Friday, 7 May 2021

Sex at Dawn

I picked this up because it sounded interesting:

Since Darwin's day, we've been told that sexual monogamy comes naturally to our species. Mainstream science - as well as religious and cultural institutions - has maintained that men and women evolved in families in which a man's possessions and protection were exchanged for a woman's fertility and fidelity. But this narrative is collapsing. Fewer and fewer couples are getting married, and divorce rates keep climbing as adultery and flagging libido drag down even seemingly solid marriages.

How can reality be reconciled with the accepted narrative? It can't be, according to renegade thinkers Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. While debunking almost everything we "know" about sex, they offer a bold alternative explanation in this provocative and brilliant book.

Ryan and Jetha's central contention is that human beings evolved in egalitarian groups that shared food, child care, and, often, sexual partners. Weaving together convergent, frequently overlooked evidence from anthropology, archaeology, primatology, anatomy, and psychosexuality, the authors show how far from human nature monogamy really is. Human beings everywhere and in every era have confronted the same familiar, intimate situations in surprisingly different ways. The authors expose the ancient roots of human sexuality while pointing toward a more optimistic future illuminated by our innate capacities for love, cooperation, and generosity.

A very enlightening read. I certainly wouldn't say I'm surprised by the findings, but there were some really interesting facts in there that I'd never heard before. I particularly liked the look at other, non-monogamous cultures in the world, which is something never discussed during sex-ed at school. There was one culture in China, the Mosuo, where women have their own bedrooms with a door onto the street and they can invite any man in that they choose, provided he is gone by morning. Any children conceived are brought up in the woman's household, removing male rivalry over lineage. It sounds like a very nice idea, and a peaceful way of life. 

There's a tribe in South America which believes the more sperm a woman receives whilst pregnant, the more skills and strengths a child will develop from each of the men. There's the first father, who plants the seed, and the other fathers who contribute to stirring the pot. In tribal cultures, children raised in non-monogamous families, where many men, rather than one, have a vested interest in the child's wellbeing and growth, have better survival odds than when only one man is there (or not) to help raise the child.

"Yes, but we're living in the modern world," you might say, "not in a tribe!" Well, we might think we are, but our physiology says something very different. From the size and shape of our genitals, through to why women are louder than men during sex, it all points to our biology being more closely matched with non-monogamous primates than monogamous ones. Far more similar to the bonobo than the gibbon.

Something else that was fascinating - and tragic - was the effect of the contraceptive pill on women's sense of smell. I remember watching Dr. Winston perform the T-shirt test on TV when I was in my teens. This is where he sniffs a bunch of T-shirts that women have been wearing, and orders them by the smell he most prefers. At the end, it's revealed that ranking them by smell also ranks them, almost exactly, as the most genetically compatible for producing a healthy baby.

Women have the same ability to sniff out a genetically compatible mate - unless they're on the pill. Then, apparently, it reverses the attraction. It's one theory for why so many women go off their husbands after childbirth. Whilst on the pill and looking to get laid, they like the smell of him, but once they come off the pill to get pregnant, the reality hits their nostrils. As the book asks: how many women have only just realised they're not compatible with their partner once it's too late? That's quite something to think about.

Anyway, a really interesting read, which makes a lot of logical connections when it comes to male infidelity, mid-life crises, female attraction and sexuality, and a host of other important points. Definitely worth a look. Though, if you're in a relationship, it might not make for easy reading.

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