Christopher Ryan Ph.D.

Sex at Dawn

Ill-Fated Interview Part I

Part I of an in-depth interview about Sex at Dawn.

Posted Aug 12, 2011

Just after Sex at Dawn came out, I was contacted by Mark Leviton, a free-lance journalist who'd been commissioned by a major magazine to do an in-depth interview with me about the implications of what we argue in our book. A year later, Mark's just been told the mag isn't going to run the interview, after all. The irony of all this is that of all the interviewers I've spoken with in the past year, none was more thorough and professional than Mark. Just goes to show...

I'll run our conversation here, broken into parts, to keep it bite-sized.

Part I

Research psychologist Christopher Ryan believes that not only is sexual monogamy difficult to maintain for most people, but it goes against our very nature as homo sapiens.  In Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (Harper Collins 2010) he and his co-author (and wife) psychiatrist Cacilda Jethá argue that for the vast majority of human existence, we lived in small egalitarian groups, where women had full political, economic and sexual equality, resources were plentiful, children and adults were very healthy, and non-violent conflict resolution was the norm.  Ryan and Jethá present extensive evidence that for centuries, anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists have allowed Thomas Hobbes' incorrect picture of the lives of our ancestors ("solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short") to influence  research and distort our view of the possibilities for structuring modern societies and sexual relations..  They cite studies that show, excluding primates, only 3 percent of mammals and one in ten thousand invertebrate species can be considered sexually monogamous.  Sex At Dawn suggests humanity might relegate "Traditional marriage" to a rarely-used option if we better understood what new genetic research and primatology studies reveal about our social and sexual birthright.

Leviton: In the book you quote Goethe, who wrote "Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing.  A confusion of the real with the ideal never goes unpunished."  Why is marriage in the Western world doing so badly?

Ryan:  I think it comes down to expectations.  Especially in the United States, people have an unrealistic sense of what marriage is going to be, a sense that if you love someone, then sexual monogamy is going to be easy for you.  There's this assumed linkage between sexual desire and love.  One of the main points we try to make in the book is that those things aren't necessarily linked, and if they are, that link can "de-couple" (if you'll pardon the pun) over time, in a way that is not an indictment of the love, and does not expose any hypocrisy in the love.  It's a biological process.

What's happening to marriage and the divorce rate is not uniform.  Marriage rates in the United States are undergoing more of a shift than in Spain, where I live, for instance.  Northern Europe is another situation.  A lot of what's happening in Europe is because of generous social support for single mothers and children.  According to our hypothesis, the "standard narrative" of sexual pre-history we describe in the book is at heart an economic exchange, needed by women who are in a state of extreme vulnerability, who have no access to the necessities of life except through a man.  Consequently they are forced to trade the only thing they have, which is the certainty of the paternity of their children, to a man for resources and protection and so on.  When government provides support for single mothers, it disrupts this coercive relationship.

Leviton:  So marriages can fail because of cheating and it's assumed that therefore love has decayed.

Ryan:  Yes, and there's often a greater intolerance for cheating.  For example, imagine you get together with someone who has a drinking problem, but you agree she's not going to drink anymore and everything will be fine.  After twenty years, she has a few drinks.  Is that reason for divorce?  She was at a party, she had a few drinks, she didn't get drunk, she didn't get a sexually transmitted disease (or whatever the equivalent in the example would be of going completely haywire), and didn't drink on another night.  The American "script" as Pamela Druckerman calls it in her book Lust in Translation is very intolerant.  One episode means you've lost my trust forever and we're finished.  It seems pretty extreme, and it leads to a lot of broken families.   A recent Gallup poll found infidelity to be considered more heinous than abortion, suicide, animal testing or the death penalty.

Leviton:  Because this is an economic issue - as you say, some societies support single parents and alternatives to marriage - it goes back to your argument in the book that human sexual "pre-history" is also economic history.

Ryan:  Yes, exactly.  It's a reflection of an economic condition that existed for the vast majority of our evolutionary time as a species, that changed radically as a result of agriculture.

Leviton:  You take on so much philosophy and history, going after Hobbes, Malthus and Rousseau especially for being fundamentally wrong about human sexual and economic development.  When you started working on the book did you think you could just write about sex?

Ryan:  Yeah, that was the original idea, and our editor encouraged us to hew closer to that as we were developing the manuscript.  But the deeper we got into the writing more interconnections were exposed.  In telling the story I began to understand I couldn't leave out the fact that people lived twice as long in  pre-history than most people think.  I couldn't leave out the disinformation concerning human sexual evolution, I saw it was part of a whole propaganda package about pre-history.  Hobbes exemplifies that with his statement that our ancestors lived lives that were "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."  He was giving the message "be happy you're alive now!" because it was terrible back then.  And in the book we show he was wrong on every point.

It became clear that we needed to tell a larger story, to tell just the sexual story would have been titillating but not particularly illuminating.

Leviton:  Is the crucial moment when tribes stopped moving around, and began to have agriculture and domesticate animals?

