The first thing Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., co-author of the New York Times bestselling book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, wants you to know is that he hates being called Dr. Ryan. Secondly, he’ll let you know that everything you thought about human sexuality is probably wrong.
Ryan and his wife, Dr. Cacilda Jethá, published Sex at Dawn in 2010. In it, they argue that even though my Facebook feed is all weddings, all the time, monogamy is not natural to Homo Sapiens. Based on a host of evolutionary, physiological, anthropological and sociological scholarship, Ryan and Jethá maintain that we evolved in large social groups that shared shelter, food, child-rearing, and yes, sex, for millions of years. The monogamous family unit of a husband, wife and their children trumpeted in western society today is no more than an invention of the last few thousand years, when the advent of agriculture led to new economic patterns that emphasized social hierarchies, paternalism, and possessions over cooperation and sexual freedom. Now, the invention of marriage is failing us.
It’s a challenging topic, to say the least. Best of all, Ryan and Jethá do not presume to give advice to their readers about how they should live their lives in light of this information.
Recently, Christopher Ryan was kind enough to have an in-depth chat with me via Skype about his book’s themes.
Alaina Mabaso: Your book is challenging some cherished notions of modern marriage. Do you think being husband and wife co-authors affects acceptance of your research? Does working with your spouse mean it’s easier for people to give credence to your joint conclusions? Or does presenting this thesis as a married couple make for a bigger challenge in getting your message across?
Christopher Ryan: I think it’s probably been helpful in making people willing to open the book. Whether or not we were married, having both a man’s and a woman’s perspective incorporated into the book at least makes people more willing to take a look at it. Once they get into the book, it doesn’t matter who wrote it. But that initial acceptance is affected by the fact that we co-authored it.
AM: One of your book’s core messages is that attitudes about sexual monogamy did not evolve in early human beings, but that they’re the result of changes in our society over the last few thousand years versus the last few million years of our evolution. Do you think we would be able to incorporate what you call “a more flexible approach to sexual fidelity” into modern life without changing the economic factors that give rise to the modern nuclear family in the first place?
CR: Yeah, I think so, without changing modern life fundamentally, but maybe just changing it around the edges a little bit. For example, Portland Oregon is still very much part of the capitalist western world, but there’s a much higher rate of polyamory and other unconventional types of romantic configurations. You can see the same sort of thing in places like Sweden, where it’s a socialist government, but still part of the western capitalistic money-based world. In Sweden, Holland and Scandinavian countries, you have much higher levels of non-typical marital structures. Single women are more willing to face motherhood knowing that they’re getting economic assistance from the state, as opposed to getting a man to commit to providing that assistance. So I think there are very minor adjustments we can make in the economic system that make these more convergent family structures possible.
AM: This reminds me of how some Republican politicians say that the root of our economic problem in this country is single mothers – that’s why we have poverty. Sounds like you’d say they’re off-track.
CR: Well, I think they’ve got the causality backwards. I think that you’re going to have single mothers in pretty much every society. I don’t think that per capita there are more single mothers in Sweden, but what I mean to say is that single mothers don’t face the same sorts of economic challenges they face in the US. The US has a much higher rate of teen pregnancy and single motherhood, but also we have a much higher rate of children living in poverty. I think what when you force mothers into a situation where they have to fend for themselves economically, or where they try to fend for themselves by getting an economic commitment from a man, that falls through a lot of the time. So you end up with a lot of single mothers living in poverty. If you provide a safety net, I don’t think you’ll end up with more single mothers. You’ll just end up with far fewer single mothers living in poverty.
It’s like people on the Right arguing that tolerance of gay rights makes more gay people. That’s ridiculous.
AM: I was looking through the reader comments on your website, and one in particular caught my eye. It reads, “I suspect there is an element of evolutional change occurring in women directly related to the social norms that enforce monogamy and denial of the female sex drive.” I was really interested in the part of your book that posits declining sperm counts in modern man could be because human testicles didn’t evolve for monogamy, so in your opinion, are women affected in any measurable physiological way by modern mores that regard them as male property? Could this evolution in sexual practice ultimately be physical as well as social and economic?
CR: That’s an interesting possibility. I don’t think there’s any way to measure that at this point. If there are physiological changes taking place, it’d happen very slowly, so they would barely perceptible at this point. The thing about the testicular change is that the DNA controlling testicular tissue is the fastest-reacting DNA in the body to evolutionary pressures.
As far as female reproduction, I could imagine that there would be changes in the bacterial content of the reproductive tract for a woman who only has sex with one man as opposed to several. In fact – and I’m just talking off the top of my head right now – it would be interesting to know if that has any affect on susceptibility to STDs. Because there is some evidence showing that the immunological response against STDs in promiscuous primates is much stronger than it is in monogamous or polygamous primates. What I’m basically doing is extrapolating from the hygiene hypothesis, which says that the reason more kids have asthma and allergies and things is that they’re not exposed to as many pathogens when they’re babies. They don’t develop the immune response: it’s compromised by the cleanliness of the modern world.
AM: All the hand sanitizer.
