Interview with the co-author of Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan
We often act as if the nuclear family is as old as society itself. Prehistoric families, we’re told, were like The Flintstones — just a less technologically advanced version of our own family structure. But is this really the case?
This week I interview the co-author of the ground breaking book Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan. In our interview we discuss prehistoric families, the sex of apes, David Bowie and whether civilisation is actually any good for human kind.
Simon:Hi Christopher, thanks for the interview. Let’s start with Sex at Dawn. Can you tell our readers what you argue in the book?
Essentially we argue that human sexuality is not primarily about reproduction; that it’s been co-opted by homo sapiens for social purposes. Human beings have sex far more than virtually all mammals.
So human sexuality is nearly unique in the fact that we have so much non-reproductive sex. What that indicates is that sexuality fulfils functions as well as reproduction for human beings, as well as dolphins, chimpanzees and bonobos, which are all highly social and highly intelligent species. In all of these species it’s become sort of a social lubricant, a bonding device primarily. And the reproductive elements are secondary.
Simon: You use a range of evidence to back up these claims. Can you go into some more depth about those arguments?
We draw from four sources of data; anthropology, human anatomy and physiology, primatology and contemporary psychosexual research.
For example some of the most interesting anthropological evidence we find is that there are plenty of societies around the world in which paternity is not a priority.
That’s something that should not be possible if the mainstream view of human sexual evolution were correct. Because that view argues that humans have always been obsessed with paternity because men would not want to invest in the offspring of other men. So the vision of parenthood in those paradigms is all economical. But what we find is that hunter gatherer societies don’t conform to that economic model. In fact they conform to something much closer to a socialistic or communistic economic model.
We found a lot of societies where paternity is either a minor issue or a non-issue. For example there are societies in the Amazon where people literally believe a foetus is made from accumulated semen. Therefore a woman is likely to have sex with several different men in order to assure the essence of those men will combine in her foetus. So she’ll have sex with the funny man, and the smart man and the man who’s the best hunter in order to get these qualities into her babies.
We also talk about the Mosuo in China where the biological father of a woman’s child really has no obligation whatsoever to be involved in the child’s life. The paternal responsibility for the child falls to a woman’s brothers. They have the primary responsibility of raising, protecting and nurturing those children from the male perspective.
So these sorts of counter examples should be virtually impossible without some sort of extreme cultural force being applied, but in fact what you find is that they pop up all over the world.
And then of course you’ve got the closest primates to humans, bonobos and chimps, and neither of them are particularly obsessed with paternity. Some of the chimps behaviour indicates they may have more of a concern with paternity; there is infanticide, there is a habit of dominant males taking fertile females away from the group, seemingly trying to restrict her sexual interaction with other males. But with bonobos you find absolutely no control by males of the sexual behaviour of females. The question of biological paternity of bonobos is completely obscured by their promiscuous sexual behaviour.
Simon: So how did we get to the norm we have today? In particular why was agriculture so important to shifting sexual attitudes?
Agriculture was pivotal because it introduced the notion of private property.
Once you get this idea of owning things then you start thinking about owning people — you have slaves, you have children seen as the property of the parent or the father, you have women seen as the property of the patriarch. When you have property you start thinking about who’s going to get your property when you die. You’ve spent your life accumulating this property so now you want to make sure it goes to your son. So how do you make sure it’s your son? By controlling the sexual behaviour of your wife. That's the only way to do it.
Simon: Why was it men who took control when private property came about?
That’s a huge debate and I don’t think anyone has a final answer. The typical response is that upper body strength was essential. With the advent of agricultural society you have the necessity to farm and farming is really hard work that requires a lot of upper body strength. So men’s upper body strength led to more control because they were able to do the sort of work that was most required.
Personally I don’t find that argument to be compelling. I think it has more to do with men being the primary hunters in hunter-gatherer societies, meaning men were more adept with weaponry. When you get agricultural societies, the hierarchy, the organisation, you also get warfare. So you get these conflicts and men are just much more adapted to warfare because of their proficiency with weaponry and possibly because we’re more willing to kill one another.
To me that’s a stronger line of argument, but it’s probably a bit of both.
Simon: Let’s talk about sex today. In your opinion are we seeing a shift where people are breaking away from the norms of the family as you've described?
Yeah, very quickly. The acceptance of same-sex marriage is huge in terms of cultural shift, for many reasons. A basic acknowledgement of human rights is the most fundamental way to look at it, but I think it’s very interesting is that explicitly acknowledges that marriage is not about having babies. One of the arguments that the conservatives have always made is that two men can’t have a baby, but what i’m arguing is that sex has never been about having babies. So if sex is not about having babies, if sex is primarily about establishing intimacy, trust, shared pleasure and establishing social networks, then whether its across sexual lines or same-sex really has no importance whatsoever. I see the acknowledgement of same-sex marriage as an acknowledgement of a fundamental argument we make in Sex and Dawn.
Simon: You’re working on a new book. What’s it about?
The book is called Civilised to Death and the subtitle is ‘why everything is amazing and nobody’s happy’.
We’re saying what’s going on where civilisation is supposed to be this amazing accomplishment providing technological advancements daily, yet suicide rates are up, depression rates are up, senseless inexplicable wars seems to never stop, a third of the children in America are living in poverty? If this is progress, what are we progressing towards?
I thought it was time to step back and reassess civilisation. What this book is essentially asking is civilisation really a net gain for our species and I argue it’s not.
Of course people’s perspectives are different. Some would say ‘I wouldn’t be alive in a prehistoric society’. Everyone can have their personal take on the question but I think it is legitimate to question whether the advances of civilisations are better for us individually or whether we’re being sold a package of bullshit.
Simon: One last question. In our chats before we talked about a shared love for David Bowie. What is your favourite song or album of his?
There are a lot of songs I really like. The one that first pulled me in was Fame. I was a kid when that came out, late seventies probably. I think it was the first time I heard someone who was really famous talking about how much bullshit it is, how false it is.
In a way that is what I am doing with this book Civilised to Death. There are these things that we’re told to aspire to, like fame, fortune, have sex with lots of people, whatever the way you accumulate points in life. But when the “lucky” few make it to the top of that mountain what they find is that it’s no different from where they started out.
Joseph Campbell argues that is the hero's journey, you go out, you have all these experiences, you’re searching for something and then at the end you go back where you started and what you found is yourself. We’re all running on this wheel and we’re all told that if you get a little bit more money, or get famous or successful then you’ll be happy. That song really struck me because there’s a guy saying “I’m famous and it doesn’t work”.
Of course David Bowie was also a pioneer in other ways. Way before Prince there was Bowie questioning gender. At a time where men were afraid to be seen as effeminate there’s a person getting out there and flaunting it. Identify me! I dare you. I admire him as much for his theatrical performance as much for his musical ability.
Simon: Thank you so much for taking the time today.