Bella's Introduction

When fellow PT blogger Christopher Ryan sent me a copy of his new book, Sex at Dawn, I have to admit that I expected to be just selectively interested in it. I thought I'd read a few sections that were relevant to my own obsessions, then treat the rest as a page-turner (you know, turn the pages until you find something worth stopping to read).

So what a nice surprise to start reading at page one and feel engaged, educated, and amused almost all the way through. Ryan and co-author Cacilda Jetha have a great writing "voice" - sometimes wry, occasionally mocking, almost always intriguing. So I kept reading and reading until I got to the bottom of page 302 (out of 312), at which point I was so disappointed that I had to set the book aside for a few days before I could pick it up again. More on that later.

Sex at Dawn fearlessly takes on some of the most fundamental assumptions of evolutionary psychology and some of the most basic beliefs of our time. Among the myths the authors challenge are that "monogamy is natural, marriage is a human universal, and any family structure other than the nuclear is aberrant" (p. 5). They have little use for the one about how "men and women evolved in families in which a man's possessions and protection were exchanged for a woman's fertility and fidelity."

I love myth-busting, probably in part because I like to think that I'm in the same business myself (though focusing on different myths). So I appreciate Ryan and Jetha's questioning spirit, but I have to admit that I can't evaluate most of their conclusions. I'm not an anthropologist who could point to some tribe they may have missed, nor a comparative psychologist who could claim that some other sets of creatures undermine their claims. Most importantly, I have no expertise in evolutionary psychology, so I can't determine whether they've treated fairly the people and the propositions they are skewering.

Full disclosure: I have links to some of the people critiqued in the book. For example, Steve Pinker and I were graduate students together at Harvard. Also, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby (not mentioned by name in the text but their work is cited) are colleagues of mine here at UCSB where I'm a visiting professor. My impression of these three scholars is that they are often heart-stoppingly smart. I remember watching Leda Cosmides give a talk once, and it seemed like she couldn't talk fast enough to keep up with her own thoughts.

Bella: So, Christopher Ryan, here's my first question: How can you reconcile how smart I think these scholars are with, for example, the buffoon that you make Pinker out to be in recounting his TED talk (p. 183-185)? (And yes, you are allowed to say that I've been had.)

Christopher Ryan: That's an excellent question to begin with. Let's begin by stipulating that being smart doesn't mean never being wrong. So while I agree with you that the people you mention (whom I've never met personally) are very bright and very well-versed in the areas they write about, that doesn't mean they can't arrive at mistaken conclusions sometimes, just like the rest of us.

Having said that, the case you mention, which concerns Steven Pinker's claims-made both in his book The Blank Slate and in the TED talk you mention-that levels of death due to warfare in hunter-gatherer societies was off the charts, and then citing as evidence societies that clearly are not hunter/gatherers . . . well, I don't know how to explain that. I'm perplexed by it as well. The Blank Slate came out in 2002, but he gave the TED talk we cite five years later! It's hard to believe that nobody alerted him to the fact that his examples were irrelevant to the point he was arguing in those five years.

Evolutionary Psychology has a lot to offer, but unfortunately it's riddled with confirmation bias. We found several examples of glaringly shoddy arguments made by prominent scholars, particularly when in came to this issue of the origins of human warfare. It's really pretty dispiriting to see ideology so brutally dominate critical thinking among people who pride themselves on their critical faculties.

To be fair, I'm sure some readers will accuse us of the same sorts of oversights, but if they're right, I guarantee you won't find me citing the same disproven statistics five years later!

Bella: You have a lot to say in Sex at Dawn about humans as highly sexual creatures with a fondness for a variety of sexual experiences and partners. But do you think that sexual interest is like so many other human characteristics in that it is variable? Maybe there is a typical interest in sex and in sexual variety (and I think you are telling us that these averages are higher than we have been led to believe), but isn't there also a range, such that some people are much less interested than others while some are even more interested? (I'm describing some sort of bell curve, for those who are familiar with the jargon.)

Christopher Ryan: Yes, you're certainly right that any discussion of human sexual response has to assume a great degree of variability, both between individuals and within individuals-especially women. A woman's feelings and attitudes toward sex are constantly fluctuating in response to her menstrual cycle, her relationship status, her age, how emotionally secure she feels, whether or not she's pregnant, the pheromones wafting through the air, and so on. This makes writing about female sexuality especially challenging, by the way!

