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The Evolved Slut
November 5, 2010 3:34 PM   Subscribe

Husband-and-wife team Christopher Ryan and Calcilda Jethá have written a book, Sex at Dawn, that challenges what they describe as the "standard narrative" of human sexual and social relationships. In a recent Savage Love podcast featuring Ryan as a guest, Dan Savage described the book as "...the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior in the Human Male on the American public in 1948."

First tearing down theories of humans as naturally monogamous or polygynous creatures, Ryan and Jethá then present an alternative theory that in pre-agrarian times, our forager/hunter-gatherer ancestors would have formed small, close-knit resource sharing societies in which sex was a resource that, like food, was freely shared (NSFW). Jealousy over paternity would not have been an issue because without permanent homes or difficult-to-replace individual belongings, inheritance was moot; also, the cultures would tend toward belief in partible paternity, in which all a woman's sex parters contribute to the creation of her fetus.

The book advocates tolerance and understanding of natural human desires for promiscuity, rather than proscribing that we alter our society to mimic the environment of evolutionary adaptedness that spawned us.
posted by kitarra (67 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
It says nothing one way or the other about Sex at Dawn, but Dan Savage is the last guy I would go to for pronouncements on human sexuality. Insofar as he's good at what he does, it's all game theory to him. That's why he's good at telling people to DTMFA, because he has a sense of when a game is unwinnable.

I happened to ask a question on point not long ago.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:43 PM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Because a longer penis would give a female pleasure (note that the human male has the longest and thickest penis of any primate), female choice might have been a factor driving penis length to extremes among primates."

This isn't true. I'm sure it's relative to the size or elasticity of the vagina. Not getting why you linked penis size with "natural" but I think women care more about girth than length, if it's a choice between the two. Being poked in the cervix with a penis is uncomfortable.

I like monogamy. Keeps me STD free, thanks, and free to think about other things I want to do or learn (like raquetball) than looking for zipless fucks in the park to get satisfied in a time of need.

lose-knit resource sharing societies in which sex was a resource that, like food, was freely shared

There are going to be losers in this. Like there's always going to be someone who can't get laid and some people who get laid all the time with people waiting their turn to get with that person. Also, sex would be a limited resource. Like with money. Some people are getting paid tons and some people are stuck being paid under the table, under minimum wage.
posted by anniecat at 3:50 PM on November 5, 2010 [12 favorites]


Can we not make this about Dan Savage? I'm actually a fan of his but the book is interesting enough (in premise, at least, I intend to read it) that we don't need turn this into 500 comments of Dan-Savage-sucks-no-you-suck-no-YOU-suck.

So, anyone read the book yet?
posted by tantrumthecat at 3:50 PM on November 5, 2010 [8 favorites]


Countess Elena: “It says nothing one way or the other about Sex at Dawn, but Dan Savage is the last guy I would go to for pronouncements on human sexuality. Insofar as he's good at what he does, it's all game theory to him. That's why he's good at telling people to DTMFA, because he has a sense of when a game is unwinnable.”

Well, I don't really understand what you mean here. It seems as though relationships are all game theory. It's hard to see how they're not. As far as Dan Savage being the last guy one would go to for pronouncements thereupon... I used to feel that way, but now I get the impression that's just a notion a lot of us cultivate because we've only read his column which has a tendency (well, had a tendency – it's changed somewhat over the years) to be a bit more harsh and practical than Dan's other work. His podcast is worth checking out. At the very least, one might note that he's a partner in a long-term relationship that's lasted years, and has been married for five of those years. That's at least an indication that he's not as cynical as one might assume from a few of his columns.

Personally, I'd say this: sex researchers are generally the last people I'd go to for pronouncements on human sexuality. They're constantly saying things that are either (a) obvious or (b) wrong. Kinsey is only the most egregious example: a weirdly conflicted guy without a hint of actual science who is nonetheless fascinating and even dashing if one learns to get past that.

I'd dismissed this book somewhere on Metafilter before, largely because I don't generally approve of "we've always been wrong about this!" theories, but on Dan's recommendation I think I'll have to at least check it out.
posted by koeselitz at 3:52 PM on November 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


something: “Because a longer penis would give a female pleasure (note that the human male has the longest and thickest penis of any primate), female choice might have been a factor driving penis length to extremes among primates.”

anniecat: “This isn't true. I'm sure it's relative to the size or elasticity of the vagina. Not getting why you linked penis size with "natural" but I think women care more about girth than length, if it's a choice between the two. Being poked in the cervix with a penis is uncomfortable.”

