Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

Steven Pinker's Stinker on the Origins of War

Imagine a high-profile expert stands before a distinguished audience and argues that Asians are warlike people. In support of his argument, he presents statistics from seven countries: Argentina, Poland, Ireland, Nigeria, Canada, Italy, and Russia. Read More

Survivorship bias

I didn't even need to view the TED speech to see one glaring flaw here that I'm surprised you didn't call out, Chris. Specifically, it's hard for any analysis here to avoid a "survivorship bias" (

In brief, consider that the most peaceful or less warlike tribes (or possibly the more warlike ones, it's hard to say) may not have ever survived long enough to tell their tale to Pinker, the early missionaries, and definitely not their conquerors. If a tribe's level of warlike-behavior is related at all its growth, survivability, or likelihood of telling its story, then excluding the conquered ones is like lopping off one end of this statistical bell curve.

let me guess, your next book will be The Pinker Delusion

Nothing like a D list author and researcher piggy backing off the brilliance and popularity of the true experts.

Hey, whatever sells your book Chris... right?

Welcome to the violence of our time.


First of all, Pinker is NOT an expert in this field. He is an expert in language.

Secondly, what research have you done to call anyone D-list?

Lastly, can't new evidence change your mind or are you religious about your hobbesian views?

Pinker has researched the

Pinker has researched the topic well. In "The Better Angels of Our Nature," he has over two thousand references. Will this evidence change your mind?

You seem easily impressed by

You seem easily impressed by reference quantity.

Peter, I agree

I agree-- to some extent. If a lot of someone's sources are fluff, it will be easy to see when there are 2,000 of them, vs 200. From Pinker's writing, I can say he has researched war and history well, but don't take my word for it.

Steven Pinker

Hi, I'm the one who posted a link to Steven Pinker's talk in the comment section of your last article, so I'm presumably responsible for provoking this one.

First of all thank you for pointing out Steven Pinker's not quite so representative graph. I'm very ready to believe you, that his featured graph does not contain tribes in "pristine ancestral condition" if you want to call it that.

However, you really overstepped the line by implying that he knowingly or stupidly misled the TED audience. The main point he was making was that societies and civilizations are getting less violent over time, which most certainly is true and not sufficiently appreciated by our current collective consciousness.

There is a clear trend towards less cruelty and barbarism within civilizations, no if's or but's about it. Your rant on how he didn't include Rwanda and Pol Pot is completely missing the point here: Steven Pinker deliberately took the US as an example of a "highly developed and humane civilization" and contrasted it as a "society type" against other possible "society types", which he (one might argue rightly) considers to be pre-civilized. And comparing "violent deaths per 100 people" is obviously the right way to contrast civilizations with different numbers of people, instead of just adding up deaths in absolute numbers.

Where's the problem - he takes the US as an example of "what happens when civilization is done right and goes well". (I'd rather prefer Sweden or Denmark to make that point, on average US citizens are ignorant beyond measure). For him Rwanda probably counts as a "failed civilization" that reverted back to anarchy.

Now, your point is obviously that his graph doesn't show how our literal ancestors once lived, but that it only shows iffy statistics about people who already ate from the poisoned apple of civilization. To me the real crux here seems to be that Steven Pinker is happy to extrapolate these statistics to our prehistoric ancestors, while you maintain that this is ludicrous.

To be honest, I'm inclined to side with Steven on this one. Emotionally you seem to be way too invested in the theory that our ancestors were overall peaceful nomadic hippies, until they settled down as hunter-gatherers, even if it was just in primitive huts. You may be onto something here, but the burden of proof rests clearly on you to show that our nomadic ancestors were in fact very much an exception to the overall trend of violence over history. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

You may be right, but I'm doubting your impartial judgement because you seem heavily invested in your romantic idea of prehistory. There may have been (and still be) exceptionally peaceful tribes, but how peaceful they really were would still have heavily depended on their special environment and ecological situation. Perhaps there was very low in-group violence, but it probably depended heavily on every tribes special circumstances and their proximity to other tribes. What's the point in insisting that we were all peaceful back then - human nature is human nature and we have suffecient proof, that we all have the potential to be monsters under the right aka. wrong circumstances.

Reversal towards pre-history conditions is not going to happen, even if civilization collapsed completely. We'll have to make the best of our evolving "global" civilization and try to not cock it up.

"comparing "violent deaths

"comparing "violent deaths per 100 people" is obviously the right way to contrast civilizations with different numbers of people, instead of just adding up deaths in absolute numbers."

