Sun sets on "Sex at Dawn"

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Cover - Sex At DuskFinally someone has taken the time to point out the many fallacies in Sex at Dawn.

My review:

Sun Sets on Sex At Dawn

Have you read Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá? Whether you loved or hated it, you will be pleased to discover a new companion book on the same subject. Provocatively titled Sex at Dusk: Lifting the Shiny Wrapping from Sex at Dawn, the new book continues the debate about the origins of human mating. How could that ever be a dull subject?

Dusk contains not a shred of moralizing, but fortunately author Lynn Saxon hasn't entirely suppressed her razor wit. Her mission? To correct Sex At Dawn's numerous omissions of highly relevant information so that its readers are not left with a misleadingly fictitious picture of sexual behaviors in other societies.

Saxon's in-depth grounding in evolutionary biology radiates from every page as she diligently retraces Ryan and Jethá's steps through a host of research — this time with attention to all the relevant facts for understanding human mating.

The story of the evolution of human mating turns out to be much richer and more complex than portrayed in Sex At Dawn. Saxon recounts that marriage, mate-guarding and jealousy arose even in isolated hunter-gatherer tribes — casting serious doubt on Ryan and Jethá's insistence that marriage is strictly a cultural creation.

Why would marriage be such a human universal? It allowed our species to overcome the severe, isolating antagonism our male ape cousins express towards males from other communities. Inter-tribal marriage thus accomplishes two important objectives. It prevents incest and permits the acquisition of in-laws (and their resources/goodwill).

Whereas Ryan and Jethá conclude that women are naturally "sluts not whores," that is, looking for a good time all the time rather than looking for resources, Saxon comes to the opposite conclusion based on solid evolutionary science. Sperm-makers seek to fertilize widely but "female reproduction is very much about converting resources into offspring, and the acquisition of resources can have the same priority in female reproductive success as copulation has in the reproductive success of males."(Sorry gents.)

Perhaps you believe, like Ryan and Jethá, that concern about paternity must be a recent thing in humans because knowledge of a connection between sex and offspring is relatively recent and requires human intelligence. If so, it would be very difficult to explain common male animal behaviors such as infanticide, mate-guarding, and male parental care. Such behaviors can't depend on a conscious knowledge of the connection between sex and offspring. As Saxon explains, "Genes are quite capable of being selected without any need for conscious awareness by the individuals they are in of what is going on."

Have you bought the idea in Sex At Dawn that we humans are basically Bonobo chimps at our core and therefore have evolved to engage in promiscuous mating with all and sundry? Well, even female Bonobos discriminate among partners in subtle ways, and much of the sex they have is really "sex," a brief social ritual influenced by political considerations.

In response to Ryan and Jethá's wishful thinking that promiscuous sex would naturally lead to group parenting, Saxon reminds us that "selection cannot act in the direction of indifference towards the parentage of offspring requiring parental resources." Oh well.

Dusk brims with interesting, thoroughly documented discoveries. The reader may even learn new things about the benefits of pair bonds. For example, I bet you didn't know that when,

experiments were done where monogamy was enforced in fruit flies. [Once] the reproductive interests of male and female converged on the same offspring and male sperm competition was removed, the semen became less and less damaging to the females. In addition to this, males also evolved to be less aggressive in their courtship, and reproductive output actually increased over what it had been with the sperm competition.

Does monogamy look a bit more appealing? Of course Saxon points out that humans fool around, and that many cultures permit marriage with more than one wife (although few hubbies can afford the luxury of additional egg-makers). However, she points out that even though sperm strategy and egg strategy diverge from the get-go (potentially creating a sort of evolutionary arms race between genders), lifetime sexual monogamy permits the interests of both parents to converge on the same offspring for a lifetime. Now, "what harms the reproductive fitness of one sex harms that of the other too and is therefore not selected."

Dusk will appeal to anyone with a passion for understanding the roots of human sexuality and mating. It's also the perfect handbook for those with a copy of Sex At Dawn, as Saxon has thoughtfully laid her book out in the same order for the convenience of Dusk readers who wish to compare its content with that of Sex at Dawn. As it turns out, the subject matter is even more interesting with accurate references and solid analysis.

What does all this information mean for humanity? According to Saxon, casual sex of the type Sex At Dawn advocates, "may increasingly become our present but it certainly isn’t our human past. And ‘recreational sex’ is not what creates the future."

In other words, we may just be passing through a phase of clearing up the gene pool, folks.


Excerpt from Saxon's book:

While evolutionary psychology is not my main concern, evolutionary biology is. I have read and debated on the evolution of sex and the sexes for many years. Sex is a topic that interests so many of us yet there are few who have any real understanding of the place of sex and the sexes in evolution. When I saw that many of the books referenced by Ryan and Jethá are also on my bookshelves I decided that this popular book deserved to be read so that I might understand how they had reached their conclusions about human sexuality.

The basic argument that we are not naturally sexually monogamous is reasonably sound – anyone involved in evolutionary biology today would not argue against that. (Apart from anything else, to be naturally completely sexually monogamous we would have to be mating for life with our first sexual partner.) But Ryan and Jethá go much further than an argument for serial monogamy or monogamy with some extra-pair sex, and present us as being naturally bonobo-like – bonobos, in their understanding, live in groups where everyone regularly and casually has sex with everyone else.

Reading their book I felt increasingly concerned that their argument was presented as being backed by scientific evidence. There were many blatant errors and false representations which readers were accepting as factual evidence. The authors have put their book forward as a means to create debate, so here I present evidence which I believe fills in many of their omissions and corrects many of the distortions and errors of their argument.