Saturday, December 11, 2010

“Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality”

God wants abundance for all, says Isaiah: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.” (25:6) Luke tells us Jesus says that the basis of abundance is sharing: “Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.’’ (6:38) Sharing also precedes the feeding of the multitude in all four Gospels (Matthew 14:13–21, Mark 6:31-44, Luke 9:10-17 and John 6:5-15). In these stories, Jesus takes the disciples’ little bits of bread and fish, blesses them, and, lo, everyone has more than enough: “And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full” (Matthew 14:20).
In other words, sharing is God’s way. At least when it comes to food, but most definitely not when it comes to sex, according to the Bible. For example in Matthew 19:4-6, Jesus is quoted as saying: “…Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” No sharing here. As the traditional marriage ceremony says: “…and forsaking all others, (will you) be faithful to him (her) as long as you both shall live?” According to Christian tradition, monogamy in committed relationships is God’s way.
But, it is not evolution’s way. As Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá write in their new book, “Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality”, “We didn’t descend from apes, we are apes.” And we are closely related to two other apes, bonobos and chimpanzees, because just five million years ago (an evolutionary blink), they and we shared a common hypersexual ancestor, making bonobos, chimps, and, yes, us, horny and ready for sex with multiple partners all the time. Remember, a genius is someone who thinks about sex only 95% of the time.
Up until about 10,000 years ago, we, like bonobos and chimps in the wild, lived in small foraging groups of about 100 to 150 individuals who moved around to find food and who shared almost everything, including food, shelter, protection, child care, even sexual pleasure. (p6) Although romantic love was not unknown in prehistoric communities, with or without love, a casual sexuality was the norm for our prehistoric ancestors.
However, about 10,000 years ago, human life changed profoundly. We discovered farming and we settled down to farm and raise domesticated animals. We no longer foraged over large areas, but settled down and farmed. Agriculture could, in good seasons, produce food surpluses and allow more people to survive, but it also led to: “…hierarchical political structures, private property, densely populated settlements, a radical shift in the status of women, and other social configurations that together represent an enigmatic disaster for our species: human population growth mushroomed as quality of life plummeted. The shift to agriculture, wrote author Jared Diamond, is a ‘catastrophe from which we have never recovered.’ (p9) Before agriculture, our “…ancestors lived in groups where most mature individuals would have had several ongoing sexual relationships at any given time. Though often casual, these relationships were not random or meaningless.” (p9) “An individual male’s parental investment,…the core element of the standard narrative (supporting monogamy), tends to be diffuse in societies like those in which we evolved, not directed toward one particular woman and her children…” (p13) Instead hunter-gatherer societies are characterized by their fierce egalitarianism. “Sharing is not just encouraged; it’s mandatory. Hoarding or hiding food, for example, is considered deeply shameful, almost unforgivable behavior in these societies.” (p11)
Sharing, however, became a casualty of agriculture. “…it became crucially important to know where your field ended and your neighbor’s began. Remember the tenth commandment: ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house; thou shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is thy neighbour's.’ (Exodus 20:17) Clearly, the biggest loser (aside from slaves, perhaps) in the agricultural revolution was the human female, who went from occupying a central, respected role in foraging societies to becoming another possession for a man to earn and defend, along with his house, slaves, and livestock.” (p14) “Land could now be possessed, owned, and passed down the generations. Food that had been hunted and gathered now had to be sowed, tended, harvested, stored, defended, bought, and sold. Fences, walls, and irrigation systems had to be built and reinforced; armies to defend it all had to be raised, fed, and controlled. Because of private property, for the first time in the history of our species, paternity became a crucial concern.” (p 14, 15) So, perversely, agriculture, which increased food production, also restricted access to food and, because women became property, to heterosexual sex as well. Furthermore, Ryan and Jethá quote Timothy Taylor, author of “The Prehistory of Sex”: “While hunter-gatherer sex had been modeled on an idea of sharing and complementarity, early agriculturist sex was voyeuristic, repressive, homophobic, and focused on reproduction.” “Afraid of the wild, farmers set out to destroy it.” (p 14) Farming, which increased food supplies for those lucky enough to own land, also introduced scarcity for all those who were landless and poor.
