In Sex at Dawn, husband and wife team Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá have written a book that questions both modern-day standards of human sexual behavior and the scientific history of our early ancestors. The book first explains and defines what it refers to as “the standard narrative”, the story of how humans evolved from our prehistoric ancestors to be monogamous beings with conflicting biological imperatives for males and females. Then, it goes on to refute this narrative, providing evidence from noted modern scholars like Steven Pinker, Malcolm Gladwell, and Frans De Waal, as well as renowned scientists and philosophers like Charles Darwin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Hobbes.
Ryan and Jethá write, “Science all too often grovels at the feet of the dominant cultural paradigm.” Indeed, one of the most powerful ideas that Sex at Dawn puts forth is that culture has a way of coloring scientific and historical “fact”. Some of the examples given are quite disturbing, especially when large institutions are clearly engaged in cover ups of our true nature. The authors assert that many sexual myths (for example, that masturbation is some kind of medical affliction) have been repeated and disseminated over the years by religious, health, and state organizations. They take a controversial stance that this “cover up” tactic has also been applied to the non-monogamy of our closest primate relatives and early man. They believe that even if non-monogamy is not the dominant mode of being for contemporary humans, at the very least it should be viewed as a historic basis for our desires and behaviors.
The narration, which alternates between Allyson Johnson and Jonathan Davis, is clear and straightforward, particularly well-suited to this kind of book. Johnson especially makes the information, which can sometimes be dense, easily digestible and relatable. One of the authors, Christopher Ryan, reads the preface, which gives a hint of how he came to be interested in exploring the given subject matter. Through this section, we also get a way to connect directly to the authors and thus, the human (as opposed to the scientific) aspect of the issues discussed.
To claim that this work is exclusively or even mostly about sexual behavior would be a stretch. The book is very holistic, tackling bigger-picture issues of science, culture, history, and philosophy. That said, these large ideas are needed as building blocks for the claims the authors make about sex. Another triumph of Sex at Dawn is the attention the authors have given to presenting material on sex as it applies to men and women equally. Along those lines, another high point of the narration is that it echoes this sentiment through the interchanging male and female voices, reminding us that these ideas apply to both sexes in different ways.
What the book posits exactly is somewhat unclear. The authors themselves admit that they're not exactly sure what to do with all the information they have unearthed. That said, the great strength of Sex at Dawn is that it opens the discourse about human sexual behavior sans many of the taboos that traditionally accompany the topic. Gina Pensiero
Since Darwin's day, we've been told that sexual monogamy comes naturally to our species. Mainstream science - as well as religious and cultural institutions - has maintained that men and women evolved in families in which a man's possessions and protection were exchanged for a woman's fertility and fidelity. But this narrative is collapsing. Fewer and fewer couples are getting married, and divorce rates keep climbing as adultery and flagging libido drag down even seemingly solid marriages.
How can reality be reconciled with the accepted narrative? It can't be, according to renegade thinkers Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. While debunking almost everything we "know" about sex, they offer a bold alternative explanation in this provocative and brilliant book.
Ryan and Jetha's central contention is that human beings evolved in egalitarian groups that shared food, child care, and, often, sexual partners. Weaving together convergent, frequently overlooked evidence from anthropology, archaeology, primatology, anatomy, and psychosexuality, the authors show how far from human nature monogamy really is. Human beings everywhere and in every era have confronted the same familiar, intimate situations in surprisingly different ways. The authors expose the ancient roots of human sexuality while pointing toward a more optimistic future illuminated by our innate capacities for love, cooperation, and generosity.
BONUS AUDIO: Includes a Preface written and read by author Christopher Ryan.
©2010 Christopher Ryan, Cacilda Jetha (P)2010 Audible, Inc
“Funny, witty, and light ... Sex at Dawn is a scandal in the best sense, one that will have you reading the best parts aloud and reassessing your ideas about humanity’s basic urges well after the book is done.” (Newsweek)
“Sex at Dawn is the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior in the Human Male on the American public in 1948.” (Dan Savage)
"My favorite book of 2010...it's the only book I read this year that proved that I was badly mistaken about something." (Peter Sagal, host of NPR's Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!)
I knew nothing more about evolution, evolutionary psychology, and anthropology than what I learned in high school. I was hoping this book would introduce me to some of the key issues in these fields. It didn't. The authors have what appears to be a counter-establishment theory about early human society. To the extent that they explained and supported it, it seems perfectly plausible. However, without exaggerating, they spend less than 20% of the book articulating their theory. The remainder is them bashing all sort of other theories. Their critiques seem reasonable enough, but listening to academics criticize each other over study methodologies is simply not interesting to someone outside the field. They also adopt a snarky tone about the theories they criticize that makes the whole book seem far more petulant than necessary.
