Sex at Dawn, New Culture, and the roots of polyamory
I recently came back, dazzle-eyed and amazed, from the ten-day Network for a New Culture Summer Camp East in the mountains of West Virginia. Summer Camp East is mostly the creation of cultural activists Michael Rios and Sarah Taub, well known in the poly world. Both of them come from hard-science backgrounds. Summer Camp is an experiment — a sort of cultural petri dish in the woods designed to explore new models of human community based on radical transparency, communication, trust, intimacy, and self-responsibility.
Most days at Summer Camp revolve around various workshops that engender, expose, and test these values — laboratory exercises in community-creation. The setting is partly clothing-optional. Attendees are expected to "co-create" the camp experience, in a supple environment of curiosity, individual choice, and non-attachment to particular outcomes.
It works. The New Culture movement is growing and spreading. At the core of its success is a group meeting/sharing process known as ZEGG Forum. This process evolved over the course of three decades in the German ZEGG commune as a means of intimate disclosure, trust-building, and a way to uncover and examine conflicts that arise in a communal, tribal setting. The Forum practice is spreading among intentional communities in the U.S.
About 80 people from various backgrounds attended Summer Camp. Although New Culture events are not explicitly poly, at least half the folks were, often actively so within the group. I came away dazzled, awed, joyous, and utterly at home in finding my tribe — and in experiencing the way of life I felt I was born for.
I mean, literally. I had energy and alertness day after day that I didn't know I possessed. I felt serene, happy, enthusiastic about joining in chores (work-sharing is used both for community-building and keeping costs down), and enthusiastic about co-creating good things for my new people.
I felt this was exactly the life I was born to live.
In the mail when I got home was a new book explaining exactly why.
Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, is gaining a lot of mainstream attention and has edged onto the New York Times bestseller list. It explains, in breezy language and massive detail, the reason why humans the world over are failures at monogamy. It also examines the roots of human nature in other key regards.
The central thesis: For most of the last million years, we lived as hunter-gatherers shaped by evolution to live in "fiercely egalitarian" tribes and bands sharing food, resources, mates, and child-rearing. Among hunter-gatherers there was (and often is today, where such cultures survive mostly untouched) very little property; few sex-role distinctions; widespread easy partnering, re-partnering, and multi-partnering on the initiative of both men and women; public and sometimes group sex; and for much of the time, a surprisingly light workload required for everyone to stay fed.
The invention of agriculture, starting around 8000 B.C., changed everything. Humans found themselves pitched into a world for which they were literally not born and bred — with settled communities large enough that not everyone knew each other intimately; surplus food and settled life leading to accumulations of property, wealth, and power; the rise of class distinctions; and, particularly important for relations between the sexes, a desire to pass property to known blood heirs.
But enough from me. Ryan himself summarizes the book in an article on CNN's site (July 29, 2010):
Monogamy unnatural for our sexy species
By Christopher Ryan, Special to CNN
(CNN) -- Seismic cultural shifts about 10,000 years ago rendered the true story of human sexuality 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.
In recent decades, the debate over human sexual evolution has entertained only two options: Humans evolved to be either monogamists or polygamists. This tired debate generally devolves into an antagonistic stalemate where women are said to have evolved to seek male-provisioned domesticity while every man secretly yearns for his own harem. The battle between the sexes, we're told, is bred into our blood and bones.
Couples who turn to a therapist for guidance through the inevitable minefields of marriage are likely to receive the confusing message that long-term pair bonding comes naturally to our species, but that marriage is still a lot of work.
...This is a problem because there is no reason to believe monogamy comes naturally to human beings. In fact, for millions of years, evolutionary forces have cultivated human libido to the point where ours is arguably the most sexual species on Earth.
Most foragers divide and distribute meat equitably, breast-feed one another's babies, have little or no privacy from one another, and depend upon each other every day for survival. Although our social world revolves around private property and individual responsibility, theirs spins toward interrelation and mutual dependence. This might sound like New Age idealism, but it's no more noble a system than any other insurance pool....
...Research from primatology, anthropology, anatomy and psychology points to the same conclusion: A nonpossessive, gregarious sexuality was the human norm until the rise of agriculture and private property just 10,000 years ago, about 5 percent of anatomically modern humans' existence on Earth.
