Sex at Dawn – right on the mark or dead wrong? An Essay

Sex. Die wahre Geschichte, Buchcover
Sex. Die wahre Geschichte, Buchcover

When a book like Sex at Dawn  1 by Christopher Ryan (PhD) and his wife Cacilda Jethá (MD), becomes a New York Times bestseller, gets praised as “most important book about human sexuality since Kinsey” and is showered with awards around the world, that is already some indication that it might be worth reading.

If that same book earns some downright hateful rejection including some meritorious scientists like David P. Barash 2 and an otherwise unknown author named Lynn Saxon 3 writes an entire book to reject it, things become even more interesting.

From these completely differing reactions, one gets the impression that Ryan and Jethá must be either right on the mark or dead wrong. In any case, they have raised an issue that evokes strong emotions. To be exact, THE topic of all topics: Sex.

Is Sex really that important?

Oh my god, Sex again, you might groan? Is it really that important? What about the financial crisis, global warming, the threat of war in the Middle East, famines and so on and so forth?

You’re right, all that is very important and urgent. But oddly enough humans spend a lot of time with sex, both doing it and fantasizing about it. This despite and sometimes even inspite of times when we have many serious problems distracting us.

The sex industry is making billions and sex is used even to promote products that are not specifically sex-products. Sex sells and this is true for men and women alike. Just take a look around at how advertising is done. And don’t forget, through sex we procreate, experience great pleasure and unfortunately, often also suffer.

If you keep all this in mind, you may not be so surprised anymore by the claim made by Ryan and Jethá in Sex at Dawn that humans are the most sexualized creatures in the world.

Sex at Dawn puts fundamental beliefs of our society, economy and science in question

Taken alone that claim would not serve to make Sex at Dawn so interesting and controversial. But Sex at Dawn challenges some of the most basic beliefs of many people, cultures and religions, particularly the assumption that human beings are monogamous by nature.

Western culture, so influential in so many aspects of life throughout the world, is based on this very assumption – at least officially. The reality is different, as is shown by statistics on adultery, marriage and divorce, and demonstrated as well by the number of children born to adulterous women, whose partners have no idea they have been cuckolded.4

Enforced monogamy is also a fundamental part of Christianity. With about 2.2 billion followers – over seven hundred million more than Islam – Christianity is by far the largest religion in the world. It influences many cultures, even non-Christian ones. 5

So if someone challenges the conviction that the nature of man is monogamous, as Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá do in Sex at Dawn, it is clear from the start, that it will cause much controversy and even enmity.

The most important book about sex since Kinsey

In spite of all this, Sex at Dawn, published in 2010, received enthusiastic welcome in numerous reviews by journalists and scientists.

Even the leading primatologist Frans de Waal, whose findings were partly criticized by Ryan and Jethá, praised the book. And the most widely read sex columnist of the USA, Dan Savage, called it “The single most important book on human sexuality since Kinsey”. It has been only recently that some of the critics mentioned at the beginning of this article have appeared on the scene, trying  to bring about something of a backlash.

The subject of sex is certainly fascinating, but it is not the reason Sex at Dawn is a bestseller. Attacking the core beliefs of a society is also attention-grabbing, but has not made the book so popular. Sex at Dawn sells itself by presenting its theme in an entertaining and easy to understand way in addition to giving abundant new or little-known information, all while remaining scientifically sound.

And last not least, it challenges scientifically, but at times intentionally provocatively, social beliefs as well as scientific authorities such as Jane Goodall and Steven Pinker.

How did early humans live? … And why should I care?

According to Ryan and Jethá, some of the basic assumptions about prehistoric humans – living in poverty and continually fighting for survival – are most probably wrong. But these possibly false assumptions continue to shape science and particularly our ideas of society.

Also the assumption that – as with some other primates – the human males competed for the females and controlled them in harems which they defended jealously is, according to Ryan and Jethá, equally wrong.

The psychologists Christopher Ryan, active in research, and Cacilda Jethá, a physician and therapist with years of experience, have traced the foundations of these beliefs and tried to explain their origin. They consider all of these beliefs to be part of a set of ideas for which they coined the term “standard narrative”. According to this ideology, humans are monogamous by nature and are driven by competition to transmit their genes to their offspring.

