book review: Sex at Dawn

I’ve spent the last 6 weeks reading Sex at Dawn and I can offer this summary of the experience.

I started the book skeptical but hoping to be proved wrong, because several people I respect liked the book a lot. But it was far worse than I feared: sloppily reasoned, contemptuous, and ignorant.

There are four main things I want to say about the book:

1. I agree with the book’s assertion that there is a great deal to criticize in the science that is typically known as “evolutionary psychology.” Much of that science is bollocks, but beguiling and persuasive bollocks that gets lots of media attention. I would have loved this book if it had been a love song to the deep, rich pool of research that the media more or less ignores, or an analysis of why that narrative dominates culturally, when the science offers so much more.

2. To the extent that the book proposes that monogamy is not the innate sociosexual system of humans, it is correct. However. Through a number of serious problems in their reasoning about and/or understanding of evolutionary science (which I’ll discuss in more detail below, for those who are interested), they come to the wrong conclusion about the nature of human sexuality. Human sexuality is not designed to function in open relationships any more than its designed to function in socially and reproductively monogamous relationships. What human sexuality is DESIGNED to be is massively variable, plastic, adaptable, and diverse. ALL of it is “natural” – and that’s all evolution can tell us. The sociosexual environment in which we evolved is no easier or more comfortable or “natural” than any other; there is no system that is easy and comfortable for everyone; all sociosexual systems involve rules about what is or is not okay, and those rules will feel oppressive and wrong to SOMEONE.

3. This is mostly a matter of personal preference, but I found the voice of the book to be obnoxious and unlikable. Basically, S@D is a dick, and one of the rules I attempt to follow when I write (not always successfully) is Wheaton’s Law: Don’t be a dick. The book is kind of a dick.

Just one example: On p. 76 they write: “From our perspective on the far bank, Helen Fisher, Frans de Waal, and a few others seem to have ventured out onto the bridge that crosses over the rushing stream of unfounded assumptions about human sexuality – but they dare not cross it.” The arrogance and ignorance to suggest that their review of the literature gives them privileged insight that someone like Frans de Waal (whose work they cite and quote heavily, who has actually been doing the research for decades) only kinda sorta glimpses, is breathtaking.

There is a reason beyond personal taste to object to dickwaddery in a book that critiques science: the core of the scientific endeavor is the engagement of ideas with each other, playing together, competing, learning. Like in a schoolyard, no one will want to play with you if you’re a jerk. (That’s not always true. We can all think of the popular mean kid.) Not that there aren’t plenty of scientists who are assholes, but science (like sex!) works better when people are curious and compassionate playmates, rather than judgmental and self-righteous dicks.

4. The books makes three errors in reasoning, repeats these errors throughout the book, and never blinks as it does so (and this is the point at which those who don’t so much care about the science can skip ahead…):

At no point does the book even attempt to convince me that this is the narrative; it simply asserts that it is so and moves on. As a person who has read a great deal of the science they cite, I can tell you that among scientists, S@D’s narrative is not remotely “standard.” I could buy the argument that it is a CULTURAL narrative, and if that were the claim the authors were making, a great deal of my struggles with the book would be resolved. But alas, they claim to address the science per se.

(b) The book makes serious mistakes about unit of selection, without ever directly addressing the problem of unit of selection. This is an important and complicated point of contention in the field of evolutionary biology, and it is particularly relevant to the evolution of human sexuality. Failure to address this issue makes any book on the evolution of human sexuality, if not irrelevant, then at least critically incomplete.

Perhaps the most egregious version of this mistake is that the book promotes the misguided notion that reproductive strategies are COGNITIVE or PERSONALITY strategies, when in actual fact they are REPRODUCTIVE strategies. Behavior motivated by the structure of our gametes doesn’t make us “who we are” any more than the reproductive strategies of flowers makes them “who they are.” Flowers that mimic another flower in order to attract pollinators are not characterologically “deceptive,” and early human females who maximized their reproductive success were not “scheming, gold-digging women” (p. 58) and no scientist anywhere think so. (I discuss this a bit more here.)

