Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

Ill-Fated Interview Part VI

The sixth and final installment of my most in-depth interview.

Here's the sixth and final part of my ill-fated interview with Mark Leviton. Thanks again, Mark, for such a well-prepared interview.

Leviton:  Current European society seems to have many more public and accepted forms of non-traditional relationships.  French Prime Ministers, the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy and many others appear at events with their wives and mistresses, who know each other.  But maybe this is just the traditional exploitation of women, who have to go along with what their powerful spouses want.  Some of the feminist critique - as with porn - is that even when the women appear to agree, they are being coerced by forces much greater.

Ryan:  I would cite Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman by Majorie Shostak.  She was researching her Ph.D. at Harvard and went to Botswana with the idea of studying women in the Kalahari "bushman" society, a hunter-gatherer society.  She was having a hard time getting the women to talk about their sexual experiences, and then Marjorie met this one woman who really understood what she wanted to know, and told her everything.  The thesis turned out to be about this one woman, Nisa.  It's a beautiful book, a first-person account of all stages of life, falling in love, giving birth, aging parents, all the stuff we all go through, but in a completely alien (to us) environment.  You can read all this exotic detail, and see that what really matters is the same for Nisa and you and me.  It's a very intimate look at a woman's perspective in that world.  And they talk about lovers, and Nisa says having one lover would never be enough because one makes you laugh, one brings you meat, another smells great. . .she has this sense of how each relationship fulfills a different part of her life.  That's an example I'd point to of a woman who's obviously in tune with a non-monogamist approach to life.

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Because the status of women is high in hunter-gatherer societies, to assume they are being dragged into this arrangement against their will is "Flintstonizing" it, projecting from our cultural viewpoint where women can be manipulated, because they don't have sufficient or equal access to resources without going through some man, whether it's a father or a husband.  In hunter-gatherer societies, where the women provide more of the daily calories than the men do, it's very hard to manipulate a woman into doing something, because she doesn't need your approval, doesn't need you for food or financial security.  Women tend to be very strong-willed in those societies.

Leviton:  So you're looking at what seems intrinsic to ancient human development, but is that a reason to institute changes to our current organizing principles for relationships in 2011? 

Ryan: I would certainly argue it's a good thing for women to have more control of their access to resources and sexuality now.

Outside of the Catholic Church, it's hard to see who'd really be against that.

Leviton:  So our modern society favors men?

Ryan:  There's an economic structure that victimizes men and women, and their children.  It doesn't favor men quite in the way it did in Victorian times, when if a woman didn't get married she could basically chose between prostitution or death; there weren't many other options.  Women couldn't work independently, or raise children on their own, because of the shame and social injunctions against that. 

At this point men and women are victims of culturally-imposed monogamy, and it's very much an economic issue.  To the extent we support women and children through social programs that provide education, medical care and whatever else is necessary, women's autonomy is increased, and you find more sexual freedom, in places like Denmark or Sweden for instance.  Part of the reason there's a more relaxed attitude to alternative sexual practices in Scandanavia is that women aren't as tied into a brutal economic system where if a man doesn't help you, no one else will.

Leviton:  Isn't monogamy providing any valuable control over behavior that would otherwise be destructive to civilization, to our best intentions?  Does monogamy for instance have an effect on the incidence of incest or other exploitation?

Ryan: That's a good question.  Let's take incest as an example.  Monogamy probably promotes more sorts of destructive sexual behavior than it protects against.  With incest there are natural genetic barriers that have been demonstrated repeatedly, with plenty of research on the subject (the Westermarck effect).  But when you've got someone cut off from healthy expressions of sexuality, what happens is they often resort to helpless, disempowered people, who tend to be children.  That's what we see in the Catholic Church, a classic example.  I would argue incest and certain kinds of rape are the same sort of thing. 

I was recently reading very compelling research showing that as pornography becomes free on the internet sexual abuse against women declines.  They watch free porn, and don't need to get into these destructive kind of relationships.

Leviton:  So you're not saying just because something is "natural" or "biological" it should be applied to our current situation.  You are concerned with how well it works in the 21st century.

Ryan:  You can't ignore elements in our design, our evolutionary design.  Without getting into areas of "should" - we need to avoid "shoulds" - and whatever "natural means" (plastic is natural, inasmuch as it was created by animals) - the point we try to make in the book is not that you should do this or that, but that whatever decisions you make in life, they need to be informed by the truth.  The truth is that this is the kind of animal we are, probably the most sexual creature on Earth.  The ratio of sex acts per birth for our species is higher than any other, including bonobos.  We have sex when the female is menstruating, when they are post-menopausal, we have anal and oral sex, we have hand-jobs - all these types of sex that can't possibly lead to pregnancy - so the notion that sex is about reproduction is ridiculous.  Sex is 99.99% of the time not about reproduction, it's about relationship, pleasure, bonding.  To ignore that and pretend it's all about having babies misses the point, and is navigating with your eyes closed. You'll keep running into things.

We are not saying in the book that people should or shouldn't be monogamous.  When we look in the mirror we should see what kind of animal we really are, and not imagine some idealized pristine angelic being.