At the latest by this point in the book, it becomes obvious that Sex at Dawn is not only about the debate surrounding human sexuality. It goes right to the core of the debate about the driving forces of evolution, the development and shape of our societies and economies – competition or cooperation – and all the many issues related to this. So, ultimately, Sex at Dawn is about the very nature of humans and posits that it might be quite different from what so many authorities have told us so often and for so long and what some are still telling us today.

Why Sex at Dawn is debated so fiercely.

Looking at it this way, it becomes clear why it is not only some of the scientists whom Ryan and Jethá have criticized in their book who have sharply attacked it. Sex at Dawn calls into question social structures, power structures, and of course also some scientific reputations.

If that’s not reason enough to attack Ryan and Jethá, I could also imagine some scientists feeling challenged by Christopher Ryan’s unusual course of life. Ryan´s academic career has not been traditional. He worked in all kinds of jobs that had nothing to do with science and only earned his doctorate degree rather late.

And now this outsider comes along and dares to challenge the results and convictions of some of the biggest names in science of past and present times. He even claims to be able to prove they are in error. To some scientists, who worked their way up in the traditional manner, without ever becoming known worldwide or selling books in heaps, this might feel like hearing a loud command: Fire at will! 6

Sex at Dawn is written in an entertaining way, but with serious and well-documented claims

Although I am an historian and philosopher with an honestly acquired master’s degree – “honestly” meaning: using none of the plagiarism techniques reported in the press lately in connection with degrees issued by German universities – I am not an expert in the scientific fields from which Ryan and Jethá have drawn their conclusions.

I’m also a bit biased on the subject of their book as I have been living in what nowadays is called a polyamorous relationship with a married woman since 2003 – nine years at publication of this article, which means we have been together four years longer than the average duration of a marriage in Germany and some other western societies.

I am also an activist for the inclusion of multiple relationships in our society and for the legalization of polygamous marriages.

Nonetheless, I believe I have enough practice in scientific work and critical review of different kinds of subjects in order to say that Sex at Dawn impresses me as being very well documented. Ryan and Jethá are often even critical of their own ideas and point out uncertainties themselves. Before publication, Ryan and Jethá had their book reviewed by numerous people, among them other scientists, including several whose findings they criticize or interpret in new ways. All this gives the impression that Ryan and Jethá worked hard to ensure accuracy and scientific integrity.

The “alternative-model” to the monogamous nature of man: promiscuous sex as a means for genetic diversity and social bonding

It seems to me that Ryan and Jethá have a well-founded basis for their “alternative-model” to the “humans are monogamous by nature” model. In short, Ryan and Jethá don´t believe our ancestors were locked in a constant struggle for survival, control of a harem and warfare with other groups.

Instead, they lived in small groups of peaceful nomads who would find abundant resources of food growing everywhere around them. Their lives were focused on their group. Sharing of all food and resources and intense social interaction were the backbone of their society.

According to this model, an essential part of that social interaction was frequent, promiscuous sex, which served to strengthen social bonds within the group. It also meant that questions of paternity and even – if I understand it correctly – parenthood in general, ultimately did not matter, because the whole group took responsibility for each child.

In these nomadic groups, sex was not in short supply and there was nothing like exclusive rights to a sexual partner. Sex probably took place often as group-sex, in which the females had sex with multiple male partners.

Nowadays, we call this Gangbang, and it is a popular genre of pornography. You will find out about the possible reasons why men – and women – like to watch such films in the next paragraph, and much more in Sex at Dawn.

“Sperm Competition”

When you apply the ideas of Ryan and Jethá about the original human form of sexuality, most likely practiced for millions of years, many puzzling facts suddenly make sense. First among them is the completely different timing of the sexual arousal of men and women. It is also interesting to note that men get excited by seeing other men having sex with women.

We might imagine a typical sexual act in these groups somehow like this: if a female in the group got sexually aroused, she easily would find a partner. The male would most likely be done quickly, i.e. ejaculate, before the female had a chance for orgasm. But, excited by the sight, more males would be drawn to the scene, ready to take his place, while the already satisfied first male, as well as all those following him, after orgasm would lose interest in sex and would not be bothered that the female would continue to have sex with other males.