CR: Exactly. So applying that to sexuality, we could say, well, if women evolved to have several ongoing sexual partners throughout their lives, and in fact they only have one, maybe they’re not being exposed to certain bacteria and other foreign bodies that they really need, that confer immunological benefits on their children.
AM: Are you familiar with this study that just came out of the University of Tennessee last month? From the article on their website, it’s asking, “Why did we stop being promiscuous and decide to settle down and start families?”
[This study has used a “mathematical model” to posit that monogamous human families evolved when females began choosing low-status males that were good providers instead of high-status males who were always fighting to keep their harems.]
CR: Is this the mathematical model about the low-status males?
AM: Yes, the media has branded it as this sort of evolutionary triumph of the nerd.
CR: You know, Time Magazine sent that article to me a few days before it was published, asking me for comment, and I took a look and wrote back to them and said, I’m not going to have any comment on this; it seems like pure bullshit to me. To me, when you end up with these “mathematical models” that have no basis whatsoever in any sort of observed behavior, my eyes just glaze over. And as I said to Time, I’m not enough of a statistician to be able to comment on the methodology.
AM: I watched your interview on The Point in March about the whole Rush Limbaugh slut-shaming brouhaha and the current political movement to restrict access to contraceptives. And you said, “Some idiots are proclaiming it, and the rest of us are shaking our heads in disbelief.” You also say on that program that these debates are the “last gasp” of the religious Right before they “go over the waterfall”. But I feel like I’m not so sure about that. It seems like things are getting more intense. And I liked what your co-panelist, Ana Kasparian, had to say. She points out that American women are being arrested and prosecuted for miscarriages. This doesn’t feel like a declining last gasp for me. So what makes you so sure this is on the wane and not getting worse?
CR: Well, first of all I’m not sure about anything, so I don’t want to come across like I know what the future holds. But the basis for my statement is that I think what’s happening in the United States is clearly happening on two opposing tracks. On the one side you’ve got these Republicans in Virginia that have the state mandate for the vaginal probe for women who want to have an abortion and all sorts of ridiculous things.
[The illustration above is from my November post, Mississippi's Amendment #26: Personhood for All (Unless You're Female).]
CR: But at the same time, you have people like Dan Savage becoming main-stream. Dan hasn’t changed. The stream has changed. You’ve got acceptance for the right of same-sex marriage swinging 15 points in ten years or less. So the reason I think it’s the last gasp is that people who really get excited about that stuff are old white people. And they’re going to be gone soon. And the country is going to be much less white. As the current under-30 crowd takes positions of power, we’re going to find that these sorts of things aren’t interesting to them. They don’t give a damn. They’re not that concerned with these reactionary ideals.
Also I think people from your generation are going to have a lot of serious shit to deal with, and they’re not going to have the luxury to get upset about this stuff.
AM: No kidding. If we’re dealing with a climate meltdown and the end of social security, we’ll have a lot on our plates.
CR: Exactly. A lot of these social issues are the result of people having too much time and money on their hands.
AM: But don’t you think that, in general, when you look back at our history, that these things are pendulum swings? Even if my generation is much more socially progressive and not so concerned with those ideas, do you think there could be a swing back again?
CR: It does happen. But I think the pendulum is swinging more toward acceptance and sexual freedom at this point. Here we are, two years after this book came out, and I’m still doing two or three interviews every day. But I’m not famous. I don’t have a TV show. Whatever’s holding the interest is just the idea of the book. To me, that’s a pretty strong indication that there’s a lot of hunger; people know the current model doesn’t work. So they’re looking for a replacement. So to me, that’s evidence that changes happen very quickly in the US on these issues. And I think that the more failure that there is of the current paradigm, the more willing people are to look at other paradigms or other systems. Which can be extremely dangerous – I’m not saying that’s always a good thing – that’s how the Nazis came to power in Germany. The current system breaks down, and then the options are considered. That’s when we have to be really careful. I do think we’re in that kind of a period now.
AM: Obviously you’re hoping to shift people’s perceptions and knowledge in a major way with this book. So what I’m curious about is if there’s a particular fact or point of view you uncovered in your research that was especially challenging to you, or that made for a major shift in your own thinking?
CR: Ok…The first time I was ever in a group sex situation, it was completely unlike what I was expecting. It was with a woman and a friend. The woman wanted to be with two men. I talked to my friend, and he said, ok, why not, and the three of us ended up in this situation. And at one point I went over to change the music…I think it was so long ago I was turning over a cassette – can you believe that?
AM: I’ve heard that those existed.
CR: It may even have been an 8-track. But anyway, they were having sex and I was messing with the music, and I poured myself a glass of wine, and I remember thinking, this is nothing like what I thought. I thought it’d be like this super-porn situation. Like really wild and hot. But I was just sitting there, and they were having sex right in front of me, and it just felt like they really trusted me. And I’m sitting there naked, drinking wine, and I trusted them. The sense of friendship was overwhelming to me. And that made me stop and rethink everything.