I have no idea what you're quoting from, but it might be true. I mean, there are other primates with two-inch penises.
posted by koeselitz at 3:57 PM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


I am about 2 chapters in to this book. It is interesting so far, though it suffers from the same kinds of excessive pontification I find in a lot of pop sociology.

So far I would recommend it.

I understand that they never really get to any solutions in this book, mostly sticking to pointing out the problems.
posted by poe at 3:57 PM on November 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


When they get a time machine and get some actual evidence, I'll be interested. In the meantime, it's all Clan of the Cave Bear without the good plot.
posted by jb at 4:05 PM on November 5, 2010 [15 favorites]


I read most of it before giving up. I was annoyed that the first 200 pages tell you why everyone on earth is wrong about sex and all anthropology and biology researchers are wrong and why everyone brought their religion into early human study and how we've been wrong-headed ever since.

Then it feels like once the book is 3/4 of the way done, they FINALLY get to some evidence supporting why their interpretation of sex among humans might be correct. The whole book threw me off because it felt almost like reading a manifesto of the unibomber or a 9/11 truther where they spend the majority of their effort recounting how everyone on earth is wrong except them, before they ever present any reasons why you should consider their viewpoint as truthful.

Overall, even if you get on board with the authors it ends up being a kind of depressing reality presented -- we've got the nature to have casual sex much more than we do, and if you want to act exactly like a bonobo, you might be having sex with 3-4 partners per day and it should be no big deal, but life as we know it in western culture is pretty much the opposite of that. Dan Savage loves the book because it supports a lot of the advice he gives which is basically if you don't feel like you get enough sex you should talk your partner into letting you have several friends with benefits, which strikes me as crazy talk outside of flip relationships in college.

I mean, I know polyamorous relationships like the ones the book and Savage describes are possible, it just seems like an incredible rarity to find two people that feel some connection and commitment but are also both cool with loads of casual sex on the side.
posted by mathowie at 4:07 PM on November 5, 2010 [31 favorites]


Koeselitz, it's the hyperlink in "natural" in the original post. This is the link http://www.neoteny.org/neoteny/a/testiclesize.html

I guess maybe someone out there might like to get poked in the cervix, maybe part of a pain thing, I don't know. Ouch. But I'm not saying they'd prefer a thick two inches erect. I mean, isn't the average like five inches flaccid?
posted by anniecat at 4:07 PM on November 5, 2010


I had read the book. The real problem is that having discovered what they believe to have been our sexual habits in pre-agricultural ways they assume that it can be a corrective to how we do things now in a post agricultural way. Problem is that the studies of those who have open marriages etc do not indicate that this is a way to solve divorce and the mess of infidelity. In sum: they note that things change in agricultural way of life but want us to live as though we
had not become a part of that change. Fat chance.
posted by Postroad at 4:09 PM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have to erase the link to the NSFW video before he thinks I like watching that kind of stuff in my spare time. I suppose it's immature of me, but that was really gross.
posted by anniecat at 4:10 PM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


I mean, isn't the average like five inches flaccid?

Without knowing why, millions of male internet denizens just started weeping.
posted by kittyprecious at 4:15 PM on November 5, 2010 [12 favorites]


anniecat: “I mean, isn't the average like five inches flaccid?”

I'm not going to talk about this part, I just wanted to put this out there, as it seems like an interesting impression to have. For reference, tumescence generally (in my limited experience of a small number of penises) doubles the length or at least adds half again as much length. There are variations in this, I think; this is just an estimate on my part. I would welcome debate on this point.

Anyway.

The quote also mentions girth, though; so presumably other primates have penises that are short and skinny. You're right that nobody likes getting poked in the cervix; all I meant was that it's entirely likely that that was never a problem before you females did your selecting-the-bigger-penises thingie.
posted by koeselitz at 4:15 PM on November 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Human penis size has been widely studied... It seems average erect penis size is someplace between 5-6" in length, depending on who is doing the study. Flaccid penis size is, on average, around 4".
posted by hippybear at 4:16 PM on November 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


What is this, some kinda naturalistic fallacy applied to sex? Even if you accept what they say and decide to go with the flow, it's still an informed choice at this point and you can make other choices too.
posted by fleetmouse at 4:19 PM on November 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


poe: "I understand that they never really get to any solutions in this book, mostly sticking to pointing out the problems"

mathowie: "Overall, even if you get on board with the authors it ends up being a kind of depressing reality presented -- we've got the nature to have casual sex much more than we do, and if you want to act exactly like a bonobo, you might be having sex with 3-4 partners per day and it should be no big deal, but life as we know it in western culture is pretty much the opposite of that. "

Yeah. I saw Ryan speak at the U of Chicago last night, and he stated that the book was never intended to be proscriptive, but rather to explore why our culture is experiencing so much sexual dysfunction, divorce, depression, etc. He & his wife (coauthor Jethá) live in Barcelona, where they feel cultural attitudes toward sex and the desire for it are somewhat less stifling.