These different sexual arousal patterns ensured the possibility for the female to have sex long enough for her to experience an orgasm. But more important – sorry ladies, your orgasms are of course important, but still – it made sure that within these relatively small groups a thorough mixing of the genetic material still took place. This was also helped by the fact that at encounters with other groups, which seemed to have occurred rather rarely, the females also easily paired with males from these groups (or does the word “pairing” actually not fit here? …)

The genetic mixing thus was not achieved through competition between the males for the females, but by “sperm competition” inside the vagina of the female.

Modern society still influenced by behaviors formed millions of years ago

If by just reading this article, or even better, the whole book Sex at Dawn, you begin to consider the ideas of Ryan and Jethá, then suddenly many of the phenomena and problems occurring in our society, not least in the area of sexuality, become clearer.

The different patterns of sexual arousal for men and women, which nowadays cause so many relationship crises and help to sell millions of sex advice books, could be seen not as a problem but an evolutionary function. This was the means to ensure a thorough mixing of genes and to avoid inbreeding in small groups, which according to Ryan and Jetha, was the normal way to live for millions of years for the human species. Additionally the promiscuous sex served to ensure social cohesion in the group.

The latter is a phenomenon that, according to Ryan and Jethá, can still be found today among some tribes. Even in modern, Western societies such behavior has developed in certain groups. During World War II, U.S. bomber pilots shared their wives with each other. This was intended to establish a special social bond and encouraged the commitment of the surviving pilots to take responsibility for the women and children of the fallen. It also was the beginning of the modern swinger movement.

Why did we become monogamous? Has it worked?

According to Ryan and Jetha humans deviated from this promiscuous lifestyle in connection with the emergence of an agrarian society.

While the circumstances in which nomadic prehistoric humans were living caused them to live promiscuously, it seems that these circumstances changed. A change in climate may have caused some humans to adopt an agrarian lifestyle. This in turn may have led to the establishment and enforcement of monogamy by rules and harsh punishments in order to support a society that was based on staying in one place and owning, using and passing on property to offspring, at least in some areas of the world. Just as a suggestion: read the first parts of the bible from this perspective.

Consequently, Ryan and Jethá do not say that people “naturally” are monogamous or polygamous. In my understanding, their interpretation is that humans developed a promiscuous lifestyle in response to the circumstances under which they lived for millions of years.

This promiscuous heritage can be found in our DNA. The monogamous way of life that arose in some agrarian societies, relatively recently, about 8,000 years ago, is in constant conflict with this genetic and cultural heritage.

The sometimes strange criticism of Sex at Dawn

To my knowledge, there are few articles about Sex at Dawn that are completely rejecting its ideas. The only one such scientific article, “The Human that Never Evolved” is by R. M. Ellsworth. 7

Then there is a whole book explicitly written as a rejection, called “Sex at Dusk”. During dusk one can often not see clearly, and with this book some things seem a bit unclear, too. It is self-published and was written by an otherwise unknown author named Lynn Saxon. It seems strange to me then, that only a week after the release, two university professors, Marnia Robinson and David P. Barash, (one of the world’s leading experts on monogamy and polygamy among animals) had already published reviews of it, praising it for its scientific accuracy.

In the online discussion forum of her review Marnia Robinson made the most unusual requirement that only posts would be published from people who had first read the book and other required literature. To my question as to how she would check that and if by this requirement she was not trying to limit the constitutional right to freedom of speech,she gave the rather evasive answer that she just wanted to ensure that this would be an adult discussion. You can find this very strange discussion here.

Neither Robinson nor Barash give details about Lynn Saxon and her scientific background. The same is true for R. M. Ellsworth, who also reviewed “Sex at Dusk,” but only identified Saxon as an “independent scholar.” 8

All this is not only strange, but ultimately unfair, as almost all critics of Sex at Dawn have questioned the scientific merits of Christopher Ryan. But as soon as they find someone who has written a book in line with their opinions, these same critics no longer ask for scientific qualifications?

Bonobos and primitive humans? What Sex at Dawn is really about

Even without any study of the history of humans and other primates, a look at today’s societies all over the world tells you: monogamy does not work. Even R. M. Ellsworth in his critical article about Sex at Dawn concedes monogamy to be problematic in modern societies.