I guess in a lot of ways, that’s what the book is about: that for human beings, sex isn’t about reproduction. Reproduction is a byproduct. It’s really about establishing trust, and intimacy, and friendship, and maintaining these complex social networks where you really have to trust one another, where survival is based on sharing. So if you can share your sexual partners and you can share these erotic experiences, it’s a hell of a lot easier to share food and to take care of the kids together and to share a big shelter together, which is the way our ancestors lived.
AM: It strikes me again, listening to you now, how much it seems like sexuality has been sequestered off from everything else in our lives, and it’s so interesting to think about sex as something that was a resource that everyone shared, allowing for friendship and social bonds other than that romantic bond that we’ve wedged it into nowadays.
CR: It makes sense because nowadays just about everything is sequestered. We have our own kids and our own house and our own washing machine, so it’s all about individual ownership, and breaking our social unit down to the smallest possible size. You could look at it as a consumerism conspiracy, so we’ll all buy our own stuff. Or it could be an unintended consequence of the way we live. I read recently that there are more people living alone in the US right now than ever before, as a percentage of the population. Which is strange and unnatural for our species.
AM: The thing that strikes me too, in all our recent economic woes, is that you hear all these reports about how many adult kids are living with their parents, or how many elderly parents are living with their children, as if it’s a current ill of our society, a result of terrible economics, that we’re having these multigenerational families. And part of me is saying, shouldn’t that be more like the model that is more natural to us? That families would naturally congregate that way?
CR: Yeah, sometimes people ask me if I see ways that these ideas [from Sex at Dawn] could play out in the future. And one of the things I often think about are these McMansions – big houses in the suburbs that are sitting empty and probably going to get torn down. Yes, wanting to live apart from your parents is an important psychological state. But think about how cool it would be, in these big houses with five bedrooms and four-car garages, if several different women got together with their kids and the men they’re involved with, and all lived together in the house, and shared the washing machine and shared a few cars. It would be economically much better for them – take care of each other’s kids, cooperate. So I think you’re right that sometimes bad economics push us into taking care of each other in ways that leave us feeling much happier than we would have been if everyone had plenty of money and we could isolate ourselves.
AM: A lot of my readers are writers themselves, and one thing that struck me so much about your book is how wonderfully it’s written. I read a lot of nonfiction, and a lot of it is dry, dry, dry. So do you have any advice for other science or nonfiction writers on how to make their prose engaging?
CR: Well, thank you. First of all, not everyone would agree with you about the writing style. I would say, of the negative responses to the book, one of the major themes is that a lot of people don’t like the style because they think it’s too conversational. A lot of people, particularly in science, think that serious ideas can only be discussed in a serious tone. And I personally believe that’s bullshit.
AM: it’s like when scholars would write in Latin so regular folks couldn’t read their stuff.
CR: Exactly. They want to be able to look down their nose at everybody. I think for me, good writing sounds like someone talking. It sounds conversational. I’m in a somewhat different situation than most nonfiction writers, and particularly science writers, because most science writers are scientists who decided to write. And I’m a writer who decided to study science.
AM: You have a BA in English.
CR: Yeah. I was a writer long before I was interested in sexuality. But as far as advice for writers, the problem is that a lot of people who are doing this are worried about what their colleagues are thinking. I’ve got the luxury of not worrying about any of that. So that makes it easier to just write whatever the hell I want to.
AM: I think obviously the subject matter of your book really grabs people, because human beings are obsessed with sex no matter who we are, but I think part of your book’s popularity really is owed to the style of your writing. Have you received any responses to the book that were particularly surprising to you? Anything you would not expect?
CR: The positive responses I didn’t expect. I expected a lot more anger and rejection. First of all, I didn’t even expect anything. I didn’t expect it to be published. The whole thing was a big surprise. But once it became clear that it was going to be published, I expected a lot more angry responses from conservative sources, but I haven’t heard anything much from them.
AM: Maybe they haven’t read it.
CR: Part of it is that they haven’t read it, and part of it is that the Christian Right has been completely discredited in their statements about sexuality from their ongoing scandals, from priests’ sex-abuse cases to various right-wing politicians being caught in all sorts of strange situations.
The overwhelmingly positive response to the book has been a surprise. I’m surprised that it won two awards from organizations of sex therapists and relationship counselors. I was really happy to see them embrace the book rather than feel defensive, because we do criticize the marital-industrial complex. Some of the most touching reviews I read have been from sex therapists who said, Wow, this explains what I’ve been seeing for twenty years. Now it all makes sense. It’s been wonderful.
AM: Are there any more books in your future?
CR: I’ve got a contract to publish another book which is going to be more of a holistic examination of some of the difficulties of modern life in the context of evolution – examining the questions of how biology and culture are in conflict. That will be out in 2013. And we’re putting together a community website for people who are interested in these ideas to meet each other and discuss, and there is a dating component to it as well.
AM: well, with all that, huge thanks for taking the time to chat with us.
CR: It’s my pleasure.
Further reading: Christopher Ryan recommends A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons, By Robert Sapolsky.
Find me on Twitter @AlainaMabaso.