There are two readers. The female reader is great. However, she is periodically interrupted by a male reader reading short passages. On paper, this is a nice idea. There are two authors (male & female) and Audible wants to reflect that by having two readers. But, it just doesn't work in practice. You kinda buy into the idea that this woman is telling you a story. You get into it. Then some disembodied male voice interrupts for a short while. It's really distracting.
I am a bilingual high school teacher. I mostly read non-fiction, especially history, but I am also a sucker for science-fiction and fantasy novels.
This book was somewhat interesting, but certainly nothing new if you know much about human sexuality. I went into reading this book agreeing with their general premise that early human culture probably involved multiple sex partners, not monogamy. That makes logical sense to me and I was looking forward to learning more about it.
However, I found the book majorly bogged down with taking things that disagree with the authors way too personally. Having actually read a lot of the scientific literature they reference in the book, I was quite unimpressed by how egregiously they deliberately misinterpreted it so that they could argue against their misinterpretation. For example, The Selfish Gene says many times that it absolutely does not imply that people or animals are selfish, just that genes are. People (and animals) can absolutely behave non-selfishly, and we do so because that kind of behaviour is better for our genes than selfishness. This book uses the fact that "people" (without ever pointing to an example of such a person) could interpret the title of the book to mean that people must be selfish and so they need to spend ages proving it wrong. It was ridiculous. The things they included in the "standard narrative" were mostly things no scientist would really argue for because they are obviously not true and scientists have known that for decades. Because of that, I doubted a lot of their other details that I'm not as familiar with as well. It seems as though the thing they were trying to disprove - their so-called "standard narrative" - is a combination of outdated, pre-1970s anthropology and misinterpretations of real scientific data.
Honestly, I only finished this book so I could review it. The first half was so full of strawman arguments and flimsy, emotional attempts at persuasion that I nearly stopped listening to it. The second half was somewhat better, but the evidence was nothing new (the sweaty t-shirt test, the difference in which men women are attracted to during ovulation and not during ovulation) and the big points were often "duh" moments. It was clear that the authors felt persecuted somehow by both the scientific community and society at large for their point of view and felt the need to make personal attacks on other scientists and to completely denounce monogamy as an option in order to make their point. It came across as bitter and angry, which really turned me off. If you're a scientist, part of that is criticism. It's how science works - you come up with an idea, you're criticized, you prove it, you're criticized, you refine it, you're disagreed with, and with time the best theory wins out. If you wanted to not face negative reactions to your theory - which is in fact a good one - then make it a religion. If you want it to be generally accepted science, it has to be challenged, tested, and proven before that will happen. Get over it.
I agree with other reviewers that the narration was strange. They should have stuck with one narrator for all of the text or else split it chapter by chapter or something more logical like that.
Overall, I was very disappointed with this book. Even though I agreed with their premise, the arguments were so poorly executed that I lost respect for them. This is a topic more people should know about, but from someone with more ability to be objective and who won't rely less on ad hominem and strawman arguments to make their point.
The book contains some interesting information and is well written, but it is primarily just another response to cultural trends. The authors are unendingly critical of earlier scientists, participants in the "standard model", because they were so dominated by their Victorian culture. They then proceed to reinterpret everything through the dark glass of their own culture. Obviously, the book is far more supportive of open sexual relations, women's sexuality and a host of currently popular notions. I am not critical of their opinions, but the thin guise of scientific credibility is disappointing. As with all anthrepological work, it is riddled with unverifiable supposition and assumptions, presented without caveats. There is a fair amount of work cited, but no consideration for the credibility or motivation behind the cited work and no contrary studies are considered. A great deal of time is spent on the genetic and biological driving forces behind sex, but the issues they are contending with are equally, if not more, driven by culture, which is just as real and just as valid. If you are looking for a justification for a choice of lifestyle, this book will offer you any excuse you need, but if you are looking for objective science and understanding, keep looking. It is not to be found here.
This book had some good things going for it, but I couldn't bring myself to give it 5 stars. This was a more polemical work than I would have liked. It was very much written in a style to convince the reader/listener of the author's ideas. I honestly got the feeling that they were only giving me the information that supported their thesis rather than a balanced look at facts, or giving honest alternate explanations/ideas. It also made use of "straw man" items where the authors would give an opposing opinion in its worst light and then rather than explain that idea went on to ridicule it.
Lots of facts
Unconventional take on human prehistory
Good job of "thinking outside the box" and giving lots of facts/data to back up their ideas
Entertaining, not "dry"
Some mentioned above.
