Polyamory in the News!
. . . by Alan M.

October 6, 2010

Sex at Dawn making more waves

I'm excited to be meeting author Christopher Ryan — and a lot of you readers! — at the Poly Living conference coming up in Seattle in two weeks (October 22–24; spaces still available; see the end of this post for more info1.) We owe Ryan bigtime for changing the intellectual landscape around us — as Kamela Dolinova writes on her Boston Open Relationships Examiner:

"For polyamorists, swingers, and other practitioners of open relationships, America just became a slightly better place,"

thanks to the publication of Sex At Dawn, the new popular anthropology book that has been tearing up the blogosphere and major news outlets for several weeks now. Since no lesser light than Dan Savage called the book "the single most important book on human sexuality since Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior in the Human Male on the American public in 1948," word about husband-and-wife duo Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá's work has been spreading like...well, like prehistoric women's legs.

Some background:

According to Ryan and Jethá, the overwhelming physiological and archeological evidence shows that our pre-agricultural ancestors were not monogamous, nor even serially monogamous as some more liberal thinkers claim. Instead, these hunter-gatherers lived in "fiercely egalitarian" societies where everything was shared: food, shelter, parenting, and yes — sexual partners. The common mode of living in early human bands was apparently closer to a communal marriage than what we think of as a "traditional" one, in which paternity certainty was unimportant and women — as well as men — had sex as often as they wished with as many as they wished.

There is controversy:

Predictably, a few misguided idiots and plenty of random internet commenters are responding to the book with a certain amount of vitriol. But more surprising is that the first three pages of today's Google search for the book's title are full of praise for the work — a wave of mainstream media acceptance of the idea that maybe, just maybe, our species isn't naturally monogamous after all.

Ryan himself (clearly the public face of the book) has repeatedly said that people shouldn't take their findings as carte blanche to cheat on their spouses, or that everyone should be polyamorous. In fact, it's impossible to say at this moment what the impact of the findings might be on the lives of people who now, 10,000 years after the advent of agriculture, live so very differently than their ancestors did.

Nonetheless, as Alan at Polyamory in the News points out, the popularity of this book and its scientific underpinnings are a huge step in the literature for those of us who have refused to buy into the monogamy deal. The idea that jealousy is not an inherent human state, that the exchange of sexual exclusivity for security and support is a cultural construct, and that the natural state of human sexuality is much more complicated than the overculture would have us believe may not go over well with everyone, but it is a great leap forward from the slew of evolutionary psychologists and other authorities from Darwin onward who have insisted on our species' "natural" propensity for pair-bonded monogamy....

Read the original (Sept. 3, 2010).

Dolinova went on to interview Ryan for Carnal Nation. Excerpt:

KD: I live and write in a loose-knit community of polyamorists, and know many people who make it work beautifully. What do you think is the next step for modern romance and family life?

CR: I suspect the next few decades are going to bring a radical reconfiguration of American society. Romance and family rituals generally follow and adapt to economic conditions, so we may well see realignments resulting in multi-family homes and off-the-grid communal situations. Some of these could involve some form of group parenting, home schooling, and so on. But a lot of this depends on what happens economically and politically in the US. Crisis brings opportunity for change, and major crisis looms ever larger these days.

Read the whole interview (Sept. 22, 2010).

An editor of the highbrow Atlantic Monthly is peeved with the book:

I'm in the middle of Sex at Dawn, the book that's caught the attention of a number of commentators... and so far, I'm disappointed to say that it reads like horsefeathers.... The language is breathless rather than scientific, and they don't even attempt to paper over the enormous holes in their theory that people are naturally polyamorous.

For example, like a lot of evolutionary biology critiques, this one leans heavily on bonobos (at least so far). Here's the thing: humans aren't like bonobos. And do you know how I know that we are not like bonobos? Because we're not like bonobos....


Ryan is aggressive about wading into a good food fight; here's from his reply:

Over the years of cocktail party conversations that proceeded the publication of Sex at Dawn, Cacilda and I have witnessed many reactions to our proposal that monogamy doesn't come naturally to most people....

[Sometimes] you get someone who feels so personally threatened by the very idea that they don't give a damn about "your so-called evidence" (they assume you're making it all up anyway).... Stand back, because you're likely to get wine in your eye as they sputter and spray their indignation.... The trick is to learn not to take any of it personally, because they're not really talking about you, or your book. They're talking about themselves, often quite revealingly, at that.

...It's pretty clear Ms. McArdle hasn't read even the first half of the book very closely. Pages 77 and 78 contain a table listing some of the major similarities between humans and bonobos, many of them unique to these two species....

I'm not holding my breath because I don't think she's responding to the substance of the book at all; she's responding to what it makes her feel, which is something entirely different.



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