Bella: Have you heard from any of the people you critiqued?

Christopher Ryan: No, not since the book was published. Before publication, we sent relevant chapters to Frans de Waal and Helen Fisher, to give them a chance to point out any errors they found or to make the case that we were being unfair in some way. While we disagree with some of their positions on human sexual evolution, we respect both of them very much. I think Helen was too busy to deal with our argument (understandably) and Frans clarified a few points with us and then, like the true scientist he is, wished us luck with the book-even offering us a blurb! I don't think Steven Pinker will be offering us a blurb . . . .

Bella: Now that the book has been out for a while and you've had people buzzing about it (here is where I mention that Sex at Dawn has been on the NY Times Bestseller list and that I'm very envious), is there anything you would add or rewrite if you could?

Christopher Ryan: That's another excellent question, which nobody has asked until now. I guess that's the kind of question one writer asks another! At the end of the book, we added a short "What Now?" section where we tried to very briefly show how some of the information presented in the book might be applied to contemporary marital problems. This was something of an afterthought, as the original manuscript ended without this material. Our editor and others thought it important to at least offer some minimal prescriptive discussion, so we agreed to address the typical husband-gets-caught-cheating scenario. More than a few readers have written to tell us that this feels imbalanced, in that we don't really address the other, balancing scenario where it's the wife who is yearning for a novel lover and has an affair. This is a legitimate criticism, I think. So, in retrospect, maybe we should have either offered a full discussion or none at all. We went this route because this seems to be the most frequent marital crisis people encounter, and because it's so complicated to talk about female sexual response, as I mentioned before. With most men, sexual novelty is pretty motivating per se, but women's motivations are much more nuanced and variable, so any brief discussion is doomed to failure, I'm afraid!

Bella: OK, now I'm going to whine about my big disappointment. I really didn't see it coming. (I'm going to need to build up to my point here, so please be patient.) I had loved how, through most of the book, you shot down the supposed superiority of the nuclear family. I especially appreciated your pointing out that children may have an advantage when more than two adults take an interest in them and have an important place in their lives.

When I researched Singled Out, I read research reports by sociologists such as Rosanna Hertz and Faith Ferguson who studied single mothers intensively. They found that far from raising their children single-handedly, single mothers were part of a whole ensemble of friends, relatives, and neighbors who helped one another and the children. I looked closely at lots of studies comparing the outcomes of children raised by single parents to those of children in married-parent homes. I found that many of the dire proclamations about the fate of the children of single and divorced parents were greatly exaggerated or just plain wrong.

I continued to read the literature on children of single parents, and I've discussed it on this blog (here and here and here). I made fun of Caitlin Flangan for her Time magazine story in which she peddles all those silly myths and scare stories. I thought for sure that from you, I'd hear about the studies showing that in some cultures, children of single parents actually do as well or better in some important ways than children of married parents - probably because extended family members step in to help.

So perhaps you can now understand how appalled I was to find you repeating those claims about how children of single parents are doomed, and using as your source, not a scholar, but Caitlin Flanagan! Please say "uncle."

Christopher Ryan: Uncle! I defer to your expertise in this literature. But (You knew there'd be a "but" right?) in our defense, I would say that our main point is that American society is especially hard on single parents and their children. I have no doubt that many single parents do an amazing job, but let's face it, they're climbing a steep hill to pull it off. Here in Spain, where I live, you see extended families pitching in all the time, as most people live close to their parents and grandparents, so there's a free baby-sitting service always available. But in the States, women are often left without this sort of help from extended family and the amount and quality of public support for mothers and their children in the States is, frankly, shameful. I used to work with homeless kids in San Francisco. I saw first-hand how difficult life was for single mothers trying to make a good life for their kids. It takes a village, but there was no village supporting these women. Unless they were out-and-out destitute, they got little or no help from the government. In a highly mobile society like America, where families are often spread all over the place, and government doesn't pitch in to help, single mothers and their kids are in a very vulnerable position. So I think we agree that single parents deserve our respect and support, rather than criticism.

[You can read Christopher Ryan's blog here at Psychology Today. To learn more about him and his new book, check out this website.]

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