Isn't that inductivism?

Actually if you want to talk about deaths why not include the dictatorships America funds in the middle east or funded in Latin America? Why not include the deaths caused because of the black ops budget? Or that the USA has an army bigger than the next seven biggest armies added together. Or the wars in africa over resources such as coltan, for mobile phones, which the west funds?

Why not talk about the way Irish and Africa slaves in the 16th and 17th century had children with eachother and how welcoming hunter-gather tribes are to visitors and then discuss inter-racial tension only existing in the 18th century after the birth of the nation state??

I agree with you that more research is needed. However that means using the hypothetico deductive method and admitting where it needs to be admitted that things are as "cultured" as our media would have us believe?

Let's stick to the original point

Both the above comment and Pinker are talking about violent deaths, not deaths in general, nor any other type. If you would like to expand on the category of violent deaths, there is room for more research.

This is obviously a big topic, something that we must begin to tackle one piece at a time. Pinker's latest book also looks only at violent deaths, and even it, at several hundred pages of synthesized research, is far from the final word on just violent deaths.

For those who like to complain that violent deaths is too small an analysis point, please, add to this research. Before we can come to a grander picture of the role of the general concept of violence, we must first understand all of its different forms. Looking at the narrower definition of violent deaths is just the beginning of this line of understanding.

What? Not enough comparison


Not enough comparison of humans with bonobos?

And here we are as humans, societies worldwide where females bond with each other through sex, where infants and adults calm each other with genital touching, where sons hardly bond as males because they are so bonded to their mothers, where males only get sex because their mothers have status.

Male-male bonding, nah, that's a chimpanzee thing along with battering of females and territorial defence. Not like us humans and bonobos.



Christopher Ryan says "Leaving aside the complications of defining rape in nonhuman species unable to communicate their experiences and motivations, rape—along with infanticide, war, and murder-has never been witnessed among bonobos in several decades of observation. Not in the wild. Not in the zoo. Never."

Yet a new scientist article 17:11 13 October 2008 /Ewen Callaway reads

"Don't be fooled by their reputation for altruism and free love - bonobos hunt and kill monkeys just like their more vicious chimpanzees cousins, according to new research.

"Bonobos are merciless," says Gottfried Hohmann, a behavioural ecologist at Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. He witnessed several monkey hunts among bonobos living in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and says, "they catch it and start eating it. They don't bother to kill it".

I still more research needs to be done, and US foreign policy should be a part of that (including who they fund) but this has to be said. That Bonobos article was written in 2008 and this is 2011, maybe it has since been disproven, but I felt it had to be mentioned.

Thanks for your comment.

Thanks for your comment. Bonobos hunting monkeys isn't "murder" though, any more than humans hunting monkeys is. It's hunting another species.

Please see an earlier post on this:

Bonobo obsessed, and wrong about HG violence

Here's another video for Ryan to sneer at. It's by Robert Wyman, Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at Yale.

Watch the first four segments, as they relate to this discussion of hunter-gatherer, bonobo, and chimp violence. He disagrees with Ryan on just about everything. His expertise is on how genes correspond to behavior.

Global Problems of Population Growth

Your "love not war" view of hunter-gatherers has no support.

Another thing.
What in the world do bonobos have to do with human behavior? I have yet to see a logical explanation of the relevance of bonobos to any human behavior, including mating behavior.
Should I observe wolves (monogamous) mating behavior to understand by pet dog's (promiscuous) mating behavior? Those 2 species are far more closely related than us and bonobos.

Bonobos are not our cousins. They branched off from humans 6-7 million years ago, and went their own way. In doing so they developed mating strategies (genes) that differed from our common ancestor, and eventually from the common ancestor bonobos shared with chimps.

Guess what happened on the human side of the tree? 7 million years and at least 20 different human ancestors. One of those ancestors evolved a male-female size differential similar to gorillas, thus a completely different mating strategy than bonobos or chimps.

The following is from “Evolution of Human Parental Behavior and the Human Family” David C. Geary and Mark V. Flinn. It states the fossil record indicates a hominid lineage with diverse parental and mating strategies. The australopithecine species (4 million years ago) appears to have been more Gorilla-like in its mating strategy, which differs significantly from chimps, bonobos, or humans.

If our more recent DIRECT ancestor evolved a gorilla-like mating strategy (unique genes & anatomy), what possible relevance does a more ancient ape, who was on a separate evolutionary branch, have to with human mating?

