Still trying to read 'Sex at Dawn' without actually killing myself

I made a little more progress, and then I got lost in the references, index, and footnotes because of how many things were simply MISSING, fundamental pieces of theory and science just MISSING ENTIRELY. Of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, they cite only a 1979 paper on infanticide [UPDATE: Author Christopher Ryan actually commented on this post and pointed out that there are in fact six works by Hrdy in the references. I missed them through inexcusable haste. Apologies!] Of Bobbi Low, a 1979 paper on ornamentation. Of Helena Cronin, they cite nothing. Of Lisa Lloyd, nothing. Of Jonathan Haidt, nothing. Of all of attachment theory, nothing – of Bowlby, strangely, they cite only his biography of Darwin. Of John Maynard Smith, only one dense paper on mathematical theories of sexual selection, nothing of game theory per se. Neither “game theory” nor “attachment” appears in the index. (The absence of references to game theory explains why, around p. 50, they get it so wrong.) Group selection, nowhere. (You’re going to propose a theory about human sexual evolution without even MENTIONING group selection?!)

The nicest thing I can say is that the book is an Op-Ed. It absolutely *is* saying “non-monogamy is natural and monogamy is not natural.” It’s in every page, in the choice of adjectives, the “this is a revolution!” style. And okay, well, it’s an op-ed and that’s their opinion. Whatever.

Their argument has only a tangential relationship to the science. For a person whose terminal degree demanded mastery of the literature the authors cite, the book is painful to read. I felt embarrassed for the authors, more with every page. Embarrassed, frustrated, and in the end, grief-laden that this appalling mess was a bestseller and has been identified by multiple people I know as “the best non-fiction book they’ve read about sex.”

Is general understanding of sexuality so poor that THIS constitutes excellent mainstream writing about sex science?

I want to read it. It is important that I read this book because (a) it was a NYT bestseller and I’m trying to write a sex book that addresses some of the same issues, so it would be wise to read what the reading public finds interesting and good; and (b) several people have described it as “the best non-fiction book about sex they’ve read.”

So look. I’m going to commit to reading 50 pages per week – I’ll be done in about 6 weeks – and I’ll write a blog post each week enumerating some of the more annoying problems I find.

Here is the first 50 pages. It took me more than three hours to read.

1. p. 2 “The American Medical Association reports that 42 percent of American women suffer from sexual dysfunction” It’s not the AMA, it’s a paper in their journal, and you can write a whole book or make a whole documentary about what’s wrong with that number.

2. p. 4 “many scientists are blinded by their emotional resistance to any account of human sexual evolution that doesn’t revolve around the monogamous nuclear family unit” Which scientists? There is no citation.

3. p. 7-8 They claim a “standard narrative” as their premise with no effort to substantiate it by citing any research. Their standard narrative more strongly resemble the pop culture, mainstream understanding of the science than the science per se. They lose me right there, in failing to substantiate – or even TRY to substantiate – what turns out to be their central premise: that science says THIS, and this is wrong. Science doesn’t say that.

4. p. 10-12 Many, many sentences saying things like “a great deal of research supports this conclusion,” with no citation and certainly no account of that research. Apparently they can just make shit up, I guess?

5. p. 13 Orgasmicity has no relationship to number of partners and no reproductive function. It’s specious – a nice sounding claim, but wrong.

6. “But the standard narrative insists that paternal certainty has always been of utmost importance….” (emphasis theirs) WHO HAS SAID THIS??? WHO? WHO? I believe someone like Buss may have said it, but for crying out loud CITE SOMEONE! ANYONE!!

7. 5 pages on disgust (20-24) and not one mention of Haidt. This is the point at which I flipped to the end and tucked the dust cover between the last page of text and the appendices – p. 312 – so that I could feel closer to the end.

8. p. 38 “Of course there are many scientists working in evolutionary psychology, primatology, evolutionary biology, and other fields who don’t sign on to the narrative we’re critiquing in these pages. We hope they’ll forgive us if it sometimes seems as if we oversimplify in order to more clearly illustrate the broad outlines of the various paradigms without getting lost in the weeds of subtle differences”

Or, “There are many experts who would tell you that in fact we’re wrong about the ‘standard narrative’ characterizing the science we’re critiquing. We’re writing this paragraph to excuse ourselves for constructing a straw man around which to base an entire book.” Nice.

This page contains another restatement of the “standard narrative” with no sources cited.

9. Efforts to “rise above” our sexual nature ARE ALSO part of our nature. The only part of me that isn’t “natural” is my IUD.

10. When I first heard Christopher Ryan interviewed about the book, it sounded like he thought that the cost-benefit “economy” language of sex differences was ACTUALLY ABOUT STUFF and not about metabolic cost. I was right. p. 50 “…the standard narrative of heterosexual interaction boils down to prostitution: a woman exchanges her sexual services for access to resources.” It’s a fundamental misunderstanding.

And that’s 50 pages.

Look, it’s not that I’m not plenty critical myself of much that passes for “evolutionary” thinking about women’s sexuality by people who have no understanding of women’s sexuality. Far from it. But am I asking too much that a person know MORE about the topic than the people they’re critiquing do? Is that really too high a standard?

I need to go take a shower.