On 'Sex At Dawn' (or Why casual sex doesn't work)

Sex at Dawn, a new book discussing the prehistoric origins of human sexual behavior, seems to suggest that we should relax our moral standards in order to allow for varying arrangements and configurationsof relationships in an attempt to relieve stress and to better everyone’s lives. While free love for all seems like a good idea (even for a relatively asexual person like myself), it seems equally hippie-esque to believe that such a thing would ever happen. There is a very good reason why we feel so incredibly jealous and threatened when we become victims of infidelity.

The book suggests that our prehistoric ancestors were promiscuous and lived in small societies where casual sex was the norm. Paternity was not important because it was a highly egalitarian society where everything was shared, from sex to the responsibilities of raising a child. Sexual promiscuity made sense in a world where resources were plentiful and within reach to all. As pointed out by the authors, there was no way to gain leverage in order to control anyone. There was no sense of status and no hierarchy. However, the world has changed into just the opposite of that world: the wealthy accumulate more wealth and, using that wealth, wield more power and control over others.Following the book’s narrative, the development of agriculture changed the playing field. All of a sudden, certain people were able to control access to resources. This created an imbalance in social dynamics. Now, because resources were limited and controlled, paternal certainty became important. But why is it so important that the child we raise is ours? Why do we feel jealous and hurt when we learn that our life partner has been doing the dirty with someone other than us?

Jealousy is an emotion predicated on possessiveness. The fact is that we have quite rapidly evolved on a social and emotional level. Consider the “fierce egalitarian” societies that our hunter-gatherer forebears lived in. Personal property was unheard of since nobody owned anything, nor could they. Because of this communal dynamic, there was no way for the feeling of possessiveness to gain foothold. If everyone has everything that you have, and you cannot see that anybody has it any “better” than you, it stands to reason that you couldn’t aspire to anything “better” either. People are limited to what they see. Greed doesn’t come from nowhere. It is triggered by seeing another person’s greater success, whether it is measured materially or emotionally or otherwise. Even if greed has different origins, sharing was a survival tactic and therefore a necessity of ancestral life.

Our ancestral societies weren’t concerned with hoarding resources, but we are. In those societies, the resulting offspring of a sexual liaison wasn’t an issue, especially when everybody shared in the raising of the child. However, sharing is no longer in vogue nowadays. Possession is the name of the game, whether it’s material ownership or emotional or sexual ownership. Ham sandwiches don’t grow on trees. We can’t just pick up a free lunch from that tree in the backyard like hunter-gatherers could. In order to obtain sustenance, we must work for someone, who in turn pays us in the form of currency. That currency is used to buy ham sandwiches that we use to feed our children. Such work takes time, and time is money. We aren’t immortal, so time is limited, which means money is limited. Without easy access to resources, we must become stingy with our time, money, and energy. Sharing now becomes counter to survival.

So if sharing is no longer a viable survival strategy, then hoarding becomes a way to increase one’s chances of surviving. Squandering one’s very limited resources on a child that is not his is not conducive to the evolutionary imperative of passing one’s genes along. Put simply, it costs money to raise a child. Money takes time to earn. Both time and money are resources, and these resources are limited. So in the interests of making sure our genes get passed on to the next generation, we need to make sure we’re not wasting our time, money, and energy on a kid who doesn’t even have our genes. In this way, the traditional evolutionary narrative in regards to paternal certainty and access to resources does apply, but to modern life rather than prehistory.

Going along with this idea of jealousy, we should also examine not only material jealousy but also emotional jealousy. On a psychological level, I wonder (and I can only wonder, as I do not hold a prestigious academic degree) if perhaps our ancestors did not experience romantic love the way we do. Romantic love, to many people, is a possessive emotion. It just doesn’t feel right to “share” your life partner – whom you love and care about so deeply – with someone else. This isn’t so far from how a young child might feel by new addition to the family in the form of a new infant; the baby is a threat, an additional competitor for resources, both material and emotional. While we like to say that love is infinite, that mommy loves all her children equally, the truth is that love and attention is not unlimited. I’m not suggesting that we cannot love people in equal amounts, but the intensity must certainly diminish when divvied up amongst multiple people. There is evidence that children notice inequalities in sibling investment even at a very very young age. So just like a child who envies the attention his parents lavish on his newborn baby sister, people (quite naturally) get jealous when their romantic partner sees someone else.

