Sex at Dawn – part 2

All right, I promised a second review focusing more on the content when I was done, and I’ve been done for a while, but I’m a slacker, so. The first part is here, and discusses the book itself and its premise, so I won’t revisit that bit.

In any event, it’s a good book. Overall, very good information, by and large well-presented aside from previously mentioned issues with its tone. I have only a few quibbles with the actual content.

Quibble the first is that they rely an awful lot on anthropological data from modern hunter-gatherer societies for their estimation of the sort of Ur-state humans that they’re describing. This falls prey to the same fallacy as people who ponder our evolution from chimpanzees.  Chimps aren’t what we evolved from; they are a co-evolved species with as much genetic drift from our common ancestor as we have, or at least as much time to develop such drift.  Modern hunter-gatherer societies are not “primitive”; they are a society which has spent as much time developing from some theoretical original human social order as we in the developed west have.  It’s quite possible that these societies are much more like the hunter-gatherers Sex at Dawn aims to describe, but that’s a separate hypothesis that needs its own battery of testing.  The book doesn’t solely rely on this data, but it makes up a large chunk of their support.

In fact, at one point they make a nod toward this, when discussing the size of human testicles, which would normally seem to indicate mild polygyny rather than the multi-male, multi-female setup (from now referred to as M+F+, mostly because MMMF means something entirely else) they posit as the human state of nature.  The authors (rightly) point out that evolutionary changes often happen very quickly, and that we’ve been strongly selecting in favor of monogamy for millenia now.  That’s fine, but the converse applies; the hunter-gatherer societies in the modern world have been strongly selecting for M+F+ for just as long.

On balance, it seems intuitively likely that hunter-gatherer societies are a bit more like our common ancestral social groups than industrialized America, but I’d like to see some evidence for it before it is used to support another thesis.

I’m glad that they included the data, though, because it is fascinating, and certainly goes to disprove the idea that monogamous marriage is baked into the cake of human evolution.

Quibble MK II is that they seem to think that it’s only possible that we evolved for one-and-only-one type of social order, and one mating style.  It’s M+F+, or it’s monogamy, or it’s polygyny or polyandry, but definitely just one of these.  To bring chimps back up again, they discuss the famous chimp warfare, mentioning primarily the Gombe incident that one of Goodall’s groups observed.  The authors mention that the chimps were being fed, which likely altered their behavior, and that wild chimpanzees hadn’t otherwise been observed performing these actions.  Well, as the NYT article I just linked indicates, that would appear to now be untrue; there is evidence of chimps in the wild warring for territory without human intervention.  It would appear to be an adaptation, if perhaps only one that is triggered under certain circumstances.

I think it’s overreaching to try to disprove monogamy as natural in any way, given the number of places that it has popped up independently.  It seems more likely that it is a specific social adaptation, one that makes sense under a different set of circumstances than M+F+ shows up under.  Were I to venture a guess, I would suggest that monogamy (and also probably polygynous marriage) show up in places of scarcity, and that M+F+ relationships make more sense in times of plenty.  Post-agricultural societies create a sort of artificial scarcity, in which people react not to their absolute position but to their relative place in a social hierarchy, so one would expect to see social adaptations to scarcity kick in more often here than in a hunter-gatherer society wherein everyone has more than enough, but no one has too much more than anyone else.  And monogamy would make more sense in a time and place of deprivation, as it’s much more important to make sure that you have some children that survive to adulthood; M+F+ setups make the most evolutionary sense when there are enough resources around that having more children isn’t going to overly stretch things.

Anyway, IANA anthropologist, so the specifics I’m discussing above are wildly inexpert and mostly just meant to point out that the data we’re presented with is open to more than one interpretation.  I think the idea that there is one-and-only-one social order which humans are “supposed” to follow is just as arrogant if the order is something that I am sympathetic toward (everyone should sleep with everyone!) as it is if  it’s something I find ridiculous (no sex except through the hole in the sheet!).  I think that Ryan and Jethá overreach when they try to take their preferred relationship style from the bottom of the heap and put it on top; it’s enough, or should be in my opinion, to disprove the unnaturalness of M+F+ relationships, and to try to simultaneously make monogamy out to be entirely unnatural is unnecessary, unjstified, and, at least in this text, unsupported.

But that’s it. I have no more quibbles, and overall I enjoyed the book a great deal.  I wanted the tone to be more inclusive, as I mentioned last time, but primarily so that I can point people to it.  It falls short of what the authors intended, but I don’t need it to be what they intended.

What I didn’t expect was how profoundly affecting it was to have someone describing the way that things work in my head as normal. I didn’t think that really mattered to me; I thought it was enough to know that it is perfectly acceptable and ethical to feel most comfortable in a nonmonogamous arrangement.  But to some extent, I still have some internal voice telling me that, sure, maybe it’s fine, but it still shouldn’t matter to you so much, Nick, you should still be able to handle a monogamous relationship.  In fact, there are perfectly good psychological and physiological reasons for it to matter.  (Which is not to say that it’s reasonable for me to drop into funks like the one that hit me for a couple of months recently.)

I like this book, despite my complaints.  I wish it filled a role that it doesn’t, less Dawkins and more Sagan, less red meat to the converted and more a hand out to skeptics.  But it is what it is, and what it is is quite good.

I should probably put a poly reading list together, and blow through the usual texts.  Anyone have thoughts on a good next choice?  The Ethical Slut? Opening Up?  I’m aware of these books, but I’ve never bothered to go looking for them before.

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3 thoughts on “Sex at Dawn – part 2

  1. Opening Up before the Ethical Slut if you want to avoid hints of the arrogance you found in Sex at Dawn.

  2. Also, (this is not a comment on you, just a rant) I’ve recommended this book to a lot of people in non-monogamous relationships who clearly need some sort of direction or deeper understanding of what they are undertaking but so few of them truly are willing to READ.

    They may pay lip-service to the value of literature but then they sit on their asses and do stupid shit conventional shit with their unconventional relationships often leading to the failure of those relationships.

    I dunno what it is about reading about it. Maybe it makes it less adventurous and daring for them if they actually cracked open a book that provided good information on avoiding the pitfalls of their relationship style. Which I can sympathize with when things are going great but when they obviously aren’t and there are clear problems, it just strikes me as foolish and irresponsible.

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