I didn't actually get the impression that he was advocating for people to open up their relationships at all; rather, that we understand why we/our partners have those feelings, and accept them as human and natural rather than aberrant or weak.
posted by kitarra at 4:21 PM on November 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


Sex at Dawn, eh? I wasn't aware that dueling was back in style, but I like this turn for the louche.
posted by boo_radley at 4:21 PM on November 5, 2010 [11 favorites]


This is just lazy thinking. They're positing the existence of a prehistorical situation in which cultural forces were presumably not in play to justify their view that one kind of sexual relationship is more natural than another, which is so obviously a specious and useless line of reasoning. Sexual behavior has, as far as we can know, always been a social phenomenon, and the fact that there may have been prevalent sexual practices in the past which were non-monogamous does not prove or establish anything about this other questionable cultural construct, human nature. And further, there are many cultural situations extant in the world now in which monogamy is not necessarily the norm. Monogamy isn't even the norm in cultures where it's the expectation. People are constantly "cheating" and shit. This is just more evo psych nonsense.
posted by clockzero at 4:25 PM on November 5, 2010 [23 favorites]


I interviewed Dr. Ryan for TIME.com recently—and I think a lot of people misinterpret their ideas because they think the alternative to monogamy is casual sex with strangers. What they're saying is that our ancestors probably had lots of sex with many people they knew very well, which is a rather different thing.

They're also saying, with Sarah Hrdy, that the basic unit of human social life is the extended family or band, not the nuclear family and that basing family life on monogamy and being brutal about ending relationships for nonmonogamy in a highly individualistic society that doesn't provide things like childcare and other social support for single mothers is not exactly good for children.
posted by Maias at 4:26 PM on November 5, 2010 [22 favorites]


From what I have seen it feels like this territory has already been covered by The Myth of Monogamy, Biological Exuberance, and Desmond Morris. I will gladly read it when I can get a used copy but I am not nearly as excited as Dan is.
posted by munchingzombie at 4:36 PM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


There has been many a time when I wished I had a village to help us raise our child. I'm not sure how I feel about all the sex (and frankly find it awfully disturbing to picture sex with any of my close friends) but I'd be very much in favour of the extended family band making a comeback.
posted by Go Banana at 4:37 PM on November 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


The Scandinavian countries seem to have gotten closest to something that approximates "bands" and "extended family" with liberal sexuality in the industrialized world. They've got low marriage rates, and not so low divorce rates but most children wind up in two-parent families (not necessarily 2 bio parent) and everyone gets affordable childcare and family leave. They consistently score at the top of world charts for happiness, health and longevity— and low on inequality, a fact that is not unrelated to the high scores and is another thing they share with the early human lifestyle, which was very egalitarian.
posted by Maias at 4:49 PM on November 5, 2010 [6 favorites]


we've got the nature to have casual sex much more than we do

Yeah, but isn't it interesting that we don't? We have the instincts… a glance at AskMe any random day could confirm that. But even when it comes pre-programmed, we're not all out there having Bonobo-sex with our neighbors. Our society has constructed complicated behavioral norms quite to the contrary, for I'm guessing very rational reasons.

Humans are funny. I wonder what percentage of our problems are due strictly to our intellectual evolution outpacing the evolution of our physical bodies. Probably a huge number. It's like how our bodies are programmed to like sweets because glucose is in high contention for carbon-based lifeforms and fruits tend to be chock-full of essential dietary vitamins. But then we go house on a bag of Pixie Sticks and Fun Dip. For now we just have to deal with higher rates of diabetes until our bodies catch up.

Same goes with relationships. Human intellectual capacity gives enormous bargaining power for genetic determination. Sure, you might not be the best looking, strongest Ape in the bunch, but in return for your monogamy you buy yourself genetic longevity. The Bonobo male has absolutely no guarantee his genes will be the ones to pass along; what's fascinating (at least to me) is that he doesn't seem to care at all.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:54 PM on November 5, 2010 [7 favorites]


Sexual taboos are also universal within the human species, not just in neolithic agrarian societies.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 5:03 PM on November 5, 2010


find it awfully disturbing to picture sex with any of my close friends

I have pictured sex with well over half of my close friends. I guess testosterone is the crystal meth of hormones.