I want to acknowledge that it’s difficult NOT to hear a character description when you read about reproductive strategies. When Hrdy, de Waal, Fisher, or Dixson talks about minimizing risk and maximizing reward, it can sound temptingly like conscious decision-making. But that means S@D’s job, as a critique of the science, is to offer its readers salvation from that temptation, in the form of reasoning. The book not only fails to help readers not make this mistake; it actively promotes it.

(c) The book claims, in the end, that there is a “natural” human sociosexual system. This is both an example of the naturalistic fallacy and, at the same time, a devaluing of what is (in my view) MOST extraordinary about human sexuality: its adaptability, plasticity, variety, and diversity. ALL human sexuality is “natural,” whether polyamorous, polygynous, polyandrous, monogamous, or anything else. Marriage is “natural,” though it varies tremendously from culture to culture and only very rarely refers to lifelong exclusivity. The use of sex as a weapon is “natural,” though morally disgusting and traumatic to survivors (and “natural” does NOT mean “adaptive,” or “selected for”!). Jealousy is “natural.” Much of sex is pleasurable, fair, and joyful; much else of it is painful, unjust, and despairing. It is all natural – equally. We maximize our happiness not when we try to behave according to some hypothesis about our environment of evolutionary adaptedness but when we maximize our sexual potential, which is complicated and personal and only incidentally informed by our evolutionary heritage.

Beyond these basic mistakes, S@D also misrepresents the points of view of the authors it cites by cutting out sections of quotations and selectively quoting out of context (I discuss one example here). It further misses the scientific credibility boat failing to differentiate between social and reproductive monogamy and by not paying any attention at all to attachment theory, moral foundations theory, and, as I mentioned, group selection theory. They don’t need to agree with these ideas, but they do need to DISCUSS them. These are not minor omissions; the absence of these important ideas indicates that the authors have simply missed the point. It’s like trying to describe Guernica when you’ve only ever seen the painting it in the dark, by flashlight, from a distance of 50 feet. Whether they missed these things deliberately or in error, I do not claim to know.

In my view, these mistakes place S@D together with the beguiling and persuasive bollocks it attempts to critique.

If you like books with a snarky, sacarstic tone (obviously, I don’t), you can do worse than S@D. If you like books that have AWESOME BRAINMELTING BRILLIANT SCIENCE (I do), it’s possible that you couldn’t do worse. Douglas Adams wrote, “The thing about evolution is, if it hasn’t turned your brain inside out, you haven’t understood it.” My reading of S@D is that the authors wrote it with their brains firmly outside out.

I’ll post my experience with the last 50 pages on Monday. You can read my complete experience with the book here.

And soon I’ll write a list of books about sex I adore and trust.

In the end, I think people liked the book if they went, “I thought the science said X, but actually it said Y, and Y conforms with my own intuitions about human sexuality!” And I didn’t like it because I went, “The science says Z, but they say that it wants to say X and actually says Y, both of which are wrong, and their reasoning is completely confused and also their voice makes me not want to sit next to them on a bus.”

Z – what the science actually says – is a beautiful and powerful thing: Human sexuality is unique for its variety, diversity, plasticity, and adaptability. Regardless of the sociosexual environment of our evolutionary forebears, we inherited a sexual response mechanism embedded in a brain that is equal parts moral and rational. From the interaction of those components emerges a sexuality that results both in massive overpopulation of our planet and in sex clubs, sex work, ball gags, the Kama Sutra, psychophysiological studies of sex, and books about the evolutionary origins of sex. Any specific sociosexual system is the product of the interaction between innate structures of humans with an environment, which we ourselves influence. There is no one “best” sexuality, but a nearly infinite number of of context-dependent and highly individualized sexualities.

And from my point of view, that is a much more powerful, beautiful, and inspiring (as well as empirically valid) conclusion.