Odd use of 2 narrators where 1 narrator read quotes to open each "section/chapter" and maybe a stray sentence here and there. It was really odd to periodically get a different voice for just a few seconds and then back to the usual reader
Too many tongue-in-cheek comments and adolescent humor.
Overly romanticized subsistence hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
Is it worth listening to/reading: Yes...I would recommend it.
Is it a work that contributes to understanding prehistory: Maybe
Is it entertaining? Yes
There is a lot of interesting information in this book, and it is pretty good to listen to. I have two problems with it. One is how the authors constantly summarize and rephrase scientific information in a very glib and slang way, in fact rather mis-stating what they are trying to explain. I guess this is for common appeal? It comes off as disingenuous and often as judgmental. Second, this is one of those books in which the authors say that common beliefs on their subject are wrong and they are going to prove them wrong by presenting and supporting their new thesis on the subject. But they spend a ton of time saying how their new idea that they're going to share disproves the common idea, and very little time actually sharing, explaining and supporting their new idea. They continually say how they disagree with "the standard narrative", that it is wrong. And then spend hours of the book explaining and supporting the standard narrative--much more time than they explain what their new and different idea is. I kept thinking, OK, here's the part where they are going to say why this is wrong and tell me what is right... But you kind of keep waiting. If you are not paying close attention you end up taking in the standard narrative as the information the authors are trying to get across, and not as what they are trying to disprove. They sort of shoot themselves in the foot on that. Even when they present their differing idea its not very well supported.
The quality of the writing was just exceptionally poor. Every paragraph was finished with a pseudo-witty tag line ("Way to go boys." "Now we're talking.") that sounded like the authors really wished the book could have been a snappy Cosmo article instead. It made for tedious listening.
The authors seemed exceptionally pleased with their own wit.
Annoyance. The authors' claim (that lifelong monogamy is NOT genetically encoded in al humans for millions of years) is utterly non-controversial in both science and culture today. Nonetheless, the authors pretend that pretty much everyone believes the opposite. They proceed to restate the opposite case in the most extreme and laughable terms (drawing on sources back to the 19th century for evidence of current thought). Having stated the other side in laughable terms, they never actually bother to prove their own case; they simply mock the other side and then list any evidence available for their own perspective without delving into any of the complexities of teasing out something as subtle as sexuality from the archeological and anthropological record.
Looking back, I suspect I bought this book because it had sex in the title. Having read it, I now feel a little dirty and ashamed for taking part in such a shallow enterprise.
Private intellectual, writer, and retired academic. Currently R&D director for Gravitational Systems Engineering, Inc.
The controversy in the reviews of this book speaks to its importance. As a committed Darwinian, who has been having a tryst with Lamarck-ism since the advent of epi-genetics, this book was a delight. It takes apart the accepted dogma on a variety of post Darwin science by examining the religious and cultural bias that is built into many of these theories.
I have read all of Dawkin's & E.O. Wilson's books, the modern scholar series on evolutionary psychology, and about 10 other popular texts from this emerging field.
This book stands out, not because of the excellence of its scholarship, but because of the depth of its skepticism and the author's willingness to challenge existing dogma.
At regular intervals, despite my habitual eschewing of scientific mirth, this book had me in aesthetic. I highly recommend this book, and I offer my personal thanks to the authors and the narrator.
I went into this with high expectations, based on reader and critic reviews, and was sorely disappointed. The central premise is intriguing, but the authors to little more than pick apart older models of human sexuality, with little hard scientific evidence. I may be biased since I'm a laboratory scientist, and am skeptical of sweeping conclusions drawn from scant unambiguous data.
If you're an academic studying social sciences or human sexuality, you may find this interesting, otherwise don't bother. The writing is dry and jargon filled, the narration is downright awful, and the attempts to make it accessible to the general reader amount to petty and flat sarcasm.
Love to read, and Audible has made the two-hour daily commute enjoyable!
Husband and wife research team examines sex both at the dawn of time through archeological and biological data.
The premise is if we're supposed to be monogamist, why are we so bad at it? They show that ancestorally and even recently, we are at our best in civilizations that welcome open, caring relationships. The book struck me as paradigm changing, but I questioned it. I'm not versed enough to tell the legitimacy of their attack of various archeologist and scientists, but it seemed a little too over the top. Also I thought the use of pop culture in music, movies, literature maybe made it approachable, but didn't work for me.
I don't know if its that the thought was so counter to me, or if it is their science that was jangling for me or both. I'm not religious - I'm not even really traditional, but I question how they got to their conclusions.
One of those books that will change the way you think about yourself and others. Well read and performed. Intensive research. A science book that reads like a thriller. Amazing.
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