San Francisco (where i live) is also very different when it comes to these norms.
posted by poe at 5:03 PM on November 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


The Bonobo male has absolutely no guarantee his genes will be the ones to pass along; what's fascinating (at least to me) is that he doesn't seem to care at all.

If I was having that much sex, all day every day, I too wouldn't care about much of anything.
posted by Forktine at 5:06 PM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Not to be that guy that dooms reasoned debate, but arguments from nature are fallacious. Rape is natural. Doesn't mean that it's good or that our society is dysfunctional for discouraging it.
posted by klangklangston at 5:07 PM on November 5, 2010 [12 favorites]


It's hardly my specialty, but pre- and/or marginally agrarian sexuality is fairly well studied and documented. And, just as one example, while Amazonian orgiastic festivals where women can have sex with anyone they like do occur and can take place without remorse or ill-feelings on any side, I'll also never forget seeing the tears in the eyes of one woman's husband, shrugging and saying "Of course it makes me sad, but you know, what can you do." I don't recall the name of the documentary though.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 5:08 PM on November 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm not here to complain about Scandinavians for whom much love (of course), but the family formation practices of the last few decades of about one-third of one percent of the world populations -- say 0.003x of the human population for 0.001x of its organized social history -- says very little about human development. Indeed, if they says anything, given that Scandinavian fertility rates are well below replacement, it probably goes to argue what aren't adaptive behaviors.

I haven't read the article (or, it goes without saying, the book), but I do wonder if they draw "evidence" from modern hunter-gatherer bands. That's always struck me as deeply sketchy as a source of ur-human-social practice. Modern hunter-gatherer bands may have stayed in that state precisely because they preserved some highly non-adaptive social practices but managed to keep to a geographic niche where they weren't competed into oblivion by tribes (and nations) with more adaptive practices. The majority practices of pre-historical societies may look a lot more like the majority practices of large modern societies because large modern societies are the lineal successors of those more adaptively successful pre-historical societies.
posted by MattD at 5:20 PM on November 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


being brutal about ending relationships for nonmonogamy

That's a strange word choice. Surely you don't mean to imply that people are somehow obligated to remain with someone they don't want to, because breaking up would be an act of cruelty?
posted by enn at 5:38 PM on November 5, 2010


Sitting in front of a glowing rectangle for eight hours a day has massive advantages, and it is generally what I choose to do. I also recognize that it isn't how we evolved, so doing things to mitigate the harm is probably a good idea. I don't have any problem with folks who don't do that, but I don't always understand the choices they make.

It seems to me that this is similar. The sexual behaviors and norms we have suit a lot of people, and have some distinct advantages. Realizing that we may not have evolved in this way allows us to have a new perspective on these choices and mitigate some of the problems that they cause.
posted by poe at 5:50 PM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]



being brutal about ending relationships for nonmonogamy

That's a strange word choice. Surely you don't mean to imply that people are somehow obligated to remain with someone they don't want to, because breaking up would be an act of cruelty?


No, what I mean is look at the massive pasting Hillary Clinton took for *staying with* Bill after he cheated. There's this idea that if someone cheats on you, it's the "feminist" or "self respecting" thing to do to dump them— staying together for the kids is seen as wimpy or something. I was certainly not suggesting that people stay with people when they are miserably unhappy. But I also think it's really weird that people get judged harshly in America for staying and for having "arrangements" or "don't ask/don't tell" kind of situations. Especially when they get attacked for doing so by people who supposedly are "thinking of the children."

Regarding the Scandinavian countries, actually Iceland is over replacement (or at least it was before the crash). And obviously human nature is complex and contradictory but cultures that are what my co-author calls "biologically respectful" tend to have more thriving, happy people than those which force large numbers of people into lives for which we're not well suited.

Natural isn't always good— no one is saying that. But if you put people in situations—for example, raising children in an isolated way with little social support— for which our biology is not well-adapted, it will be extremely stressful. We can either work with our biological tendencies or fight against them— sometimes the latter is the right thing to do. But when you do that, it's a lot harder and you really ought to have a good reason for doing it.
posted by Maias at 6:01 PM on November 5, 2010 [6 favorites]


Jealousy over paternity would not have been an issue because without permanent homes or difficult-to-replace individual belongings, inheritance was moot; also, the cultures would tend toward belief in partible paternity, in which all a woman's sex parters contribute to the creation of her fetus.

