Tuesday, January 18, 2011

My Response to Bob Y’s comment on “Sex at Dawn”

Thanks for you comment on my post on "Sex at Dawn" (December 18, 2010). Here is my response.
Yes, modern sexuality is complex and bewildering, because, as “Sex at Dawn” maintains, we don’t recognize that we are apes, or, more to the point of your comments, we are still apes. Sexually, we tend to act like apes, specifically our closest ape cousins, chimpanzees and bonobos, and we chafe at the restrictions of monogamy. We and these two other species evolved to live in foraging bands, in which all is shared: food, sex, and the perils in the environment. Before the rise of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, our ancestors had to depend for survival on the other members of the band with what Ryan and Jethá call fierce egalitarianism. Nothing like that exists today in our agricultural or post-agricultural world. We left interdependent foraging bands behind for the advantages of agriculture, namely a steady food supply and a settled existence that in some ways was less dangerous than foraging, which necessitated fending off predators.
However, agricultural societies have features that can be viewed as disadvantages, especially compared to the dynamics of foraging bands. Perhaps most important is the loss of equality between the sexes. Although equality in the bands is not complete, males and females have sex with many partners within and outside the band. As a result, the paternity of offspring is both not known and not an issue; the offspring are members of the band and are raised communally by the band.
However, with agriculture came the concepts of paternity and of private property. Farm land is possessed and passed down from father to son. The land becomes the most important possession the father has, and he wants to be sure that it is passed down to the one who is without doubt his son. Paternity must no longer be unknown, as in the band, and, in order to insure that the son has one father, known without doubt, the mother must have only the father as a sex partner. In order to enforce this arrangement, the woman becomes the father’s property, controlled as strictly as the land.
Also, with agriculture, came produce. With excess produce came trading, and with trading came trading centers that became cities. Cities developed a ruling class of administrators to regulate trade and priests to mediate between man and a distant, exalted God who was worshipped in the hope of ensuring good crops and peace. Or not. Because land was of ultimate value, agriculture also led to armies that waged war to defend property or to gain more. So, agriculture has much to answer for: patriarchy, monogamy, private property, cities, armies, and war, for starters.
However, as you point out, today most people live in post-agricultural, urban societies, but these are still defined to a large extent by private property and war. Although you’re correct that in many societies, especially outside the U.S., traditional extramarital arrangements have eased the strictures of monogamy, this easing chiefly benefits males without much disturbing the primary monogamous marriage. What clearly threatens monogamy, as you also point out, is the rise of women’s sexual liberation. At least in theory, women need no longer be dependent on men for support, nor do they need husbands to have children. Moreover, as with men in modern urban societies, their work outside the home can become their primary focus, and their relationships with their colleagues may become more important to them than their relationships with members of their families. With these changes, the important question today becomes how do these changes affect children? Most studies point to the advantages to children of parents who are present for their children throughout their lives. How do we insure continuity for our children while the traditional structures of patriarchy and monogamy are disappearing, and while wars continue unrelentingly? Going back to foraging bands clearly is not the answer, but in our post-agricultural, “liberated” societies, what is the way forward?

1 comment:

David Townsend said...

Without in any way wanting to gainsay the importance of children's stable relationships with their parents (and knowing first- and second-hand what a loss it is when those relationships shift unreliably), I'd suggest as well that we might consider how the data on such issues presupposes that children either get what they need from parents, or else aren't likely to get it at all. If more complex webs of adult relationships were available to kids, and if kids' zones of safety extended beyond the nuclear family's domestic space, then the stakes around parental stability would perhaps not be so desperately high in the first place. We've seen such additional supports erode even further within living memory, and surely fundamentalist screeds on the sanctity of family have been in signficant part a myopic and uncomprehending response to that erosion.