Humans are socially monogamous, and bonobos are not, no matter how you cherry pick your sources. See discussion here:

What in the world do bonobos

What in the world do bonobos have to do with human behavior? I have yet to see a logical explanation of the relevance of bonobos to any human behavior, including mating behavior.

The general logic people like Ryan use is that far too often thinkers base their inductions about the evolutionary ancestry of human behaviors by pointing to the behavior of chimps. Since the bonobo and the chimp are basically equally 'related' to humans, citing one as evidence of an ancient history to our behavior when that is directly opposite what the other does is poor form.

Are these groups representative of our hunter-gatherer ancestors?

They are just as representative as those you picked to attempt to show our ancestors to have no interest in paternity.

more on bonobos


we have on bonobo aggression:

"I have seen knock-down, drag out fights. I’ve seen males especially aggressing against other males, I’ve seen males aggressing against females."
"Among males you see more individualistic strategies, that of competing with other males rather than being a cohesive male-bonded society. So if you just look at the social organization, at the grooming patterns or friendly patterns in any form, you’ll see far more female-female friendships and very few male-male friendships and a great deal of tension among males."
"Also, mating can happen just in response to male aggression. So you get sexual coercion, where males aggress against other females, females mate with them and it calms the male down. Plus you have mating under tense situations, males will go and try to get ahead of a group of females and then males fight to protect the food patch and when the females arrive they will have to mate with the male who’s won to get into the tree."


we have bonobo aggression:

"Hohmann recalled what he described as a “murder story.” A few years ago, he said, he was watching a young female bonobo sitting on a branch with its baby. A male, perhaps the father of the baby, jumped onto the branch, in apparent provocation. The female lunged at the male, which fell to the ground. Other females jumped down onto the male, in a scene of frenzied violence. “It went on for thirty minutes,” Hohmann said. “It was terribly scary. We didn’t know what was going to happen. Shrieking all the time. Just bonobos on the ground. After thirty minutes, they all went back up into the tree. It was hard to recognize them, their hair all on end and their faces changed. They were really different.” Hohmann said that he had looked closely at the scene of the attack, where the vegetation had been torn and flattened. “We saw fur, but no skin, and no blood. And he was gone.” During the following year, Hohmann and his colleagues tried to find the male, but it was not seen again. Although Hohmann has never published an account of the episode, for lack of anything but circumstantial evidence, his view is that the male bonobo suffered fatal injuries.

On another occasion, Hohmann thinks that he came close to seeing infanticide, which is also generally ruled to be beyond the bonobo’s behavioral repertoire. A newborn was taken from its mother by another female; Hohmann saw the mother a day later. This female was carrying its baby again, but the baby was dead. “Now it becomes a criminal story,” Hohmann said, in a mock-legal tone. “What could have happened? This is all we have, the facts. My story is the unknown female carried the baby but didn’t feed it and it died.” Hohmann has made only an oblique reference to this incident in print."

This, incidently, is what has been seen in some monkeys where a high-ranking female will take the infant from a low-ranking female and due to neglect the infant will die.


we have de Waal:
"Many such cases [of bonobo aggression]have been documented at zoos over the years, and have actually led to changes in policies of how to keep bonobos. This is why I warned in Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape not to romanticize the species: “All animals are competitive by nature and cooperative only under specific circumstances.”"
"While writing Bonobo, I interviewed field workers, such as Kano and also Hohmann. Asking the latter how his bonobos react to another group, Hohmann replied: “It starts out very tense, with shouting and chasing, but then they settle down and there is female-female and male-female sex between members of the two communities. Grooming may occur, but remains tense and nervous.”9 This is not exactly the stuff expected of killer apes, although Hohmann did add that groups do not always mingle and that he never saw males from different groups groom."

Re. sex de Waal says: "so long as we call sex “sex”"

"I understand the frustration of field workers with the image of bonobos as angels of peace, which is not only one-dimensional, but incorrect. On the other hand, anyone who objects to the occasional hyperbole (such as “chimpanzees are from Mars, bonobos are from Venus”), should realize that no one would ever have heard of the species — and no reporter would have considered them for a piece in The New Yorker — if they’d been described as merely affectionate. Possibly, one or two decades from now a new image of the bonobo will emerge, one more complex than what we have today."


