“Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality” is an exploration into human sexual evolution and societal norms.
Published in 2010, the book is the brainchild of the collaboration between authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá.
Both bring their respective fields of expertise to bear upon the subject matter, with Ryan’s background in psychology and Jethá’s experience as a medical doctor specializing in psychiatry.
In this review, I’ll be diving into an in-depth analysis of the book, covering the topics it explores, the arguments it presents, and the responses it has elicited from readers and critics alike.
As an avid reader with a keen interest in anthropology, evolutionary biology, and human behavior, I will also provide my personal insights and reactions to the authors’ propositions.
Summary of the Book
At its core, “Sex at Dawn” presents a radical departure from the standard narrative of human sexual evolution.
This standard narrative, often referred to as the “standard social science model,” generally portrays humans as naturally inclined towards monogamy, with males seeking to ensure the fidelity of their mates to ensure the survival of their offspring.
However, Ryan and Jethá challenge this theory, proposing instead that prehistoric humans were largely non-monogamous, engaging in sexual relationships with multiple partners in a cooperative, communal setting.
They argue that the advent of agriculture and property rights fundamentally changed human sexual behavior, shifting societies towards monogamy as a means to ensure the inheritance of property and wealth.
The book is divided into four parts. Part one, “On the Origin of the Specious,” lays out the authors’ argument against the standard narrative, setting the stage for their alternate theory.
Part two, “Lust in Paradise,” takes the reader on a journey through prehistoric human societies, drawing from anthropological studies and primate behavior to present an image of sexual behavior vastly different from modern norms.
Part three, “The Way We Weren’t,” focuses on the shift from the sexually liberal pre-agricultural societies to the monogamous norms of post-agricultural societies, detailing the cultural and societal changes that occurred during this period.
Finally, part four, “Sex at Dusk,” takes a deeper look at the implications of their theories and draws conclusions about the impact of these evolutionary processes on modern human sexuality.
While the book’s core argument is certainly bold and may seem controversial to some, Ryan and Jethá support their claims with extensive research from a range of disciplines, including anthropology, primatology, and psychology.
They weave together studies of prehistoric societies, observations of non-human primates, and current human sexual behaviors to create a compelling and thought-provoking narrative.
Examining “Sex at Dawn” through a critical lens, the book certainly holds a few noteworthy strengths.
Foremost among them is the authors’ audacious challenge to a deeply ingrained narrative on human sexual evolution.
The alternative perspective they present, positing that our prehistoric ancestors lived in sexually egalitarian societies, is a fresh and bold outlook that fundamentally questions societal norms.
This audacity to question, to provoke thought, and to ruffle feathers is what makes the book engaging and thought-provoking.
Furthermore, the extensive research that Ryan and Jethá have put into the book is commendable.
They draw from a wide array of fields, including anthropology, primatology, and psychology, to back their arguments.
The interdisciplinary approach offers a well-rounded view of human sexuality, tracing it from our prehistoric ancestors to the present day.
This depth of research not only strengthens their argument but also makes the book a rich resource for readers interested in the evolution of human sexuality.
However, “Sex at Dawn” is not without its weaknesses.
The main point of contention lies in the interpretation of the research and historical evidence.
Critics argue that Ryan and Jethá have selectively chosen studies and findings that support their theory, thus presenting a potentially biased view.
They are also critiqued for downplaying or outright ignoring evidence that doesn’t align with their thesis, such as instances of monogamy in hunter-gatherer societies.
Furthermore, while the book’s provocative nature is one of its strengths, it can also be seen as a weakness.
The authors’ arguments have sparked controversy and criticism, especially among anthropologists and sociologists.
Some feel that the book oversimplifies complex societal structures and underplays the role of cultural variations in shaping human sexual behavior.
On the matter of style, “Sex at Dawn” is quite accessible and well-written.
Ryan and Jethá balance academic rigor with engaging storytelling, making the book palatable to both scholarly and general readers.
However, the tone can sometimes veer into the overly casual, which may be off-putting to some readers.
Implications of the Book’s Argument
The societal implications of the theories presented in “Sex at Dawn” are profound.
By challenging the standard narrative of human sexual evolution, Ryan and Jethá compel us to reassess our perceptions of monogamy, polyamory, and sexuality in general.
If prehistoric humans were indeed polyamorous, as they suggest, then our current societal norms around monogamy are not as “natural” or “inevitable” as we might believe.
This shift in perspective can fuel conversations around sexual relationships, monogamy, and marriage, possibly leading to a more nuanced understanding of these concepts.
The authors’ assertion that monogamy is a relatively recent development in human history could, for example, open the door to discussions about alternatives to monogamy, such as open relationships or polyamory.
Beyond societal discussions, “Sex at Dawn” also impacts academic discourses in anthropology, psychology, and sociology.
It forces academics in these fields to question long-held beliefs and to re-evaluate their understanding of human sexual evolution.
The controversial nature of the book, while sparking criticism, also encourages rigorous debate, which can be beneficial in advancing knowledge and understanding in these fields.
Comparison with Other Works
“Sex at Dawn” stands in stark contrast to other works on human sexuality and evolution.
Most notable among these is the book “The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating” by David M. Buss, which supports the standard social science model that portrays humans as naturally monogamous.