Also, the focus on paternity and keeping the private land in the family in agricultural societies set us on the road to monogamy, always unlikely, because we evolved to want multiple partners, which minimizes the genetic perils of interbreeding. Even today, which after all is only 10,000 years since our foraging days, many men and women want multiple sex partners. However, “…the true story of human sexuality (is) so subversive and threatening that for centuries it has been silenced by religious authorities, pathologized by physicians, studiously ignored by scientists, and covered up by moralizing therapists.” (p2)
Monogamy is difficult and usually boring. The “bloom is off the rose” too soon, and many husbands and wives stop having frequent sex. Men can develop a roving eye and indulge in extramarital activities, leaving their wives neglected and angry. It’s not that men no longer love their wives, but rather they begin to love them as their “best friend” or “sister,” a sure sign that the incest taboo has become active. Furthermore, male and female orgasms are very different. Men can usually be aroused and ejaculate quickly. Too quickly, women complain. They often take longer to become aroused, but once they are, they want many more orgasms. And often they let anyone in earshot know their desire for more by their female copulatory vocalization (FCV). These sounds in other primates are invitations to males outside their own troop to come and mate, thus increasing the chances that their eggs will be fertilized by sperm from males unrelated to the males in the female’s group. (p257) It’s a good bet that these sounds in women evolved to serve the same purpose. Ryan and Jethá write: “This symmetry of dual disappointment (of men and women in monogamous relationships) illustrates the almost comical incompatibility between men’s and women’s sexual response in the context of monogamous mating.” If men and women evolved to be monogamous, why are they so incompatible? Ryan and Jethá suggest: “…isn’t it time to accept that our ancestors evolved along a sexual trajectory similar to that of our two highly social, very intelligent, closely related primate cousins (who evolved in promiscuous groups)?” (p245) They continue: “Perhaps the far-fetched denial of our promiscuous sexual prehistory expresses a legitimate fear of social instability, but insistent demands for a stable social order (based, as we’re often reminded, upon the nuclear family unit) cannot erase the effects of the hundreds of thousands of years that came before our species settled into stable villages.” (p246)
Furthermore, whether we’re for or against monogamy, it is failing, and with this failure, “the nuclear family unit” is disintegrating. Ryan and Jethá write: “In 2008, almost 40 percent of the mothers who gave birth in the United States were unmarried.” However, two parents are better for children than only one. Ryan and Jethá quote Caitlin Flanagan in Time magazine: “On every single significant outcome related to short-term well-being and long-term success, children from intact, two-parent families outperform those from single-parent households.” The outcomes included longevity, drug abuse, school performance, dropout rates, teen pregnancy, criminal behavior, and incarceration. (p302, 303)
The village that Hillary Clinton writes about in her book, “It Takes a Village,” can help relieve the pressure on the nuclear family and provide needed support for single parent families, but it wouldn’t restore us, our families, and our sex lives to Edenic bliss, where food and sex partners were readily available for all. A village is basically an agricultural settlement, and with the rise of villages, our foraging days ended. Moreover, improved agriculture has increased the earth’s population to unsustainable levels. In just the last 2000 years, population has grown from 170 million to nearly 7 billion. (p156) With all these people, there is no longer room to roam and forage.
We need to discover new ways to be sexual and familial in this post-foraging, post-monogamous world. As we struggle with the knowledge of our sexuality and the failure of monogamy, will the church help or hinder our efforts? It’s all too easy to dismiss the church as an impediment to sexual progress, but the Gospel is ever calling for us to be true to ourselves and thus to God. Remember John 8:31, 32: “Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’” One “word” attributed to Jesus, quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18b, is: ‘“…you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”’ (Mark 12:31, 32) If we embrace the “truth” that we are sexual beings who seek multiple partners, we may also begin to experience these partners as “neighbors.” It worked for our foraging ancestors; can it work for us, their descendants?
To read more comments on “Sex at Dawn,” go to:


Anchorholder said...

