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Megan McArdle Really Hates Sex at Dawn

Some people HATE our book!

"The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about."
—Oscar Wilde

Over the years of cocktail party conversations that proceeded the publication of Sex at Dawn, Cacilda and I have witnessed many reactions to our proposal that monogamy doesn't come naturally to most people. They range from "Yeah, so?" to "How dare you suggest such a thing?"

To many—especially those who have no familiarity with evolutionary theory—the notion that sexual monogamy is an uncomfortable fit for most human beings is utterly obvious. "Just look around." they say, "Half the people in this room are divorced, or about to be."

These are people you can talk to and—more importantly—listen to. They respect evidence and try to follow it where it leads. They might find your thesis unimaginative, but they're unlikely to be offended by it—or by any other idea, for that matter. They may agree or disagree with your reasoning, but they're likely to surprise you with a question you'd never considered. You can learn from these folks.

But then you get someone who feels so personally threatened by the very idea that they don't give a damn about "your so-called evidence" (they assume you're making it all up anyway). Normally, they won't even let you explain what the book's about, so certain are they that it's nothing but poppycock.

Stand back, because you're likely to get wine in your eye as they sputter and spray their indignation. Best to avoid them entirely if you can, as there's no reasoning with someone who is reacting personally to an impersonal scientific argument. If you do try to engage, expect playground-level tactics: name-calling, misrepresentation, slander, and personal insult.

The trick is to learn not to take any of it personally, because they're not really talking about you, or your book. They're talking about themselves, often quite revealingly, at that.

In the two months since Sex at Dawn came out, we've seen this range expressed in the reviews people have written and in the comments they've sent us. Amazingly, and very gratifyingly, most have been incredibly generous and often personally touching.

A few days ago, for example, we received an email that said, simply, "I just finished reading Sex at Dawn. I am a 63 year old widow and I consider this one of the most important books I've ever read. I wish I could live my life over with this information."

If a writer can receive a more beautiful message, I can't imagine what it might be.

Then there's the sexologist who has the intellectual courage to reevaluate what he's believed for years, writing,

"I am a sex educator and have been teaching college students and adults what I have learned about Human Sexuality for many years. This book has caused me to look seriously at what I believed was factual about my favorite subject and question some of the received wisdom of my text books and mentors. I think this book is a MUST READ for every sexuality educator, therapist, researcher and anyone else seriously interested in the subject."


But still, every party has the red-faced, humorless, easily-offended type. Yesterday, at The Atlantic web site, Megan McArdle provided a stellar example. Her comments begin strangely, with the admission that she's "in the middle" of the book. Note the urgency to condemn it publicly, even before reading the damned thing! And boy, does she lash out:

• "It reads like horsefeathers . . . like an undergraduate thesis,"
• "breathless rather than scientific"
• "cherry-picked evidence stretched far out of shape to support their theory,"
• "they don't even attempt to paper over the enormous holes in their theory."

Ouch! And that's just the first paragraph. But wait, it gets worse. The second paragraph is worth quoting in full, as it's really a perfect expression of the bug-eyed panic the book provokes in some people:

"For example, like a lot of evolutionary biology critiques, this one leans heavily on bonobos (at least so far). Here's the thing: humans aren't like bonobos. And do you know how I know that we are not like bonobos? Because we're not like bonobos. There's no way observed human societies grew out of a species organized along the lines of a bonobo tribe." (emphasis in original)

Got that? Humans aren't like bonobos because we're not like bonobos. No way! So there! Case closed.

In addition to this somewhat embarassing "reasoning," it's pretty clear Ms. McArdle hasn't read even the first half of the book very closely. Pages 77 and 78 contain a table listing some of the major similarities between humans and bonobos, many of them unique to these two species. Hard to imagine how she managed to miss that. In the discussion of her article, she flatly states that chimps are genetically more closely related to humans than bonobos are, which is not only just plain wrong, it's something we explain very early in the book (along with a graph, no less, on p. 62).

Agree with our thesis or disagree with it, nobody who knows anything about primatology would argue that chimps are genetically closer to us than bonobos are (they're equidistant) or that humans and bonobos don't have a great deal in common—particularly in terms of our sexual behavior and anatomy. (The table appears below.)

Later in her comments, she writes, "If you're going to use evolutionary psychology, you need to deal with human jealousy, which is indeed pervasive. You can't leave it out just because it doesn't fit your model."

Chapter 10 of the book is called: Jealousy, A Beginner's Guide to Coveting Thy Neighbor's Spouse. How does one miss an entire chapter in a book you're writing about publicly?

I'm not familiar with Ms. McArdle's work, but if she's got a gig at The Atlantic, which is one of the most respected magazines in the country, presumably this is far below her usual intellectual standard.

Wonderful as it would be if Ms. McArdle's opinion of our book were to change when/if she gets around to actually reading it, I'm not holding my breath because I don't think she's responding to the substance of the book at all; she's responding to what it makes her feel, which is something entirely different.


Table from pp 77-78

  • Human and bonobo females copulate throughout menstrual cycle, as well as during lactation and pregnancy. Female chimps are sexually active only 25-40 percent of their cycle.
  • Human and bonobo infants develop much more slowly than chimpanzees, beginning to play with others at about 1.5 years, much later than chimps.
  • Like humans, female bonobos return to the group immediately after giving birth and copulate within months. They exhibit little fear of infanticide, which has never been observed in bonobos-captive or free-living.
  • Bonobos and humans enjoy many different copulatory positions, with ventral-ventral (missionary position) appearing to be preferred by bonobo females and rear-entry by males, while chimps prefer rear-entry almost exclusively.
  • Bonobos and humans often gaze into each other's eyes when copulating and kiss each other deeply. Chimps do neither.
  • The vulva is located between the legs and oriented toward the front of the body in humans and bonobos, rather than oriented toward the rear as in chimps and other primates.
  • Food sharing is highly associated with sexual activity in humans and bonobos, only moderately so in chimps.
  • There is a high degree of variability in potential sexual combinations in humans and bonobos; homosexual activity is common in both, but rare in chimps.
  • Genital-genital (G-G) rubbing between female bonobos appears to affirm female bonding, is present in all bonobo populations studied (wild and captive), and is completely absent in chimpanzees. Human data on G-G rubbing are presently unavailable. (Attention: ambitious graduate students!)
  • While sexual activity in chimps and other primates appears to be primarily reproductive, bonobos and humans utilize sexuality for social purposes (tension reduction, bonding, conflict resolution, entertainment, etc.).
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