This strikes me as wishful thinking. Many, many species, including apes, will go so far as to KILL the offspring of a desirable mate before having sex with her, to insure that her mind is 100% focuses on caring for THEIR offspring. Now, obviously humans aren't going around doing that, but still, this is about the most blatant appeal to nature I've ever seen.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:01 PM on November 5, 2010 [5 favorites]


And, just as one example, while Amazonian orgiastic festivals where women can have sex with anyone they like do occur and can take place without remorse or ill-feelings on any side, I'll also never forget seeing the tears in the eyes of one woman's husband, shrugging and saying "Of course it makes me sad, but you know, what can you do." I don't recall the name of the documentary though.

I'm confused... if there were no ill-feelings on any side, why was the husband crying? and said he was sad?
posted by marble at 6:13 PM on November 5, 2010


Something backwards about this. Human sexuality is variable because of culture, not in spite of it. Am I wrong? Most animals have very fixed patterns of sexuality, even the point that lots of animals only mate in certain geographical locations, or at specific times which can be years apart. Once animals evolved to the point that they had culture, then you see the big variations in personal and cultural practices. The narrative of natural instinctual freedom vs. cultural restriction is false, instincts are much more restrictive, so culture creates the possibility for freedom, not nature. Yes, it also creates taboos and prohibitions, but even this is much more complex than it first appears, because transgressing prohibitions is exciting. Maybe part of the reason taboos exist is for this very purpose, to make breaking them more exciting. This would mean that culture is inconsistent, irrational, or hypocritical - it prohibits what it also encourages. What's prohibited is made erotic - the obvious example is nudity, which is only erotic in societies where it is taboo to walk around naked. This irrationality is what makes freedom possible, because between those two opposing poles, you as an individual have to decide what to do. The law is crazy, so you have to find your own way.

Paradoxically, Dan Savage's desire for the rules to be consistent and rational is ultimately what threatens to make him into the authoritarian master who demands that we obey, do our duty and have more sex with more people in as many orifices as possible. No-one is fooled when you speak about society's dysfunctions compared to the supposed pre-agrarian lost utopia that just so happens to fit perfectly into your ideology.

But I think can say at least one positive thing about this book, it sounds like it could make a very good screenplay for the porn version of Avatar.
posted by AlsoMike at 6:27 PM on November 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


I so wanted it to be this Christopher Ryan.
posted by scruss at 6:42 PM on November 5, 2010


Clan of the Cave Bear without the good plot.

Dude, that is Clan of The Cave Bear.
posted by smoke at 6:43 PM on November 5, 2010 [11 favorites]


I doubt one can generalize any sexual theory to fit most humans. My guess is that there are several gene promoters acting in an analog fashion (like the vole vasopressin "monogamy" receptor) which create the wide spectrum of human sexual behavior.

Evolution would predict that any monoculture of sexual behavior would lead to exceptions gaining an advantage, e.g. in the land of the swingers monogamy may offer an advantage (STDs, defined parentage, etc.) and vice versa.
posted by benzenedream at 6:46 PM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


They're not saying that promiscuity is natural or necessary.

They're saying that monogamy is not natural or necessary, nor is polygamy. Rather, they are products of culture.

This is obviously counter to a prevailing narrative where non-monogamy is deviant, unnatural, inherently dramatic, doomed to get someone shot, bad for children, etc.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:50 PM on November 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


Oh and anniecat?

I like monogamy. Keeps me STD free, thanks, and free to think about other things I want to do or learn (like raquetball) than looking for zipless fucks in the park to get satisfied in a time of need.


Yeah that's not a requirement of non-mongamy. Some of us even manage to do or learn other things.

Although in a recent Animal Behavior class that focused on mating systems, my notes list the main drawbacks for non-monogamy in female birds as:

STDs
loss of parental assistance
too much time on OKCupid


lose-knit resource sharing societies in which sex was a resource that, like food, was freely shared

There are going to be losers in this. Like there's always going to be someone who can't get laid and some people who get laid all the time with people waiting their turn to get with that person. Also, sex would be a limited resource. Like with money. Some people are getting paid tons and some people are stuck being paid under the table, under minimum wage.


This is more likely to be the result of mate-guarding harem polygamy (as in elephant seals), not the kind of non-monogamy that the authors are talking about.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:54 PM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


I like monogamy. Keeps me STD free, thanks

You're very welcome. Get back to us about how much you like it in 10-15 years.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:05 PM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Get back to us about how much you like it in 10-15 years.
In 10-15 years I'll have been married 44-49 years . . . I like it too. Though the absence of STDs has never really been the motivation.