Because of the resources available to bonobos they travel in mixed parties more than do chimpanzees (though there is variation in chimpanzees in this and same-sex bonding too). While in chimpanzees only the males are at the borders of the territory it means that when two communities meet the males are total strangers to each other.

In bonobos with mixed parties when two communities meet there are both sexes. Females move from their birth group to breed so with the presence of females at the meeting we likely have females in their breeding community having history with members of the community with whom they meet. While the males are strangers to each other and we still have a lot of tension and agonistic behaviours, the mixing of the females is with what will likely be individuals they know from their pre-breeding lives plus the behaviour of females to g-g rub with stranger females which they must do to relieve the conflict between unrelated females.

While bonobos do indeed have different behaviours than chimpanzees there is variation between bonobo communities and between chimpanzee communities which seem to be related to ecology, and in many social behaviours there is overlap between the two species.
It has been unfortunate that the need for media attention has led to an exaggeration of bonobo sexual behaviour and peacefulness. Many many people have the weirdest ideas about bonobos which is incredibly frustrating to those of us who have deeper knowledge of the sexual and social conflicts and aggression and competition that exists.

What is significant about both species in relation to humans is that we managed to evolve some mechanism where males from different natal groups didn't either automatically kill each other (as in chimpanzees)or even just be agonistic (as in bonobos).
The most recent work on this suggests it is the 'in-laws' that became important to humans - relations between groups through marriage that creates an extended network of 'kith and kin' and allows for movement of both sexes between different groups of people.

Reply to Anonymous on April 3, 2011 - 3:12am

Your long-winded comment proves absolutely nothing. It certainly doesn't contradict anything Christopher Ryan wrote. There has been no authenticated case of murder, infanticide, rape or war amongst bonobos. You merely cited suggestions of aggression, a possible murder 'story' based on an anecdote, and someone who thought he came "close to seeing infanticide".

hunter-gatherers and marriage

On the importance of marriage to the increased network of humans see:

The paper:
Co-Residence Patterns in Hunter-Gatherer Societies Show Unique Human Social Structure

and from the podcast from page 5:

page 7
"Adjacent bands nearby generally have peaceful relationships because they are exchanging marital partners"
"[....]they're constantly exchanging matital partners."
"So, the hunter-gatherer bands when they do engage in warfare, which is quite freqent, are usually going far away to other groups distant from them that are not exchanging marriage partners with them...........A lot of times in hunter-gatherers they go far away to capture, particularly to capture, females for mates for the males of the group."

But to what end?

This argument over whether or not Steven Pinker uses false data, and whether or not we do or do not have violent ancestors is really not the point, and I'm surprised no one else has commented on this fact.

Why does the Pinker/chimpanzee camp want? A way to justify how wonderful the world we now live in is. They like it because it's working out for them; look at all the cool cell phones/houses/cars we have; life is essentially pretty great, and greater than it has ever been in the history of the planet for some people.

What does the Ryan/bonobo camp want? A way to justify how terrible the world we now live in is. They don't like it because it's not working out for them; look at all the starving/poor/tragic we have; life is worse than it has ever been in the history of the planet for some people.

It's really a question of what you want to prove.

To be fair...

...the "Ryan/bonobo camp" is not necessarily a group about which it can honestly be said modernity is "not working out for them". More accurate I think is to say that they feel guilty about how well things are working for them. They are heavily invested in a kind of Chomskyesque view of the world in which everything the West (and especially the U.S.) does is malign.

I myself consider myself generally on the left politically, but I call myself more of a "Star Trek progressive" because I reject this kind of doom and gloom viewpoint toward the world, and reject the antipathy toward Western democratic cultural progress.

Because if you use false

Because if you use false data, you get false conclusions. Isn't that the whole point of trying to scientifically argue anything? One's argument needs to withstand critical scrutiny, otherwise no one has any reason to take one's argument or thesis seriously.

Your comment makes no sense.

This is a pretty funny

This is a pretty funny argument considering the poster children of "natural non-monogamy" presented in the book aren't representative of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, either.

Guess there are plenty of cherries for everyone to pick.


For the record, Hobbes's State of Nature does NOT mean prehistoric. He's talking about any situation in which there is no rule of law. He even specifically says that he does not believe that such a time frame ever existed where everyone was like this, but that the basic element of human nature remains to this day, whenever a situation arises in which there is no 'power able to overawe us'. I think Hobbes is wrong, but calling his claim a view of prehistoric man is misleading at best. More accurately, it's just wrong.

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Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins 2010).


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