Sex at Dawn vs. sex today

There has been an undeniable shift in the conventional nuclear family over the last several decades, with increases in single parent, step-parent, grandparent and single-sex parent homes. A recent survey by the New York Times stated that as of 2009, women who gave birth under the age of 30 were for the first time less likely to be married than not. These trends, along with the rise in divorce rates seen over the last 40 years, support the relationship narrative put forward by Dr. Christopher Ryan and Dr. Cacilda Jetha in their book Sex at Dawn of long-term, semi-monogamous mates, rather than story-book life-long, monogamous marriages.

Ryan and Jetha question the naturalness of our society’s emphasis on exclusive and eternal pair-bonds. They cite the polyamorous relationship tendencies of our early ancestors and the sexual habits of our closest living relatives, free-loving bonobos and chimpanzees, as evidence that we were not always this way. They also list current hunter-gatherer societies who maintain looser definitions of sexual relations and expectations, and who have adjusted their property owning and child-rearing practices accordingly. Examples include the Curripaco tribe of Brazil, where a couple who hang their hammocks together are considered married (until one hangs her hammock elsewhere), or the Dagara of Burkina Faso, one of many societies in which every woman is called “mother” and every man “father” as questions of paternity are highly uncertain. Allocations of resources and affection are spread equally throughout these tribes, treating all as family and ensuring the well-being of every member of the community.

Ryan and Jetha’s research is wide-ranging, in-depth and highly interesting, including evidence from anthropological, biological, philosophical and historical perspectives. Their arguments are compelling and for the most part well-thought-out, identifying flaws in the standard narrative of the evolution of sexual relations. The analysis on the anatomical differences in primates as evidence for different mating styles is particularly provocative and entertaining. For example, who would’ve thought that large external testicles were an indicator of sexual competition within species, preparing the males for battle in a “sperm war” in more free-wheeling and promiscuous females? As such male gorillas, the largest living primates, have the smallest relative penis and testicle size, as they enjoy a relatively stable role in the social hierarchy and a lack of sexual competitors. And who knew that female baboons vocalize during orgasm to attract attention from other future potential male suitors? Certainly puts Meg Ryan’s famous deli scene in When Harry Met Sally into a new perspective!

However, one issue that I felt was glaringly under-addressed in their sexual manifesto was the question of jealousy. The authors acknowledge early on that this fundamental problem arises when contemplating the benefits and detriments of a more inherently promiscuous lifestyle, and promise to address the issue in full later in the book. However when the big moment arrives, they merely cite more tribes existing today who practice non-monogamous pair-bonding and communal child-rearing, and state that jealousy is not an issue in these societies. They further suggest that our deep feelings of jealousy are a learned result of our mating and marriage practices, stemming from the agricultural revolution and commoditization of women and children. There is no mention of the biological underpinnings of jealousy (thought to involve activation in the anterior cingulate cortex, the same area involved in feelings of emotional and physical pain, in case you were wondering), its potential evolutionary benefits, or its prevalence in modern society.

Now perhaps this is rather naive and un-empirical of me, but I find it difficult to swallow that the intense physiological pangs that nearly all of us have felt in the course of our romantic lives are a culturally created phenomenon. The visceral and automatic nature of these feelings would suggest that jealousy is a more organic emotion, rather than a learned response to a threat of ownership or security. Also if, as Ryan and Jetha claim, our naturally non-monogamous ways are the reason so many relationships fail, then why are we unable to evolve away from these underlying promiscuous tendencies but have developed these accompanying negative emotions in the meantime? Jealousy is a highly unpleasant experience that I would imagine few desire to feel, so why is it that we have created this emotion in ourselves that can be so painful?