Sex as a resource is a remarkably reductionist way to explain human relationships, though. Sort of like the utilitarian beliefs of the Benthamites or free-market enthusiasts. Or UFOlogists. The One True Explanation.

I'm perfectly willing to believe that there's a human urge toward promiscuity, just as there's a bunch of other human urges. It's never as simple an explanation as folks would like to think, though. I've been reading all these pseudo-anthropological/historical explanations of human sexuality since Desmond Morris's The Naked Ape and I'm not convinced any of it is anything but wishful thinking and hackneyed "savage man" fantasies that only look silly to us a decade later when we're on to another enthusiasm.
posted by Peach at 7:23 PM on November 5, 2010 [11 favorites]


This is more likely to be the result of mate-guarding harem polygamy (as in elephant seals), not the kind of non-monogamy that the authors are talking about.

I never googled "elephant seals" before, and I did just now because of what you wrote ("I have to see one," I thought to myself), and I want to thank you because I just bought a lovely animal calendar because of the googling of "elephant seal."
posted by anniecat at 7:33 PM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Get back to us about how much you like it in 10-15 years.

Maybe if I were married to you...but bless your grim heart because you, sir, are sorely in need of a Playful Kittens calendar.
posted by anniecat at 7:50 PM on November 5, 2010 [10 favorites]


This strikes me as wishful thinking. Many, many species, including apes, will go so far as to KILL the offspring of a desirable mate before having sex with her, to insure that her mind is 100% focuses on caring for THEIR offspring.

Actually, it probably has more to do with ensuring she's fertile. Nursing suppresses fertility, and of course, if she's raising someone else's baby, that's a competitor's offspring. Some other males of harem-guarding species do the same thing.

It's interesting that bonobos didn't take this route too, yet seem to have survived as well as chimps (till we came along and started killing both).

There is nothing natural for humanity, except maybe a curious mind and a fear of death. All the rest is experimentation. That said, it's worthwhile to have someone point out how likely it is that in the vast blank spaces of human history for which we have no record, there is no reason to think that everyone followed the classic patriarchy pair-bond model. Given enough resources, competent caretakers, and safety from predators, human offspring will survive no matter their culture. Matriarchy, polygamy, celibate tribes propagating by kidnapping other tribes' children--it probably all happened at least once, somewhere.
posted by emjaybee at 8:31 PM on November 5, 2010


Many, many species, including apes, will go so far as to KILL the offspring of a desirable mate before having sex with her....

Many scientists believe humans do this too! But this is a lively ongoing debate.
posted by miyabo at 9:26 PM on November 5, 2010


I never googled "elephant seals" before, and I did just now because of what you wrote ("I have to see one," I thought to myself), and I want to thank you because I just bought a lovely animal calendar because of the googling of "elephant seal."

If you're ever in Northern California in the winter, head out to Año Nuevo - a little more than an hour or so south of San Francisco - where elephant seals haul out to mate, birth, and sleep. You can take a docent-guided walk to one of the beaches where they hang out and they are amazing.
posted by rtha at 9:39 PM on November 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Most animals have very fixed patterns of sexuality...

All animals have fixed patterns of behavior, with variations.
posted by ovvl at 10:26 PM on November 5, 2010


I haven't read the book, but did listen to the podcast. Note, I am very pro-alternative-relationship-model.

So, I started off irritated by all of the unsupported assertions, including that jealousy didn't exist in ye olden pre-agrarian groups (uh, how could anyone prove this?)

And then toward the end, the author started actually making sense and explaining his thesis more clearly. Sigh.
posted by desuetude at 10:38 PM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Civil_Disobedient: The Bonobo male has absolutely no guarantee his genes will be the ones to pass along; what's fascinating (at least to me) is that he doesn't seem to care at all.

How could he possibly care about such an abstract thought? He's a fucking ape.
posted by ericost at 10:57 PM on November 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


Mammals are very, very rarely socially monogamous.

Even socially monogamous animals are called "socially" monogamous because extra-pair copulations are certain to happen.

So monogamy, for mammals, is not what I would consider the default.

That's not to say that it's bad; just that it's not "natural".

Keep in mind that they're arguing against the "natural"-ness of polygamy (practically speaking, polygyny) in humans as well.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:00 PM on November 5, 2010


Like there's always going to be someone who can't get laid and some people who get laid all the time with people waiting their turn to get with that person.

