Sex at Dawn pp. 75-100

There are moments when I feel simply sad because they come SO CLOSE to getting it right.

pp. 82-3, they write a compelling analogy about humans cultivating ourselves as we cultivated the land and domesticated other animals. They come within a trice of discussing group selection – apparently endorsing it – when they say, “The disconnect between individual and group interests helps explain why the shift to agricultural is normally spun as a great leap forward, despite the fact that it was actually a disaster for most of the individuals who endured it.” (Obviously they’re not endorsing agriculture, but the claim that the group was the target of selection, even at the expense of the individual and not necessarily based on kinship, is group level selection.)

But where they fail to go from there is – as I mentioned previously – that our own self-cultivation is itself a product of our nature. We are BY NATURE self-cultivating.

p. 85 I agree with the bare facts that humans are massively social and very, very sexual, and that sex is a social behavior for us. I think there’s a clever rhetorical gambit at the bottom of the page, where they point out that “animalistic” sex is sex for purely reproductive purposes (technically, this would be not just animalistic but eukaryotic sex, but why split hairs when there are heads to cut off – which there are). But then they ruin it.

“Sex for pleasure with arious partners is therefore more ‘human’ than animal. In other words, an excessively horny monkey is acting ‘human,’ while a man and a woman uninterested in sex more than once of twice a year would be, strictly speaking, ‘acting like an animal.\‘”

They lost themselves in the woods there. Because the key feature of human sexuality is VARIETY, that couple is acting just as human as people who want sex every day. What REALLY makes us human is not “the way we have sex,” but that we have sex in so very many different ways.

And why is all of Part II dedicated to illustrating that “before the rise of the state, prehistoric human life was far from ‘solitary’” (p. 88)? The solitude or otherwise of our evolutionary forebears is not in the standard narrative, as it was defined on pp. 7-8 and more on p. 10. I got to p. 100 without finding a sentence like, “Here is research that tries to suggest we were solitary and that solitude is a factor in the evolution of the putative sociosexual system deliniteated in the standard narrative.\‘”

Instead we get another vagueness on p.93. “In light of the hypersexuality of humans, chimps, and bononos, one wonders why so many insist that female sexual exclusivity has been an integral part of human evolutionary development for over a million years.” No citation, no elaboration. In scholarly work – or even just in academic work – this sentence would be followed by examples of those who “insist.” But instead we go right to evidence to the contrary.

I am SO not the target audience for this book. A layperson reading that would just go, “Yeah! People DO insist that!” Well PEOPLE do, certainly, but does the research?

Anyway. So pp 97-8 I think are why Dan Savage really loved the book. p. 98: “No group-living nonhuman primate culture is monogamous, and adultery has been documented in every human culture studied – including those in which fornicators are routinely stoned to death. In light of all this bloody retribution, it’s hard to see how monogamy comes ‘naturally’ to our species.” The first sentence is so good, and then the second sentence ruins it by failing to including (understand?) that (1) retribution and social control come just as naturally to us as non-monogamy and (2) what comes naturally to our species is variety and adaptability to our environment, and the context in which pure, lifelong monogamy is the default behavior is a very rare environment indeed.

There seems to be a real effort at p.98-9 to battle the naturalistic fallacy by grossing us out, conflating sharing with vampire bats sharing blood. If they knew their moral foundations, they’d know that the liberals to whom they were appealing would count disgust FAR below the morality of reducing harm and increasing fairness.

Okay. I got to page 100. So far, I’ve learned:

(1) I am not the target audience of this book. (Really I knew that before.) It’s possible that my writing about S@D is like peer reviewing the comments section.

(2) There are two primary kinds of mistakes the authors make. The first is misconstruing the “exchanges” that describe the cost-benefit tradeoffs that shaped our evolution as conscious, decision-based, or somehow a description of human character. The second is to argue against something that seems to change as they need it to and not exist in any specific place. The standard narrative exists as a cultural phenomenon, but the text indicates that they intend it to be a scientific narrative, and when Ryan commented he indicated that yes, he meant a scientific narrative.

But neither of those mistakes address what made the book compelling for many non-scientists. I’ll keep reading. I’m 13 through.