Perhaps jealousy – both material, sexual, and emotional – arose from agriculture. After all, there has been evidence in various case studies that cultural norms stem from the method of survival and sustenance in that area (one easily accessible example is in Chapter 8 of Gladwell’s Outliers; it discusses the relevance of rice farming to Chinese culture). Save for those who are wealthy, most of us probably don’t grow up with the mentality that the world will simply provide for our needs along the way (a hunter-gatherer’s outlook). Hunter-gatherers weren’t concerned with personal ownership because everything they needed was in the environment around them, free for the picking. Those who grow up in an agricultural world, however, are instilled with the idea that one needs to “save up for a rainy day”. Hoarding is a survival tactic that is expressed throughout American culture, and it would make sense that such wisdom pervades all levels of post-agricultural existence, including one’s emotional outlook on romantic endeavors.

Relaxing moral standards is not going to do anyone any good in our modern society. While promiscuity may have worked in prehistoric life, it certainly will not work now. We live in a capitalistic society where it’s every man for himself. Because of this intense competition over resources, men cannot tolerate the raising of child that is not his. In the parlance of anthropological circles, paternal certainty is immensely important and very relevant in the modern day. How many illicit lovers do you believe would actually come into the family to help raise the child that was the result from said illicit affair? Not only is there the emotional matter of the betrayal of trust, there is the practical matter of raising the child.

There is a very good reason why the modern marriage demands sexual fidelity. Perhaps sexual jealousy, like mate guarding, is a genetic survival instinct designed to ensure that we maximize the chances of our genes are passed on throughout the existence of human kind. The book makes an example of soccer players sharing their lovers, saying that such sexual relations encouraged bonding between the team mates, amongst other benefits. It was an attempt to relate modern sexual phenomenon to prehistorical sexual behavior. But let’s be honest: do you really think that all of the men who have sex with that groupie really hold her in high regard? Do you really think that, should she become pregnant and with child, that the whole team would come together to raise the child? If you do, please contact me immediately, because I have a bridge to sell you.

The book suggests that perhaps we should relax our moral codes to allow for more variety in sexual relationships so that we can all just get along. But there’s a huge piece that’s missing: you must also address the fact that the offspring from all these additional sexual relationships need raising. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Sex can be casual if the consequences of sex are casual. Unfortunately, raising a kid today isn’t exactly small potatoes nowadays. So for folks thinking that this book serves as carte blanch to screw everybody who’s willing, think again. Sooner or later, someone’s going to get possessive. It’s only natural. The same way sharing everything (including sex) was a survival tactic in prehistoric ages, hoarding is a survival tactic in post-agricultural ages. Of course, I’m certainly not credentialed in anthropology, so all this is just food for thought.

On the whole, I enjoyed the book very much. It was incredibly insightful, a very clever and eye-opening read. The author does an outstanding job dismantling the current-standing evolutionary theories that are out there. It also covers some interesting ground about human sexuality as a whole. While I disagree with some of the author’s assertions, if one takes it from a simply factual point of view, without the colored agenda getting in the way, you stand to learn a lot about human sexual behavior. I highly recommend this book to not just those interested in evolutionary theory but to anyone who’s interested in sex (which pretty much includes everybody). ¶

Today is 21 Jan 2010, and I just wanted to write a little addendum.

The book itself says that they are “not suggesting a nobler social system, just one that might have been better suited to meeting the challenges of prehistoric conditions and more effective in helping people survive long enough to reproduce.” I just want to point out that they are speaking on promiscuity working out. The key phrase here is that promiscuity was “better suited to…prehistoric conditions.” You see, what worked then does not necessarily work now. And that is what I find to be the weakest point of their argument that we should be more forgiving or accepting of sexual promiscuity.

My contention with the notion of allowing promiscuity (in part due to the author’s reasoning that sex is just sex and is therefore casual if one would allow it to be) is that we no longer need to worry about surviving through another night in the savannah. We have developed to the point that we can concentrate on things other than mere survival. By giving in to base instinct, we are regressing into a less evolved state. Progress is not made by giving in to the weaknesses of the human animal. Rather, progress requires us only to understand ourselves: as quoted from Kung Fu, one needs to “…only acknowledge [our desires], and satisfaction will follow. To suppress a truth is to give it force beyond endurance.”

The fine mind is one that has been developed through discipline and will power, and it is the fine mind and sacrifice that is the future of our species. Acting on these impulses serve no one in the advancement of anything but one’s selfish desires.