Book Notes: Sex at Dawn; God, No!

Some notes on two recent nonfiction books…

I’ve followed Dan Savage — the most popular sex columnist in the country, and sponsor of the It Gets Better movement for LGBT youth — intermittently for years, and recently noticed his endorsement for a nonfiction books called Sex at Dawn, by ones Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, which purportedly supported many of the theses that Dan has promoted in his sex advice column over the years — principally, the difficulty of monogamy and the reasons thereof.

Now, as I suspect many ardent readers do, I have bought and continue to purchase many more books than I actually have time to read. Evolutionary psychology, and sex, being two of my principle interests, I had in fact bought a copy of Sex at Dawn last year when it came out in hardcover. So, triggered by the Dan Savage reference, I picked it up and read it.

The book is a fascinating reinterpretation of the standard evolutionary psychological explanation for the difference between the sexes — to wit, that females are more choosy than males in whom to have sex with; that males are jealous of female sexual infidelity in order to protect their paternity investment; that nevertheless both sexes will take opportunities to ‘cheat’ if the odds favor an advantage in genetic promotion. And, it challenges the cultural and sociological premise that monogamy is inherent in the human species.

Their re-interpretation is based on the claim that for most of human history — the hundreds of thousands of years before agriculture changed everything — humans lived in small hunter-gatherer tribes, that the concept of one father per child was not understood (thus undermining the premise of paternal investment), and that casual sex, for a variety of reasons, was common. Numerous lines of evidence are described, including many analogies to bonoboes (based on body size, group size, anatomical propotions, etc), and to the practices of primitive hunter-gatherer tribes still in existence today.

Agriculture changed everything because suddenly property had to be kept track of, and so the hunter-gatherer tribes split into core family groups, forcing the sexual proclivities bred by of hundreds of thousands of years of group existence to be channeled into new narrow partitions.

I found the book fascinating, primarily because its willingness to reeaxamine assumptions is like the essence of science fiction.

Two other points: even if their thesis is valid, it of course does not speak to how people should live their lives today. Yes, it explains why monogamy is difficult, and so on, but no one today lives in the pre-agricultural world of small social groups. There is a whole ‘nother book there, perhaps.

Also, I don’t have the impression that this book has much impact or gravitas; in part because the authors have no track record, in part because the blurbs on the cover are mostly from pop figures, and in part because I can’t find any evidence that their revolutionary speculation has reverberated anywhere…


Briefly second: Penn Jillette’s God, No!, subtitled “Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales”. I am myself an atheist and am fascinated by the general question of why people believe what they do (it ties to my interest in science fiction, which is about exploring one’s concept of the world, overcoming parochial and childhood influences, just as science fiction scenarios celebrate conceptual breakthroughs). And I’m a casual fan of Penn & Teller, having seen their Las Vegas show, if not their TV series.

The book is structured around Jillette’s recasting of the Ten Commandments. I found myself skimming it. The content consists of many personal anecdotes, about Siegfried and Roy, Jillette’s unsuccessful venture into an early ’70s San Francisco gay bathhouse, and many others, always gleefully vulgar and profane. They ramble. And ramble. And are only peripherally about the Ten Commandments, or atheism, or anything except Penn Jillette. It’s amusing for a while, , but I found myself thinking about all those other unread books in my stack….and moved on.

2 Responses to Book Notes: Sex at Dawn; God, No!

  1. I read Sex at Dawn when it first came out and then saw the author at a lecture at the University of Chicago. The room was so crowded, they had trouble getting everyone in to see the lecture. I’ve found that there has been considerable conversation about the book amongst people with such interests, especially in the polyamory community (which intersects with science fiction fandom to a good extent). One thing however is that the book was difficult to pick up in bookstores, in spite of being on several best seller lists. The reason? I believe it was culture wars: the information didn’t fit certain people’s ideas of “morality” and bookstores and others were pressured into not carrying it. There’s not a lot of evidence of it, but why would a New York Times Best Seller NOT be in a major chain? The impact of the book I believe will be felt by those looking at evolutionary psychology, especially of sex and will bring about a good counterpoint for arguments. If nothing else, they point out how prejudiced previous researchers were by their own viewpoints on the superiority of monogamy.

  2. Thanks for the comment! I had no idea whether its availability in bookstores was an issue… I visit them often, but order pretty much everything from Amazon. (Yes, Borders’ closing is partly my fault :()