Just like now!
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:01 PM on November 5, 2010


Forgot to relate that to the bonobo:

1. If the other males are related to him then he will be related to the offspring anyway
2. Even socially monogamous animals (again, uncommon in mammals) have no guarantee that their genes are getting passed along
3. If it is their offspring, they don't have to worry about the other males killing it
4. If they were guarding their mate, they wouldn't have as much time to forage, sex other bonobos, exchange grooming, etc.
5. His sperm might do the fighting for him...sperm competition!
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:07 PM on November 5, 2010


It's so cute when people attempt to justify their behavior with a pseudobiological claim that human's aren't 'wired to be monogamous.'

If spreading it around is what you want to do, then great. Have at it. Doesn't bother me a bit. Just leave science out of it.
posted by yellowcandy at 11:55 PM on November 5, 2010


He's a fucking ape.

More like: How could he possibly care about such an abstract thought? He's an ape, fucking.
posted by Forktine at 12:04 AM on November 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm not seeing the relevance of some of the links in the post. The pre-agrarian link goes to an article about a contemporary hunter-gatherer society in which most people are serial monogamists (and some are life-long monogamists), yet it's used in a sentence asserting that this type of society would share sex "freely," apparently like bonobos (the next link). The contribute link is about sperm competition, not about partible paternity. Belief in partible paternity either in terms of fetus development, or in terms of polyandrous family units obviously isn't the only road to sperm competition.

At any rate, I can't listen to the podcast now (is there a transcript?), but what I'm wondering is why wouldn't sexual behavior change along with changes in social structures? In other words, why would the socio-sexual practices of pre-agrarian humans be more "normal" for us than whatever we've developed over time?

Pre-agrarian cultures lived in small tribes, while we mostly live in dense populations; pre-agrarian cultures didn't use money or have personal possessions, and had extremely limited mobility, while we obviously don't. In pre-agrarian societies, every child would be viewed as important to the continued existence of the tribe, so everyone would be invested in keeping that child alive and healthy. In modern western society, only the mother, father, and — nominally — the government are significantly invested in nurturing the child. In modern society, survival and fitness depend on the concept of wealth and possession, and so family units do care about issues like inheritance and resource guarding. Modern people are not tied to any one place or community, so the personal and social consequences of failing to provide for offspring are not necessarily onerous, and almost unlimited mobility also means that disease transmission is a much greater risk and consequence of promiscuity. So why would it be more natural for us to act in ways that are incompatible with the society that we've developed (for better or worse)?

And how does it make sense that human male penis and testicle size argue for promiscuity, ostensibly to insure the passage of genetic material, while the actual practice of promiscuity in our society means that those gene-inheritors will be more at risk from poverty, etc., if the father isn't around to help insure survival? Impregnation obviously isn't the end-all and be-all of passing along your genes. Doesn't it make more sense that some combination of biological imperative and social modification of same is a natural human tendency? Our bodies don't evolve as quickly as our technology, so there are lags and discrepancies. The fact that we want to eat a lot more than we need to eat is one example of this. We don't then say that this is the best way to behave, and oh, look, the bonobos eat as many bananas as they want, and we should, too.

But I haven't read the book, so I'm not sure what the take-away is supposed to be; the last sentence of the post is a little confusing, but it's saying that according to the authors we shouldn't condemn changes that would make our social environments more like some some earlier period in our evolution (presumably pre-agrarian?), because it worked well back then? Does this mean more than just sexual behavior?

I don't think we have the ideal arrangement now, socially or sexually... In fact, I think the "ideal" would look much, much different, but they are inextricably linked. Monogamy, for all I know, may be one of the worst forms of sexual expression a society can adopt, but in a society that places very little value on cooperation and altruism and a very high value on competition and individual gratification, it may be the best we can manage at the moment.
posted by taz at 1:42 AM on November 6, 2010 [6 favorites]


From some of the more erudite articulations in the comments about the authors' premise, its seems like they're arguing the case for more social arrangements such as the Hindu Undivided Family (HUF or joint family) system (for a non agrarian, modern day example) than the narrow nuclear family based on strict external rules without social networks and support for the case of "family" or "children". (After all, one hopes one is marrying a man not a bonobo ape but I digress)

Somewhere along the line, as academics are wont to do, the authors have digressed and derailed themselves into needing to justify the value of "the village to raise a child" concept being more resilient, especially during times of upheaval than the current individualistic structures and media constructed mores they have observed.