Buss presents a view of human sexuality that is fundamentally rooted in Darwinian concepts of mate selection and reproduction, largely focusing on evolutionary psychology.
While both books explore the subject of human sexual evolution, they arrive at opposing conclusions.
Buss argues for an evolutionary predisposition towards monogamy, with males competing for females and engaging in long-term partnerships to ensure the survival of their offspring.
In contrast, Ryan and Jethá propose that humans naturally tend towards polyamory, a concept they believe is supported by our prehistoric ancestors’ behavior and the practices observed in hunter-gatherer societies.
The divergent viewpoints presented in these works stimulate thought and discussion, highlighting the complexities of human sexual behavior and the challenges inherent in understanding our evolutionary past.
Despite the controversies, it’s clear that “Sex at Dawn” offers a unique contribution to the dialogue on human sexuality, nudging readers and researchers alike to question existing narratives and examine the roots of our behaviors more critically.
Personal Reflection and Conclusion
On a personal note, “Sex at Dawn” was a fascinating read.
The authors’ fresh take on human sexual evolution challenged my perceptions, provoking me to question societal norms and the nature of relationships.
While I recognize the controversies surrounding their theories, I believe it’s necessary to stimulate such discussions in order to fully understand the nuances of human sexuality.
Despite some criticisms, I appreciate the extensive research that went into the book.
The interdisciplinary approach taken by the authors allowed for a rich and diverse exploration of the topic.
Even if one does not fully agree with their conclusions, there’s no denying that the book presents interesting ideas that encourage readers to ponder upon.
In conclusion, “Sex at Dawn” is a thought-provoking and compelling read that challenges conventional wisdom on human sexuality and relationships.
Its controversial assertions might not align with everyone’s beliefs, but the book undoubtedly sparks debate and fosters a deeper understanding of human sexuality.
It is a must-read for anyone with a keen interest in anthropology, psychology, or human behavior.
However, it’s also worth noting that the reader must approach it with an open mind, ready to question and challenge their existing perceptions.
Suggested Further Readings
For readers who are interested in exploring the subjects covered in “Sex at Dawn” further, I suggest a number of additional resources.
If you are interested in the anthropological perspective, you might want to check out books such as “The Prehistory of Sex: Four Million Years of Human Sexual Culture” by Timothy Taylor or “A Natural History of Human Sexuality: The Long Evolution of Human Mating” by Stephen G. Miller.
For an exploration of human sexuality through a psychological lens, “The Evolution of Desire” by David M. Buss, which I’ve mentioned earlier, and “The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature” by Matt Ridley, might be of interest.
Ridley’s book provides an alternative explanation to human sexual evolution, following the Red Queen hypothesis which emphasizes the evolutionary arms race between sexes.
Finally, if you’re interested in the sociological implications of human sexual behavior and monogamy, “The Monogamy Myth: A Personal Handbook for Recovering from Affairs” by Peggy Vaughan provides an intriguing exploration.
Although it is centered more around the aspect of infidelity, it provides valuable insights into the challenges and societal pressures around monogamy.
In conclusion, “Sex at Dawn” opens up a vast landscape of discussion and debate around human sexual evolution.
Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the authors’ theories, the book prompts us to question long-held beliefs and examine the complexities of human sexuality in a new light.
The book serves as a starting point for anyone interested in delving deeper into this fascinating subject.
Upon reflection, it’s time to assign “Sex at Dawn” a rating.
It’s important to consider that any rating is inherently subjective and depends heavily on individual perspective and preferences.
However, in the spirit of providing a balanced view, I will consider the book’s strengths and weaknesses, the validity and impact of its arguments, and its overall readability.
Content and Argument (4/5): “Sex at Dawn” presents a compelling, controversial, and thought-provoking argument.
The authors challenge the conventional narrative of human sexual evolution and propose an alternative theory.
While this argument may not be universally accepted, it has undeniable merit in fostering dialogue and promoting critical thinking.
Research and Scholarship (4.5/5): Ryan and Jethá have done an impressive job gathering and presenting an extensive array of research from various fields, including anthropology, primatology, and psychology.
The book’s interdisciplinary approach provides a broad, well-rounded perspective.
However, critics have raised questions about potential bias in the authors’ selection and interpretation of data.
Readability and Style (3.5/5): The book is highly readable and accessible, even for readers who are not well-versed in anthropology or evolutionary psychology.
The authors balance academic rigor with engaging storytelling, which makes for an enjoyable read.
However, at times, the informal and casual tone may seem a bit out of place in a scholarly work.
Impact and Influence (4/5): Despite its controversy, or perhaps because of it, “Sex at Dawn” has had a significant impact.
It has stirred discussions about human sexuality, monogamy, and societal norms, both within academic circles and among the general public.
Its influence on contemporary dialogues about relationships and sexuality is undeniable.
Personal Enjoyment (4/5): From a personal standpoint, I found “Sex at Dawn” to be a stimulating read.
It challenged my existing beliefs and expanded my understanding of human sexuality.
Despite my reservations about certain aspects, I appreciate the fresh perspective it offered.
Taking all these factors into account, I would give “Sex at Dawn” an overall rating of 4 out of 5 stars.
It is a well-researched, engaging, and impactful book that pushes the boundaries of our understanding of human sexual evolution.
Despite its controversies and criticisms, it is undeniably a book worth reading for those with an interest in anthropology, psychology, or human behavior.