Natural And Unnatural Sex: Sex At Dawn, By Christopher Ryan And Cacilda Jetha

Margie Nichols, Ph.D.Review by Margie Nichols, Ph.D.

What is ‘natural’ in human sexuality? It’s not a trivial question: what is ‘natural’ is assumed to be normal, and by tenuous extension, what is ‘unnatural’ is inferior, deviant – ab-normal. We take it for granted that the ‘purpose’ of human sex is reproduction, which privileges heterosexual penile-vaginal intercourse as the most ‘natural,’ ‘preferred’ form of sexual behavior. And we assume that humans have always lived in pair-bonded nuclear families (remember the cartoons of male cavemen clubbing women?), an assumption that implies that monogamy is ‘normal,’ while multi-partnered sex is deviant, or at least evolutionarily irrelevant. Our judgments about sex, and we have many of them, have been shaped by the Bible, for the religious, or Charles Darwin, if we look to science for enlightenment.

Increasingly, evolutionary biologists, anthropologists, and others interested in sexuality historically and cross-culturally are challenging Darwin’s beliefs about sexuality (Soon I’ll post a blog on “Best Books About Sex In My Professional Lifetime”). Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality adds to the literature of this vibrant and interesting multidisciplinary group of dissenters. Christopher Ryan is a research psychologist and his coauthor (and wife) Cacilde Jetha a psychiatrist. Together they have written a book which the critic and sex advice columnist Dan Savage has called “ the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior of the Human Male on the American public in 1948.”

That might be slightly hyperbolic, but the fact is this is a great book. Ryan and Jetha make a convincing scientific case that

1) our closest primate relatives are the bonobos and chimps, who are ‘promiscuous’ and have sex in every way possible with every partner possible for a multitude of reasons, few of which have to do with reproduction;

2) our prehistoric forbears had a sexuality like bonobos and chimps and raised children in matrilineal groupings where paternity was not important and children were raised communally, as the children of the tribe.

In other words, what is ‘natural’ to us is to have sex in many ways with many people for many reasons. What is NOT natural is for everyone to be heterosexual and monogamous. That’s quite a revolutionary concept.

How and why did things change? Ryan and Cacilde place blame on the agricultural revolution, which they quote Jared Diamond as calling a ‘catastrophe from which we have never recovered.’ Agricultural societies became patrilineal and patriarchal, and monogamy was instituted as a way of insuring paternity. And contemporary sexologists, the authors assert, have simply assumed that monogamy, pair-bonding, and the nuclear family ‘always’ existed and that they exist because it is somehow “in” human nature to do this.

Ryan and Cacilde level their big guns at monogamy, which certainly deserves increasing scrutiny as a viable lifestyle for our species, especially since it is so frequently defended and so infrequently practiced.

But my interest in Sex at Dawn goes far beyond the issue of monogamy. Ryan and Caciilde’s arguments strike another blow at Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. And I increasingly believe Darwin’s beliefs form the bedrock of the dominant paradigm of sexuality. Darwin believed that evolutionary fitness developed at the level of the individual organism – the fittest male mates with the fittest female and the offspring survive at a disproportionatly high rate because of all those super genes. But scientific tests of this hypothesis have failed to confirm it, indicating that for many species, probably including our own, evolution advances at a group level, not via individuals and their monogamous mates.

The prevailing sexual paradigm is based on the idea that the primary, if not sole, function of sex MUST be reproduction, which certainly might be true if Darwin had been right about how ‘fittest’ genes are passed down. And if the function of sex is reproduction, then sexual acts, lifestyles, and choices that do not support reproduction via a nuclear family are less ‘fit,’ i.e., they are ‘inferior.’ It’s a short step from ‘inferior’ to ‘abnormal.’

But the thesis of the ‘new breed’ of sexual thinkers, including the authors of Sex at Dawn, is that sex is multi-functional. And if sex serves diverse functions, then having a diversity of sexual behaviors and relationship forms would be advantageous. If we believe the fundamental premise of this book, then instead of pathologizing non-statistically normative sexuality, we would see variations as a fundamental, necessary part of the sexuality of our species. The foundation for demonizing all sexual minorities and those with atypical sexual and relationship lifestyles would be shattered.

If we believe the authors of Sex at Dawn – and others in their camp – Mother Nature really DOES ‘celebrate diversity’ – in sexuality as in everything else – because the survival of the species depends upon it.

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