Leviton:  So this encompasses lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, since sexuality doesn't have to be about reproduction.

Ryan:  Right. Freud said civilization itself is the result of deflected and repressed sexual energy.  Whether or not civilization is a net gain for our species is an open question, which is the subject of my next book.  To the extent that our sexual energy is being re-directed, we need to understand that and use it creatively, and not destructively.

Leviton:  You write a lot about bonobos, but even though we are equally close to chimpanzees you don't write as much about them.  Why not?

Ryan:  There's already a lot written about chimps.  Jane Goodall and others have been provided so much information about chimp behavior.  Bonobos are a more powerful argument for the points we are making in the book - especially in terms of their sexual behavior.  Chimps also have very rambunctious sex lives, but they are also much more power-based, with very dominant and abusive males.  You don't see a lot of that in hunter-gatherer societies.  Since we are saying female autonomy is high there, those are much more like bonobo social groups.

Leviton:  As you acknowledge, we have no witness testimonies from pre-history.  So your argument about Hobbes being off-base is based on several pillars: the study of indigenous cultures, our nearest primate cousins, and human anatomy.

Ryan:  Male anatomy is especially full of information on the subject.  External testicles, testicular body-mass ratio, the shape of the penis, the composition of semen ... all are indicative of multiple mating in our ancestral past.

Leviton:  So Hobbes, Darwin and Freud - all serious thinkers - are handicapped by their lack of awareness about how their current societal norms are pushing them to conclude certain things.  Hobbes looks at current society and just can't see that it might have been different many centuries before.

Ryan:  We all do that, I'm sure I'm guilty of that as well.  But you have to factor in the lack of data they had.  Hobbes had nothing to go by, he'd probably never even seen an ape, let alone have any information about hunter-gatherer societies.  That's why the criticisms we make of Darwin are very tempered.  We're not criticizing him as a thinker, or as a human being.  I'm convinced if he were alive today he'd be the first to rush to revise his theories in light of new data.  He was all about collecting information; he was corresponding with hundreds of people around the world about their observations.  He was very serious about getting the latest and most comprehensive information he could.  If he lived now, he'd be casting a critical eye on his own theories.

Leviton:  Can you talk about where your inquiry is leading you now?

Ryan:  The next book is planned as an expansion of that Hobbesian middle section of Sex At Dawn, where we talk about how early life was not solitary, brutish, poor, nasty or short.  The tentative title is Civilized To Death, and the idea is that there's a growing divergence between the sort of life our ancestors evolved to live, and the lives we're actually living.  When we look at these scenarios, you find a conflict, and trauma.  We find it in our diets, our non-prehistoric diet that's given us diabetes, obesity, arteriosclerosis, cancer and other diseases of civilization.  We're inside buildings much of the time, we're wearing clothes most of the time, we're afraid of the sun - this causes all kinds of problems.  There's the hygiene hypothesis, that kids don't play in the dirt anymore so they're getting all these allergies, they lack immune response.   We can even investigate things like exercise patterns, as studied by Christopher McDougall in his book Born to Run, about the amazing long-distance barefoot runners, the Tarahumara of Northern Mexico, which could help create a revolution in shoe design and understanding of how the feet and legs absorb shock.  The typical Nike shoes, with padded heels, wouldn't work for the Tarahumara, who run on the balls of their feet, like most "native" runners. 

Civilization creates the problems and then sells you a partial solution.  You can't go against the design of your body.

Leviton:  In The Vegetarian Myth, radical ecologist Lierre Keith argues that agriculture itself is an assault on our planet, and more of the same won't save us.  You write about something similar, how when agriculture develops and displaces hunting and gathering, people stay in one place, cultivate, and create cultures based on resource hoarding and the threat of starvation.

Ryan:  Jared Diamond has written that agriculture - civilization, basically the same thing - was the greatest mistake in the history of the human race.  The biggest killers of humans, diseases, all came post-agriculture, from domesticated animals that were living in close proximity to people.  The viruses jump over: influenza, tuberculosis, you name it.  Healthy diet plummeted with the advent of agriculture.  We know from the skeletons of people directly before agriculture, in what is now the Fertile Crescent, that the average man was 5' 8" tall.  Just after agriculture came along, he went down to 5' 5".  In two or three thousand years.  Greeks, Syrians, Iraqis are just now regaining the physical stature they had 12,000 years ago.  From skeletons you can see how civilization brought tooth decay, indications of extended famines - after agriculture.

So what defines a successful species?  Should we patting ourselves on the back?  Rats and cockroaches are successful, but are the individual members of a species living better today than they were 10,000 years ago?  I think for humans the answer to that is clearly "No."  That's what the next book is about.

Leviton:  We have gotten used to having lots of comforts.  Most people in the United States like air conditioning quite a bit.  But what's it like psychologically to not really feel the weather, to have ways around it?

Ryan: It's healthy for your body to react to heat.  You expel toxins.  You lose weight, you burn calories reacting to temperature changes.  It's good for your heart to be sweating.  There are all sorts of unanticipated consequences to "progress."

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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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