Polite Sex at Dawn

Two weeks ago, I saw a review on our Weddings page of a book called "Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality" (HarperCollins). Without much thought, I blurted out in a tweet that it sounded pretty stupid to me.

But that started a surprising e-mail conversation with one of the authors, Christopher Ryan. It's interesting not only for what Mr. Ryan says, but as an example of the way patient authors can profitably engage even caustic critics: Sex at Dawn.JPG

Ron Charles: Thank you for your gracious note, which is more than I deserved. If the short bit in the Sunday Post was unnuanced, then a tweet based on that short bit is probably pretty close to worthless, so you're wise not to lose any sleep over it. More than ever, all publicity is good.

Christopher Ryan: Maybe it's a sign of my not having fully joined the Twittering classes, but I felt like an interloper responding to your tweet. Please don't let my barging in dissuade you from future pithy dismissals in 140 characters or less!

Ron Charles: I have to say, though, that I'm fundamentally suspicious of applying "anthropological and biological evidence" to what are essentially moral and ethic concerns.

Christopher Ryan: Me too. One of my concerns about how our book will be received involves the fact that the paradigm of human sexual evolution we present isn't cleanly aligned with either of the opposing camps in the endless debates over human nature. Everyone from Steven Pinker to Naomi Wolf will find plenty to scoff at, so we're not likely to attract many natural allies, I fear. But to your point, "moral and ethic concerns" don't arise spontaneously, right? Although they are generally spun as if they were eternal and immutable laws (the word of God), it's clear that moral concerns reflect deeper cultural forces--normally economic, I'd argue. One way, albeit not the only way, to investigate these deeper issues involves the application of anthropological and biological evidence.

Ron Charles: "Adultery has been documented in every human culture studied"? So what? We observe murder in all those cultures, too, but that's no argument in its favor. And isn't "the idea that monogamy comes naturally to men and women" a bit of a jism-stained straw-man argument? Who exactly is promoting "the myth that you should be completely happy, completely fulfilled with one partner for 50 years? Surely, no church makes that fairytale argument. "Ryan knows many will be incredulous at the suggestion that adultery comes naturally." Really? Many? Where are these virgins pure as the driven snow? Do they not own televisions, talk to friends, read novels, date men?

Christopher Ryan: I've pasted below the context from which that line was taken, which shows that the mention of adultery in every culture was just one of several data points cited to make the case, not intended as an argument in and of itself. While I agree that asserting humans are "naturally monogamous" will get you laughed out of any bar (especially a gay bar), the principle of the exchange of female fidelity (and thus, paternity certainty) for male food, status, and protection is fundamental to mainstream thinking on human evolution. This, we're told, is why women prefer older, richer men, and why women are less sexual beings than men, in general, and are far more choosy about their mates. Women's jealousy is supposedly keyed on her mate's emotional ties to other women, while men's is focused on her potential sexual contacts. There are hundreds, if not thousands of research papers (not to mention books) that take this scenario for granted, but we question whether this essential exchange between a man and a woman really had much importance at all until the advent of agriculture, about 10,000 years ago. (We've existed, more or less as we are today, for about 200,000 years.) I won't tax your patience with a point-by-point response, but we devote an entire chapter of the book to laying out precisely what we're arguing against, so that we can't be accused of attacking a straw-man, jism-stained or not. (One of the fun facts you can learn in Sex at Dawn is that "jism" and "jazz" come from the same root, etymologically.)

Ron Charles: Entirely unfair of me, I know, to take a potshot at your book in a tweet, -- or even here without having read it -- but that's the state of critical affairs nowadays I'm afraid.

Christopher Ryan: Not at all. The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, as Oscar Wilde really did say. Your potshot is much appreciated.

By Ron Charles |  June 11, 2010; 11:32 AM ET Ron Charles
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I love this passage, "Entirely unfair of me, I know, to take a potshot at your book in a tweet, -- or even here without having read it -- but that's the state of critical affairs nowadays I'm afraid."

Oh, poor you, blathering away without knowing what you are talking about. Another blameless victim of our age. O tempora! O mores!

Posted by: bbolles | June 11, 2010 6:18 PM

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