A little while ago, I worried that the next time someone asked me about the book, Sex at Dawn, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, I might vomit. An over-reaction? Perhaps. And one likely composed, in part, of simple envy, since their book seems to have sold a lot of copies. At least as contributory, however, is the profoundly annoying fact that Sex at Dawn has been taken as scientifically valid by large numbers of naïve readers … whereas it is an intellectually myopic, ideologically driven, pseudo-scientific fraud.
Written by people who don’t know diddly-squat about evolutionary biology, and—worse yet—who don’t know how much they don’t know, Sex at Dawn purports to demonstrate that human beings are “naturally” polyamorous, that (channeling Rousseau) we are born sexually open, omnivorous and pleasure-seeking, but are everywhere—or almost everywhere—in prudish, Victorian chains.
In the process, the authors trot out any number of biological howlers, not least a profound misreading of not only bonobo (“pygmy chimp”) sexuality, but what, if anything, this implies for Homo sapiens. Their goal (aside from making money, not in itself deplorable), is clearly to justify their own chosen lifestyle … also not deplorable, except insofar as it has produced intellectual dishonesty combined with misrepresentation of both theory and data: Science fiction, at best.
When my wife and I wrote The Myth of Monogamy: fidelity and infidelity in animals and people (Holt, 2002) our book became unexpectedly popular among polyamorists, who mistakenly embraced half of our thesis (the fact that human beings are not “naturally” monogamous), while ignoring the equally potent other half: that just as multiple sexual partners can increase the fitness of a philanderer, the same behavior on the part of one’s partner can reduce the other’s fitness. Hence, sexual jealousy is a very widespread and fitness-enhancing trait, as is a roving eye (along with, occasionally, other body parts). And sadly, as the old song used to go, “You can’t have one without the other.”
By contrast, Ryan and Jethá blithely proceed to ignore and/or misrepresent reams of anthropology and biology in their eagerness to make a brief for some sort of Rousseau-ian sexual idyll that exists—and/or existed—only in their overheated libidinous imaginations. At least Rousseau’s armchair speculations can be justified given that neither anthropology nor evolutionary biology existed in his day. Ryan and Jethá have no such excuse. But they persist in such howlers as claiming that all men in primordial human social groups would have cheerfully and equally shared parenting duties for the good of the group or the species, or maybe just because they’d like it to be so.
Nearly all biologists, including yours truly, haven’t bothered to waste their time on such tripe, although a case can be made that we have a professional responsibility to respond when the public is being so egregiously misled. Fortunately, a rebuttal to the Sex at Dawn nonsense is now available via Amazon: Sex at Dusk. It’s not only a suitable slap-down of its woeful predecessor, but Ms. Saxon even got the science right! Moreover, she has a wide-ranging and delightful mind, worth spending time with. For example, take this observation:
Sex at Dawn constantly reminded me of a line from the novel Nice Work by David Lodge (1988): “Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children; life’s the other way round.” Sex at Dawn is almost all about sex and not much about children, yet evolution is very much about reproduction – variation in reproductive success is evolution.
Please don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against sex at dawn, or at dusk, during mid-day, with harpsichords, chocolate bars, or flower petals. Let a thousand orgasms bloom! (So long as they involve consenting adults.)
But if you must try Sex at Dawn—the book—you’d be well advised to chase it with Sex at Dusk, the antidote, which is not only a far better read but also more accurate and therefore considerably more exciting.