For the most part, I found myself agreeing with Ryan and Jetha’s hypothesis that humans were originally a more “promiscuous” species, rejecting life-long mates in favor of short-term or non-monogamous relationships. However my question to this new narrative they present is, so what? Are we to change our dating, mating and marriage habits today because our ancestors did it differently 2 million years ago? As our lives and cultures have evolved, to the extent that they are almost incomparable to the ones maintained by our ancestors, is it not natural that our sexual and romantic relationships would change as well? And even if these behaviors are more natural to humans than the practices we hold today, could we ever feasibly go back to that way of life, even if we wanted to?

(Thanks to Jesse Sleamaker for the recommendation for this book).

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9 thoughts on “Sex at Dawn vs. sex today

    • Thanks Alison, great question! From my (very rudimentary) understanding, they do not feel jealousy in the way that we experience it, per se. Envy and jealousy are considered to be more complicated emotions than basic feelings of anger, pain, etc., involving higher cognitive functioning. However, other primates, particularly bonobos and chimps, do create inter-personal (or inter-chimp, if you like) bonds, and also experience strong competition for resources. If you view potential mates, particularly highly desirable ones, as both emotional and physical resources worthy of competition, then I suppose you could draw a conclusion they might have similar negative feelings if they then lost a mate. However, I don’t believe the feeling would be as complex as what we experience, and as their matches are much more transient, any resulting negative feelings would most likely be quite fleeting.

  1. I think you miss the point…….
    I don’t think we are all supposed to rush out and change our dating and mating habits, but it’s nice to know that it’s not “unnatural or bad ” if you feel like its something you need or desire in your own life
    The better informed we are, perhaps the less we will judge others.
    As for the jealousy question , well that’s an inner journey we choose to take, you can’t force someone to look at themselves that deeply.

    • Thanks for the comment. I agree, I don’t think the authors are recommending we all revert back to the mating habits of bonobos. But I do feel that with much of the evolutionary anthropology work there is a question of, so what? What do we do with this information? Perhaps it is just there to help us better understand ourselves and our own behaviors. However, my issue with the thesis laid out by the authors is that they do seem to be suggesting, to some extent, that we would be happier and it would be more “natural” if we removed some of the constraints placed upon us by modern relationship expectations of monogamy. Certainly open relationships or more short-term bonds work for some, but in those individuals who experience jealousy, whether it is an inherent or learned response, what can these individuals do besides just ‘get over it’?

  2. I appreciate the sentiment in your final paragraph that our lives and cultures have changed radically from the conditions that shaped or evolution for eons. The main point of S@D is that our evolution shaped our sexual behavior i.e. sex and relationships are more than social or cultural constructs. Culture (in fashion as in romance) can change much faster than our bodies can evolve. For those who find modern monogamy difficult (which are multitudes) because it requires suppressing very strong urges, the book explains the hard-wiring we are trying to overcome.

  3. Through the magic of Twitter, I was fortunate enough to be able to have a discussion with one of the book’s authors, Dr. Christopher Ryan (@ChrisRyanPhD), on some of the issues raised in this post. His comments on the jealousy issue were that “Jealousy results from cultural channeling of a biological feeling, like our disgust for certain arbitrary foods” (he specifically cited Vegamite, for my Australian readers). He also expressed that jealousy was a re-framing of the basic feelings of fear of loss and unfairness.

    Thanks to Dr. Ryan for taking the time to respond, and you can see the whole conversation on my Twitter account (@SmithDanaG) if you’re interested!

  4. I personally agree that jealousy might be a learned response (using known pathways). Just think that in some places and cultures, a husband will feel that “intense physiological pang” when their wife merely smiles at someone else, to the point of becoming violent. We don’t. Have we unlearned that extreme jealousy ? Or is all jealousy an acquired behaviour, encouraged by pervasive cultural patterns ? I suspect the latter is true, as I have personally not felt /any/ jealousy when my wife told me she loved someone else (after 21 years together) but that she still lvoed me too and still wanted to live with me.

    I suspect that in an environment when nobody ever imagines that they can call the other ‘mine’, feelings of love and claims of territoriality never get mixed.

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