Sunday, 3 March 2013

Non-fiction Review: 'Sex At Dawn' by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

I was a bit nervous about reading this book - not another tract on evolutionary psychology, and how humans are all just bonobos at heart! Fortunately, it’s much more than that, and the authors dissect evolutionary psychology with such surgical precision that I was mentally cheering at several points. They still take the view that modern humans carry the scars of our evolutionary history with us, but they don’t buy into the whole enchilada.

The basic premise is that humans are not evolved for lifetime monogamy, a thesis the authors support by physical, anthropological and comparative evidence. I found many of these arguments quite compelling, especially where they dismantle the research of some of the big names in the field. It’s clear that evo-psych makes far too many assumptions about what the evolutionary environment was like, and that too much dependence has been placed on research into models of hunter-gatherer societies which are based on surviving groups who have been affected by contact with modern lifestyles, or are not true foragers at all. However, not all the authors’ own conclusions are rock solid, either.

Where the book fails, perhaps, is in determining just what kind of arrangement humans might have had in hunter-gatherer days. They convincingly argue against monogamy, but what else was viable for early humans? Full-on promiscuity? Pair-bonding with plenty of playing away? Serial monogamy? Long-term multi-mate groupings? They look at all of these, but make no conclusive case for any one in particular. Perhaps they preferred to leave that open, but still it would have been interesting to know which of them they thought our ancestors might have enjoyed, and why. Serial monogamy is the only one widely tried in modern society, with limited success. The others are very minority states. They also fail, I think, to take sufficient account of the economic benefits of monogamy - it’s an arrangement that works well in a property-owning society, on the whole. It may have weaknesses, but it’s survived more or less intact in the vast majority of cultures for millennia. Until our economic and social systems change, I don’t see much likelihood of any movement away from it.

This is an interesting book, written in a relaxed and readable style, with plenty of humour. It’s not going to revolutionise society, and some of the arguments are over-stated, perhaps, but if it causes even one couple to think twice before sending for the divorce lawyers, it will have achieved something worthwhile. Four stars.

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