When I first read Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships (henceforth referred to as Dawn) everything appeared to fit into place. It seemed to tie together all the random thoughts I have had over the years about marriage, the nature of sexual jealously and the role of the sexes. Clearly I was not the only one. Soon after Dawn was published in 2010 it became a New York Times bestseller and Dan Savage, the most widely read sex columnist in the USA, called it “The single most important book on human sexuality since Kinsey”.
Dawn argues that we are born naturally polyamorous although we are everywhere in chains of our own making. Dawn describes how, before the arrival of agriculture, we lived in small, peaceful nomadic groups sharing everything, including sexual partners, and having frequent promiscuous sex which served to strengthen social bonds within the group because it was impossible to assign paternity. It was only with the arrival of agriculture and private property about 8,000 years ago, that monogamy arose, although in constant conflict with our genetic and cultural heritage. Dawn also seemed to explain a variety of puzzling questions such as why female vocalizations during sex are louder than those of men – to advertise female availability and receptivity to other males in the group.
Thank goodness some friends persuaded me to read Sex at Dusk: Lifting the Shiny Wrapper from Sex at Dawn (henceforth referred to as Dusk) a book specifically written to answer the claims made in Dawn. Dusk provides something that was missing from Dawn, despite of, or perhaps because of Dawn’s popularity, a scientific foundation. According to Dusk, marriage, mate-guarding and jealousy arose even in isolated hunter-gatherer tribes, casting doubt on Dawn’s claim that marriage is just a cultural accident. Inter-tribal marriage accomplishes two goals, according to Dusk, it prevents incest and permits the acquisition of in-laws and their accompanying resources and goodwill. Based on solid evolutionary science Dusk concludes that in a world of scarcity “female reproduction is very much about converting resources into offspring” i.e. strictly recreational sex is the exception, not the rule.
Dawn says we are basically promiscuous bonobo chimps at our core but Dusk points out that even female bonobos discriminate among partners in subtle ways. Casual sex of the type Dawn advocates may become our present but according to Dusk it certainly is not in our human past. As for those copulation calls, Dusk offers evidence that female primate cries during sex are not simple invitations but rather brags about mating with high-ranked males. So there it is. Dawn is almost all about sex and not much about children, but evolution is concerned about reproduction to the exclusion of everything else. Can’t a guy have any fun?
“Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children; life’s the other way round.” David Lodge