I am an inveterate reader of books and usually I find at least one thing to enjoy about every single one, even if it is only to be righteously indignant about the author’s bad judgment. But it has been awhile since I enjoyed a book as much as I did Sex at Dawn, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. This book is about sex, men, women, their biology, society, monogamy and the truth about each. Some of its conclusions are already part of common knowledge (like that men perceive sex differently than women). Others are so mind blowing that I am still recovering from their implications. If you want a book that will change how you see the world, this is it.
What If We’re Not Just Selfish?
One of the most fascinating pieces of information put forward in this book is the idea that society does not have to be and initially wasn’t based on everyone looking out for their own self interest. Through an informative and sometimes funny overview of how our hunter-gatherer ancestors live, Ryan and Jetha show that society was originally based on radical sharing, a kind of prehistoric socialism.
Foragers shared everything (including sex) in common. Food was shared so that everyone had an equal portion; sexual partners were not monogamous; war was not the common state of man; and because of the egalitarianism that existed, our ancestors actually had better nutrition, health and rates of survival than usually supposed. Imagine that.
The radical part of reading this for me was not the egalitarianism per se, but the idea that some other trait than selfishness was the defining factor of prehistoric life. In fact, our capacity for sharing was what defined early humanity and made it able to survive. Countless times, the authors of this book show that selfishness is a bad evolutionary strategy and that it simply could not have worked. Backed up by scientific evidence, egalitarian sharing looks like a far better explanation of prehistoric man than the idea we now have.
What About the Sex?
Yes, sex is ostensibly the point of the book. I was happily engrossed in the wider, sociological implications of the book’s thesis, but what I learned about sex was invaluable. The evolutionary reasons for things like libido, penis size and shape, the nature of the vagina, and so on and so forth were fascinating (a word that has far more to do with penises than I ever wanted to know). But what conclusions does the book come to about sex?
Choosing just one controversial topic is almost too much to ask, but if forced: monogamy. Monogamy simply was not the best evolutionary strategy out there and, most likely, was not the one our ancestors practiced. For a variety of reasons, there is evidence that prehistoric man was not monogamous. For instance, sperm competition (my favorite new thing) shows not just that people’s genitals evolved to give the best sperm the best chance of fertilizing that little egg, but that monogamy probably did not exist in the first place. Evolution decided to make sure the best genes survived by creating a cellular vetting system.
I am explaining some of this badly. To be honest, most of the book is “not in my area,” as they say. As a confirmed lesbian, sperm and penises generally do not interest me. This book changed that (though not enough to make me go try one for myself). If you really want to understand what Sex at Dawn is saying, go read it for yourself. Trust me, I haven’t spoiled any of the best bits for you.