The two primate species closest to us lend strong — if blush-inducing — support to this vision. Ovulating female chimps have intercourse dozens of times per day, with most or all of the willing males, and bonobos famously enjoy frequent group sex that leaves everyone relaxed and conflict-free.
The human body tells the same story....
Ryan has been giving a lot of interviews. Here's one with Salon (June 27, 2010). Excerpts:
"Sex At Dawn": Why Monogamy Goes Against Our Nature
...You paint a bleak picture of the state of marriage in the West, particularly in the United States. What makes it so bad?
Marriage in the West isn't doing very well because it's in direct confrontation with the evolved reality of our species. What we argue in the book is that the best way to increase marital stability, which in the modern world is an important part of social stability, is to develop a more tolerant and realistic understanding of human sexuality and how human sexuality is being distorted by our modern conception of marriage....
One of the central ideas of much biological and genetic theory is that animals will expend more energy protecting those they're genetically related to — siblings, parents, offspring — as opposed to those they're not related to. Why wouldn't that apply to humans?
There are many, many exceptions to that rule in nature.... And in terms of animals that are much more closely related to humans, when you look at bonobos and their promiscuous interaction, it's virtually impossible for a male to know which of his offspring are related to him biologically. So to say that there's this inherent concern with paternity within our species, I just don't see evidence for that.
...We don't argue that people didn't form very special relationships — you can see this even in chimps and bonobos and other primates, but that bond doesn't necessarily extend to sexual exclusivity. People have said that we're arguing against love — but we're just saying that this insistence that love and sex always go together is erroneous.
...So if monogamous marriage isn't the right arrangement for us, what is?
We're not really arguing for any particular arrangement. We don't even really know what to do with this information ourselves. What we're trying to do in the book is give people a more accurate sense of where we came from, why we are the way we are, and why certain aspects of life feel like a bad fit....
All we're really hoping for is to encourage more tolerance and more open discussion between men and women about sexuality and about marriage, and to come to see that marriage isn't about sex. It's about things that are much deeper and more lasting than sex, especially if you have children. And the American insistence on mixing love and sex and expecting passion to last forever is leading to great suffering that we think is tragic and unnecessary.
From an interview in Canada's Globe and Mail (July 29, 2010):
...You end with a mention of a long-term triad relationship — Scott, Larry and Terisa [Greenan, members of a very public poly family in Seattle]. Do you think people in open relationships are better off? A lot of the book seems devoted to dissing the monogamous marriage.
Ryan: I don't think we diss monogamous marriage. I think we diss the lie that monogamous marriage comes naturally to Homo sapiens. That's what we keep banging away at.... It would never occur to me to diss people who make a decision to forsake all others and follow through with it.... We're not saying that everybody should be polyamorous or into group sex....
In Lemondrop, AOL's online women's magazine (July 28, 2010):
Ryan: Adultery has been documented in every human culture studied, including those in which fornicators are routinely stoned to death. In light of all this bloody retribution, it's hard to see how monogamy comes "naturally" to our species. If monogamy were an ancient, evolved trait characteristic of our species, like the myth says, adultery wouldn't be an issue. No creature needs to be threatened with death to act in accord with its own nature.
One of the things that really propelled us to write this book was the feeling we got that the standard narrative [that monogamy is the natural human state] is like the pre-Copernican version of the solar system. It's so complicated, and it's layer upon layer of explanation that doesn't fit together. [Emphasis mine.]
Says Newsweek (July 26, 2010):
Forget what you think you know about the origin of species. Sex at Dawn sets out to prove that our prehistoric ancestors were happy and healthy, thanks in no small part to lots of egalitarian, polyamorous, noisy group sex.
Here's an extensive review and analysis on Less Wrong, a website of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University.
Washington Post review (May 30, 2010).
Review by Seed magazine.
A rare negative review at The Smart Set, by the founder and editor of Bookslut.
You can google up lots more reviews and commentaries.
I'm waiting to see a serious rebuttal of the book from the ranks of the anthropologists whom Ryan and Jethá take to task, often with ridicule and one-line zingers. Should be interesting.
Here is the book's facebook page.
Here are Ryan's Huffington Post and Psychology Today blogs about the book.
Here's the book's website, including excerpts and an extensive FAQ about its claims and the intent behind it.
More on all this to come.