Ryan: Yes, that's probably the simplest way of talking about it.  Anthropologists describe hunter-gatherer societies as either "simple" or "complex."  "Simple" or "immediate return" hunter-gatherer societies have absolutely no food accumulation or than an animal they killed yesterday that they haven't finished eating yet; they'll just continue later.  There's no dried fish or hoarding.  There are "complex" groups as in the Pacific Northwest who gather at the estuaries when the salmon run, get a bunch, dry them, and accumulate a store for winter.  Those "complex" societies have a lot of the trappings of agricultural societies, they tend to have more hierarchical structures, are more warlike, the status of women is decreased, they often have slaves, so when comparing hunter-gatherer to post-hunter-gatherer societies it's important to make this distinction between "immediate return" and "complex" hunter-gatherers, who might also have gardens and things like that.

Leviton:  You make the point, which is debatable in the scientific literature, that one of the reasons simple groups didn't even think of saving things, aside from technology, was that life was plentiful.  They didn't need to save anything on Tuesday for Friday.

Ryan:  We weren't there, so it's all debatable.  One of the quotes we used was from French Jesuit missionary Paul Le Jeune, who spend six months among the Montagnais in present-day Quebec.  He was exasperated by the natives' generosity.  He wrote that when he tried to explain the advantages of saving food, they laughed, and said "tomorrow we shall make another feast with what we shall capture."  Tomorrow we'll get another beaver, relax!  There was no refrigeration anyway and food was plentiful, so why bother.  It was a completely different psychological approach to living, and it's very difficult for us to imagine that because we're so focused on saving up for a rainy day.  That doesn't really enter the mind of an immediate-return forager.

Leviton:  How do immediate-return foragers view the status of women and sexual relations?

Ryan:  We're extrapolating, drawing conclusions about 50-100,000 years ago, but there are certain theoretical conclusions that are quite solid.  For example you start with the fact that foraging groups are almost always 150 people or fewer.  This is known as "Dunbar's Number" after Robin Dunbar, who noticed that in primates, the size of the functional social group corresponds to their neo-cortical development.  If you look at the brain of a primate you can estimate accurately how large the social group is in which that primate lives.  150 seems to be the number at which human beings "lose track."  Up to 150 people we can all know each other, and all relate to each other as individuals.  Above 150 we start to see each other as abstractions, an important shift in political behavior.

We've also got the fact that woman in immediate-return societies tend to supply more of the calories consumed by the group than men do.  Meat is a higher status food source, everybody parties and has a barbecue, but it's really the seeds, berries, leaves, insects and tubers that keep people alive day-to-day.  So the status of women is higher than men because A) they are very valued providers and B) they've got access to resources.  Everyone knows how to build their own hut, everyone knows how to find food, build a snare and so on.  If you can't cut someone off from what they need, you can't control them.  In pre-agricultural societies what you find is that political power is not coercive power as it is in post-agricultural societies, it's the power of being admired.  That's why you find this confusion when there's that typical scene in old movies and the white explorers say "take us to your leader" and the natives look at each other like "uh, what leaders?"  Which of our many leaders?  If the question is "Should we go to war?" then you're going to follow the advice of someone who's been to war.  And it depends on your attitude - "I'm against it, and he's probably going to be against it, so that's who I'll ask."

Leadership in these societies is based on admiration and your track record.  If you're a man or woman who has made demonstrably good decisions in the past, then people will look to you now.  Interestingly, one of the things that immediately disqualifies a person from a leadership role is wanting to be a leader.

The literature on this is very amusing, and tragic in a way.  There are all sorts of rituals to stop any individual from obtaining too much power, and rituals that come into effect as soon as a person starts enjoying having power.  As one anthropologist wrote in a report I read, "when a man gets too powerful, people start to die."  So it's interesting when you compare it to our political system, where you've got to have the "fire in the belly," to feel you were born to be the leader, rally people to your cause.  That runs directly counter to pre-agricultural peoples.

Leviton:  And there's a lot of sharing in these cultures.

Ryan:  Especially in the simple groups.  In the complex groups the sharing tends to be highly ritualized and becomes competitive sharing.  Like the Native Americans' Potlatch ceremonies, "the Big Man theory" which means your status is proportional to how much you give away.   Your actual material wealth is low because you're the guy who gives everything away.  An interesting mechanism.  In the simple societies which are the best reflection of our ancestors, sharing is the central organizing motif of the society, and as take great pains to say in the book it's not because of any inherent nobility, it is because it's the most efficient way of distributing risk in those societies.

Leviton:  So many things are accessible to women directly, they don't need to go through men.  How does this create a different sexual society?

Ryan:  That's it.  The men can't tell the women what to do or not to do.  You end up with female sexuality expressing itself much more freely without the shame that has been assumed since well before Darwin (but Darwin integrated it into a scientific theory).  He thought females are inherently sexually reticent.   In many hunter-gatherer societies female sexuality tends to be expressed more joyously.  Not that it's the same as male sexuality, but it's much different from what you see in most Western societies today.

Part II to follow...


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