Plus, their publisher told them "sex sells" and mother in laws don't ;p

I was the first born of the eldest of seven brothers, and my mom was young and in love with her husband and had younger sisters who wanted to play house. I was spoilt rotten by uncles and aunts until about age 4 and probably not as much with "mom" per se... I see my younger sister bring up her son along with hte help her housekeeper (who is devoted to the kid) and assorted relatives (not as much) in modern day nuclear - what this means is that when she gets cranky she's NOT taking it out on the kid but sending him off to play with hte cook or driver. (labour is affordable in the third world plus its trickle down economics)

When I moved to the US in my early thirties and saw the challenges so many women in my culture faced in bringing up their children "all by themselves" (but they'd band together to help out with each other's kids in response to that isolating milieu) I'll be honest that it was one of the many other factors taht made me think about having children outside of the support system/affordable help ecosystem.

Anyone done a study on how many housewives were afternoon alcoholics in the heyday of the fifties (and Leave it to Beaver?)

/end ramble
posted by The Lady is a designer at 4:42 AM on November 6, 2010


Riffing off of The Lady is a designer here: The extended family is still a big part of Pakistani culture (and desi culture in general, so far as I can tell). While the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship is the classic stereotype for "relationships that are usually dysfunctional," in fact, an awful lot of kids spend a lot of afternoons and/or evenings with their grandmothers. Younger sisters, in particular, usually spend a lot of time babysitting elder siblings' offspring.

An interesting class distinction in my experience is that men, whether they be fathers, uncles, elder brothers, or elder cousins, do more childcare things in less affluent families, where there aren't cooks/nannies/drivers to play with the child underfoot.

The corollary to that is that when you uproot a child from the extended family setting and take them to a country where the nuclear family is the norm, it can be quite traumatic, because not only do they no longer have a horde of adoring adults around them, but also, their parents are totally stressed out from being suddenly hit with having to be parents on their own.

None of which says anything about monogamy or polygamy, really, so sorry for the derail.
posted by bardophile at 5:08 AM on November 6, 2010


None of which says anything about monogamy or polygamy, really, so sorry for the derail.

Unless its the part about the extended family groups also involving "sexual sharing" as mentioned upthread somewhere... but ek chader maili si isn't something that we discuss on the blue ;p
posted by The Lady is a designer at 5:28 AM on November 6, 2010


How could he possibly care about such an abstract thought?

My point is that there's no biological, genetic advantage in this behavior. A Bonobo male would stick his dick in a pot of honey if you warmed it up ahead of time.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:30 AM on November 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sex at Dawn, eh? I wasn't aware that dueling was back in style, but I like this turn for the louche.

Sword-fighting amirite?
posted by modernnomad at 5:49 AM on November 6, 2010 [1 favorite]



And how does it make sense that human male penis and testicle size argue for promiscuity, ostensibly to insure the passage of genetic material, while the actual practice of promiscuity in our society means that those gene-inheritors will be more at risk from poverty, etc.,


Well in Sex at Dawn they argue that evolution has occured since the advent of agriculture, possibly to select for monogamy. They cheekily posit that as an explanation for population differences in penis size.
posted by idle at 6:58 AM on November 6, 2010


Don't forget that humans in industrialized societies live longer than people did in prehistoric times.

So, if you think about what goes on in the average university dorm residence, it's fair to say that humans still do live in extended bands of individuals, and fuck like crazy.

Who knows, if pre-agrarian folks lived longer they may have eventually settled down, like we do.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:42 AM on November 6, 2010


Soooo when do I get my orgiastic post-scarcity socialist utopia?
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 10:57 AM on November 6, 2010


The idea isn't that hunter/gathers didn't "settle down"— the idea is that settling down didn't look like sexual monogamy centered on a nuclear family. It could have involved social monogamy—ie, raising children with one guy—without sexual monogamy in an extended family situation. It could have involved women raising children collectively and partnering with different men from time to time.

A university dorm is pretty much as far as possible from the hunter/gatherer kind of thing as you can get as it is age-segregated (ie, they're all young people), the people who didn't grow up together and are rarely kin to each other, and there isn't much child-rearing going on.
posted by Maias at 1:37 PM on November 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


I immediately thought of "Oryx and Crake" by Atwood. The "Crakers" were designed by Crake to fit this model.
posted by futz at 2:34 PM on November 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


"Hi, my name is Girth."

"Don't you mean Garth?"

"No, it's Girth."

"Very pleased to meet you."
posted by bwg at 5:19 PM on November 6, 2010


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