To which I would add that monogamy was always problematic. Otherwise it would not be represented in so many historical records and so many works of world literature as a problem. There would also be no need for severe penalties for adultery and people would not constantly commit adultery in huge numbers if monogamy really was so natural to us.

These are serious problems of our officially monogamous societies. They lead to much suffering and mental disorders for individuals, not to mention the social and economic damage caused by the many divorces.

These problems and the search for their causes seem to me to be the real issues which Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá are addressing in Sex at Dawn, although they write much about bonobos, orangutans and early humans. That at least is my understanding of Sex at Dawn, unlike its critics, who seem to completely miss this point.

Worth reading: Sex at Dawn

If we want to understand these problems and their causes and come up with new solutions, we need as much scientifically based information as possible about our human nature. That of course requires sound research and knowledge.

As a historian and philosopher, I dare to say that in the history of mankind progress in thinking very often did not come from people trotting along common, socially accepted tracks. Often it came from outsiders and unusual thinkers like Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá.

Finding the causes of the problems described above will need intense scientific and social debate, to which the book Sex at Dawn provides a valuable contribution.

If you would like to join and be inspired by this debate about human nature, presented in an entertaining way, and to have your ideas about the sexual and social nature of humans thoroughly shaken – or stirred, if you like that better – I recommend Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá.

A few more thoughts on Human Nature

The public debate about the forms of human coexistence can not only be conducted based on scientific proof about what “really” is our nature. This question can never be answered definitively. We need to always remember that our knowledge and our thinking about the facts are changing constantly.

Ultimately we are dealing with a question of values and the rules by which we want to live. All Western societies and many other societies as well are based on the rights of the individual. Banning adult human beings from voluntarily and knowingly entering into multiple relationships is, I believe, a violation of these very principles.

Notice: This article is translated and some contents might have been added or left out to better meet the needs of an international audience from an original article.

This is one of the articles in the series of articles called Worth reading on Viktor Leberecht Blog.

My Theses on Polygamy and Monogamy in a Democratic Society

If you would like to find out about my opinion on polygamy and its possible contribution to a modern, democratic society based on human rights, please read my theses on polygamy and monogamy.

More information about Polyamory (currently only in german, english site under construction)

If you are looking for general information about Polyamory, then visit my website Polygamie ist gut für Sie, and there the area Polyamorie ist gut. You will find information on what is Polyamory, how Polyamory works, where you can meet other people living Polyamory, as well as other topics in various sub-areas, for example:

More information about Polygamy (currently only in german, english site under construction)

On my website Polygamie ist gut für Sie you will also find information, what polygamy is, how polygamy works, prejudices about polygamy, as well as other topics in various sub-areas, for example:

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Show 8 footnotes

  1. This essay is translated from german with lots of help from my US-born poly-partner of nine years and her husband. All errors in fact or writing are my responsibility. I refer to the hardcover edition of: Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, New York, Harper, ©2010 1st ed.
  2. Article by David P Barash: Sex at Dusk, as of July 21, 2012, 7:52 am
  3. I was not able to find anything about Lynn Saxon and her academic background, and also her few reviewers don´t give any such information. If you have information, please leave a comment.
  4. See my german pages about Statistics
  5. Numbers and Information from Wikipedia, referring to CIA World Factbook
  6. David Barash freely admits to this, which goes to his credit: “… simple envy, since their book seems to have sold a lot of copies.
  7. Ryan M. Ellsworth, Department of Anthropology, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO, USA. The human that never evolved www.epjournal.net – 2011. 9 (3) : 325-335
  8. The Myth of Promiscuity. A review of Lynn Saxon, Sex at Dusk: Lifting the Shiny Wrapping from Sex at Dawn. www.epjournal.net – 2012. 10(3): 611-616
About Viktor Leberecht 134 Articles
Viktor Leberecht is my pseudonym for my work as a freelance author. I am a studied historian, as well as a trained and experienced journalist. I have lived in a polyamorous relationship with a woman who is married to another man since 2003. I write about polyamory and its marital form, polygamy, to inform, refute prejudice, and to promote the social acceptance of polyamory and polygamy. I am committed to multiple relations within the framework of human rights, which, of course, means the same rights for everybody.

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