Hunter-gatherers recast as group sex fiends

August 11, 2010

Um, why didn’t anybody tell me about the book Sex at Dawn? Was everybody Twittering it last month and I failed to notice?

Here’s Gizmodo‘s synopsis of the argument:

• Before humans settled down into civilization, we were small bands of hunter-gatherers who had no notion of sexual monogamy. Within our relatively small tribes, most humans had multiple partners, primarily from within the tribal group, although occasionally we’d have a dalliance with a stranger to keep the DNA pool zesty. Children had multiple social “fathers”, jealousy was nearly nonexistent, and relatively easy access to calories kept us fit, happy, and satisfied well into our 70s and 80s—provided we managed to get past the perils of high mortality rates expected from a wild environment and primitive medicine.

• Upon the discovery of agriculture, nomadic wandering was no longer possible—someone has to stick around to water the crops—so the ideas of property and inheritance became sadly useful. Domesticated food could become scarce, unlike the effectively endless bounty of hunter-gathering (ignoring the occasional climate-torqued famine or run of bad luck), so hoarding became necessary to ensure calories even in lean times. It’s a lot of work to farm, so it became important to ensure that you weren’t wasting your precious grains on someone else’s offspring, especially if it meant you own kid was getting short shrift. Hence monogamy, marriage, and the unfortunate concept of partners as property, manifested in agrarian societies as a tendency to view women as chattel.

Here’s a handy diagram:

Further:

• Our genes, still tuned toward sexual novelty, cause us to really hate being monogamous, but societal pressures—including centralized codified religion—force men and women into an arrangement that brings with it just as many problems as it solves. Men cheat, women wither in sexual shackles (or, you know, cheat), wars erupt over resources or sexual exclusivity, cats and dogs almost start sleeping together except they’re afraid the neighbors might find out—Old Testament, real wrath of God-type stuff.

And from Newsweek:

Rather than men competing with one another to win “entrance” to a coy female looking for the best mate, the book argues that lots of men had sex with the same woman and let their sperm duke it out in the vaginal canal. Even to this day, the initial spurt of human ejaculate contains chemicals that “protect the sperm from chemicals in the later spurts of other men’s ejaculate. These final spurts contain a spermicidal substance that slows the advances of any latecomers” (page 228). That explains, the authors argue, why women take so long to get revved up and men finish so quickly. It explains why women are louder during sex (the so- called female copulatory vocalization [page 255])—it served as a mating call of sorts for men in the area. The survival benefits were immense: since there was no way of telling who fathered which child, children were raised by the community of foragers rather than single monogamous pairs. Everyone had lots of orgasms (women most of all). Women weren’t used as property or bartering chips, which led to more equality between the genders.

Pop anthropology? Probably. But it sure beats the old “men evolved to screw around, women evolved to seek high-status males” storyline, which seems to be fading away in popular science accounts anyway.

Still, as nice as it is to get a non-sexist account of human origins, isn’t it equally absurd to argue from our anthropological-evolutionary roots that our physiology is somehow opposed to monogamy? As if failing to keep it together in a relationship has nothing to do with, say, how you’re raised or, God forbid, the choices you make? Holla.

7 Responses to “Hunter-gatherers recast as group sex fiends”

  1. J. J. Says:

    I just added that book to my Goodreads account this week. A friend recommended it, as well as the Savage Love podcast (which I’ll listen to tomorrow). The book is still on order at 3 Louisville libraries. Definitely look forward to reading this one.

  2. JR Minkel Says:

    If you do read it, you should guest blog your reactions here. Or let me know if you want to guest blog anything else before then.

  3. J. J. Says:

    I’m such a slow reader, but sure – I’ll get back to you in a year on that. j/k… I will indeed let you know. Thanks for the invite.

  4. Ms. Krieger Says:

    JR,
    Agriculture –> War is the most awesome science diagram I have seen. Sweet.

  5. JR Minkel Says:

    Yeah, props to Gizmodo for that figure. I believe it comes straight from the book.

  6. Mukunda Says:

    The book obviously left out male jealousy. Males are jealous because they want to make sure that they are risking their lives trying to feed their own offspring (pre modern tests). No hunter-gatherer tribe studied lives how this book claims. Instead them have serial monogomous relationships. Look at modern day culture, especially African American culture (I’m a Black man). Women might sleep with many men and all the men want nothing to do with the child saying it’s not theirs (ie someone elses DNA and problem). Look also at mans obsession with virgins, or chaste women. If you take a step back the book’s argument doesn’t add up.

  7. JR Minkel Says:

    Thanks for the comment. There’s evidence that jealousy patterns reflect upbringing, not evolutionary programming. See also my post on multiple baby daddies.


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