like they do on the Discovery Channel?

I wouldn’t go so far as to say “I do whatever Dan Savage tells me to do”… but I did order a copy of Sex at Dawn pretty much as soon as I read his column on the book. I’m about a third of the way through it now, and I’m loving it so much that I expect it’s going to be fodder for several more blog posts in the near future.

It’s an attempt to rewrite the narrative of human sexuality as viewed through the lens of evolutionary psychology. And let me just frame everything I’m going to say on this topic: Evolutionary psychology is a pretty soft science. People shouldn’t go claiming that Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá have proven anything with their work presented in this book. We’re not looking for proofs here, we’re looking for a compelling argument. I’ve seen a couple of forum arguments around that question of proof, and it’s stupid. So let’s not have any of those, mkay?

The standard narrative of human sexuality from an evolutionary psych perspective goes something like this: Males need to be sure their resources are going to the support of their own offspring, not someone else’s, and females need extensive support during gestation and lactation, so women trade exclusive sexual access for long-term material support — thus is born the male/female pair-bond. But men benefit genetically from spreading their seed as far and wide as they can (since sperm is cheap), and women benefit genetically from having their babies fathered by the fittest possible man, so both men and women are inclined to cheat if they can get away with it: women at their fertile times with men whose physical qualities suggest genetic superiority, and men at any time, with any fertile-looking woman.

It’s not a pretty story, but it accounts for many common observations about male and female sexual behavior. Even if you hadn’t read it laid out like this before, you’ve probably read magazine articles or advice columns that took it for granted.

Ryan and Jethá suggest a very different context for the evolution of human sexuality. They propose that humans evolved in sexually gregarious tribes, and that both male and female bodies are wired to seek lots of sex with lots of different partners. They argue that the restrictions of patriarchy and monogamy developed in response to the economic changes brought about by agriculture.

I haven’t gotten to the part where they hash that out in detail, so I’ll talk about that later. Right now the point that’s struck me most emphatically is the utter backwardness of our cultural ideas about sexuality and our animal nature. We tend to consider frequent, promiscuous sexual activity to be “animalistic,” taking us closer to our animal relatives and further from “what makes us human.” In fact the opposite is true: humans and our close relatives the bonobos may not be the only species that has sex for reasons other than reproduction, but we sure do it way more than any others. We’ve taken this reproductive act and imbued it with tremendous social and spiritual significance. The importance of sex, particularly sex that isn’t intended for reproduction, is a big part of “what makes us human.”

(Conversely, if you think about it, restricting sexual expression to baby-making is pretty animalistic. Take that, condom-hating Catholics!)

That’s what I’ve got for now. Stay tuned for more!

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