Pete, what a wonderful, full, helpfully descriptive, and thoughtful post. It makes me want to run directly to my indie bookstore (did I mention, NOT to Amazon?) for my own copy. The argument is winsome, and God knows we need new paradigms to think about how we can be loving, faithful, and communally responsible in the expression of our sexuality without falling into the trap that any of those virtues is uniquely served, or indeed even best served, by dogmatic monogamy.

I am at the same time curious to see more of the evidence the authors marshall for their descriptions of prehistoric societies, which can so easily become convenient screens for the projection of our utopian desires, as though Neolithic life looked like a nice feminist social democratic society, more or less Sweden without the telephones.


Pete M said...

Hi David,
Thanks for your comment.
I hope you do read “Sex at Dawn.” I’d love to have someone to talk to about the issues it raises. Of course, foremost among these are that we are not really built for monogamy or for agriculture, which leads to war (p13), because of conflicts over ownership of land. Among foragers there was rarely war, because land ownership wasn’t part of the foraging culture. If conflicts did develop, the foraging band split, and each resultant group went its own way.
The book makes clear that foraging bands can not really be envisioned as utopian social models for us today. First of all, there are way too many humans on earth. Before agriculture, “…most of the world was a vast, empty place in terms of human population.” (p158) At 8000 BCE, the world’s population is estimated to be about 5 million. (p 156) Now there are more than a thousand times that number of humans. There is no room left for foraging, and the habitats of bonobos, chimps, and of the few humans who still forage are shrinking daily. Secondly, there are too many distractions in the modern world to maintain the fierce egalitarianism necessary for foraging societies. (p11) Remember that when the early Christians tried communal living, it didn’t work because Ananias and Sapphira didn’t share everything they had but held something back just in case (Acts 5:1, 2). They didn’t feel that their very lives depended on sharing everything, as it does in foraging bands.
The alternative to monogamy is also difficult to imagine in modern society, particularly when children are part of the nuclear family. Children do best when they can depend on an ongoing relationship with their caregivers. Although in theory that relationship doesn’t have to be with their father and mother in a nuclear family, that is what generally works best in today’s world where extended families are often not present.
Also, as my friend Bob Y. points out in his comment (below), many societies have developed sexual arrangements alongside marriage that can take the pressure off of monogamy and usually don’t lead to divorce. However, can you imagine such an arrangement in the U.S., particularly in the political sphere? Can you imagine the wife and the mistress together attending the funeral of a U.S. politician, as they did when Mitterrand died? It ain’t gonna happen!
However, Ryan and Jethá write about Roy Romer, who in 1988 while governor of Colorado, was discovered to be having an extramarital affair. He refused to agree with the press that his affair was a betrayal of his wife and family. “Instead, he called an extraordinary press conference where he pointed out that his wife of forty-five years had known about and accepted the relationship all along. Romer confronted the tittering reporters with ‘life as it really happens.’ ‘What is fidelity?’ he asked the suddenly silent gaggle of reporters. ‘Fidelity is what kind of openness you have. What kind of trust you have, which is based on truth and openness. And so, in my own family, we’ve discussed that at some length and we tried to arrive at an understanding of what our feelings are, what our needs are, and work it out with that kind of fidelity’” (p310, 311) Notice: truth, openness, and feelings. Few people tell the truth, few people are open with others, and few know what they are feeling.
Now, with all due respect to Gov. Romer, imagine if his wife were having an affair or imagine if the governor’s lover were a man. Different rules might apply, especially in the U.S. of A. But the moral is clear: when all else fails, try the truth. Following the truth is the only way forward.