chastity belts, and suits of armor? Dare we ask whether mothers, fathers, and children are all being shoe-horned into a family structure that suits none of us? Might the contemporary pandemics of fracturing families, parental exhaustion, and confused, resentful children be predictable consequences of what is, in truth, a distorted and distorting family structure inappropriate for our species?

“Is it so very obvious that you can’t love more than one person? We seem to manage it with parental love (parents are reproached if they don’t at least pretend to love all their children equally), love of books, of food, of wine (love of Château Margaux does not preclude love of a fine Hock, and we don’t feel unfaithful to the red when we dally with the white), love of composers, poets, holiday beaches, friends … why is erotic love the one exception that everybody instantly acknowledges without even thinking about it?” 14 Why, indeed? How would the prevalence and experience of jealousy be affected in Western societies if the economic dependence trapping most women and their children didn’t exist, leading female sexual access to be a tightly controlled commodity? What if economic security and guilt-free sexual friendships were easily available to almost all men and women, as they are in many of the societies we’ve discussed, as well as among our closest primate cousins? What if no woman had to worry that a ruptured relationship would leave her and her children destitute and vulnerable? What if average guys knew they’d never have to worry about finding someone to love? What if we didn’t all grow up hearing that true love is obsessive and possessive? What if, like the Mosuo, we revered the dignity and autonomy of those we loved? What if, in other words, sex, love, and economic security were as available to us as they were to our ancestors? If fear is removed from jealousy, what’s left? According to E. O. Wilson, “all that we can surmise of humankind’s genetic history argues for a more liberal sexual morality, in which sexual practices are to be regarded first as bonding devices and only second as a means for procreation.”

We are enriched not by what we possess, but by what we can do without.
IMMANUEL KANT

Poverty … is the invention of civilization.
MARSHALL SAHLINS

Larger societies will be less democratic than smaller societies, and they will have an unequal distribution of risks and rewards.”9 Right, because the bigger the society is, the less functional shame becomes.

In small forager tribes that normally didn’t grow over 150 individuals, self regulation was easy. Greed or any other behavior of any individual that is detrimental to the group is quickly punished by shame. For shame to have this powerful ability to make individuals fall back in line, personal bonds and relationships are required. Try doing the same large scale (ie. communism) and sharing of wealth and work and it breaks down, because the personal bonds are not there so shame doesn’t work. That’s the price we pay for anonymity and not having to be bothered about what others think of us.

Periods of more prolonged malnutrition leave signs on the teeth known as hypoplasias—discolored bands and small pits in the enamel surface, which can still be seen many centuries later in fossilized remains. Archaeologists find fewer Harris lines and dental hypoplasias in the remains of prehistoric hunter-gatherer populations than they do in the skeletons of settled populations who lived in villages dependent on cultivation for their food supply. Being highly mobile, hunter-gatherers were unlikely to suffer from prolonged starvation since in most cases, they could simply move to areas where conditions were better.

Difficult as it may be for some to accept, skeletal evidence clearly shows that our ancestors didn’t experience widespread, chronic scarcity until the advent of agriculture. Chronic food shortages and scarcity-based economies are artifacts of social systems that arose with farming.

We are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you any different.
KURT VONNEGUT, JR.

If our paradigm of prehistoric human sexuality is correct, in addition to environmental toxins and food additives, sexual monogamy may be a significant factor in the contemporary infertility crisis.

Sexual monogamy itself may be shrinking men’s balls.

Any marriage counselor will tell you the most common sex-related complaint women make about men is that they are too quick and too direct. Meanwhile, men’s most frequent sex-related gripe about women is that they take too damned long to get warmed up. After an orgasm, a woman may be anticipating a dozen more. A female body in motion tends to stay in motion. But men come and go. For them, the curtain falls quickly and the mind turns to unrelated matters. This symmetry of dual disappointment illustrates the almost comical incompatibility between men’s and women’s sexual response in the context of monogamous mating. You have to wonder: if men and women evolved together in sexually monogamous couples for millions of years, how did we end up being so incompatible? It’s as if we’ve been sitting down to dinner together, millennium after millennium, but half of us can’t help wolfing everything down in a few frantic,
sloppy minutes, while the other half are still setting the table and lighting candles.

So, in terms of reproduction, the “fitness” of our prehistoric male ancestors was not decided in the external social world, where conventional theories tell us men competed for mates in struggles for status and material wealth. Rather, paternity was determined in the inner world of the female reproductive tract where every woman is equipped with mechanisms for choosing among potential fathers at a cellular level.

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.

“The sexual hunger of the female, and her capacity for copulation completely exceeds that of any male,” and, “To all intents and purposes, the human female is sexually insatiable. …” That may or may not be, but it cannot be denied that the design of the human female’s reproductive system is far from what the standard narrative predicts, and thus demands radical rethinking of the
evolution of female sexuality.

for men, both gay and straight, higher sex drive increases the specificity of their sexual desire. In other words, a straight guy with a higher sex drive tends to be more focused on women, while higher sex drive in a gay guy makes him more intent on men. But with women—at least nominally straight women—the opposite occurs: the higher her sex drive, the more likely she’ll be attracted to men and women. Lesbians showed the same pattern as men: a higher sex drive means more women-only focus. Perhaps this explains why nearly twice as many women as men consider themselves bisexual, while only half as many consider themselves to be exclusively gay.

First-time travelers to Istanbul, Bali, Gambia, Thailand, or Jamaica may be surprised to see thousands of middle-aged women from Europe and the United States who flock to these places in search of no-strings sexual attention. An estimated eighty thousand women fly to Jamaica looking to “Rent a Rasta” every year.20 The number of female Japanese visitors to the Thai island resort Phuket jumped from fewer than four thousand in 1990 to ten times that just four years later, outnumbering male Japanese tourists significantly. Chartered jets carrying nothing but Japanese women land in Bangkok every week, if not daily. In her book Romance on the Road, Jeannette Belliveau catalogs dozens of destinations frequented by such women. That this sort of behavior would seem unbelievable and embarrassing to most of the young American women filling out questionnaires for their psychology professors is both result and cause of a more general scientific and cultural blindness to the true contours of female sexuality. By temperament, which is the real law of God, many men are goats and can’t help committing adultery when they get a
chance; whereas there are numbers of men who, by temperament, can keep their purity and let an opportunity go by if the woman lacks in attractiveness.
MARK TWAIN, Letters from the Earth

The prerequisite for a good marriage, it seems to me, is the license to be unfaithful.
CARL JUNG, in a letter to Freud dated January 30, 1910

The strongest explanation for the prevalence and intensity of the Coolidge effect among social mammals is that the male drive for sexual variety is evolution’s way of avoiding incest. Our species evolved on a sparsely populated planet—never more than a few million and probably fewer than 100,000 of us on Earth for most of our evolutionary past. To avoid the genetic
stagnation that would have dragged our ancestors into extinction long ago, males evolved a strong appetite for sexual novelty and a robust aversion to the overly familiar. While this carrot-and-stick mechanism worked well to promote genetic diversity in the prehistoric environment, it’s causing lots of problems now. When a couple have been living together for years, when they’ve become family, this ancient anti-incest mechanism can effectively block eroticism for many men, leading to confusion and hurt feelings all around.22

Earlier, we discussed how men’s testosterone levels recede over the years, but it’s not just the passing of time that brings these levels down: monogamy itself seems to drain away a
man’s testosterone.