Saturday, July 17, 2010

The "Do I Have to Read This"? Department

One of the hot new tomes out there is Sex at Dawn, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. It's so hot that it has barely been published, and neither the local public library nor the university library has it yet. According to the Psychology Today site, which is helping to push the book, Ryan is "a psychologist, teacher, and author" with a Ph.D.; Jetha, who's also his wife, has an M.D.

Dan Savage has touted the book in his sex advice column, not once but twice. The first time, he not only called Sex at Dawn "the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior In The Human Male on the American public in 1948" -- which coincidentally seems to be the blurb he contributed to the dust jacket -- but invited Ryan to co-host an installment of his column. (Ryan returned the favor at his Psych Today blog: "Having spent most of the past ten years working on this book, I think it's pretty important too, but 'since Kinsey?' Probably not, but hey, get a copy and let us know what you think (especially if you agree with Dan!)." Savage signed off that column with "Anyone who’s ever struggled with monogamy—and any honest person who ever attempted it admits to struggling—needs to read Sex At Dawn" and a link to the book's website and ordering information. Pretty altruistic of him.

The second time he seemed to be backing down somewhat from the grandiose claims he made the first time: "And to all the outraged folks writing in to ask if I’m seriously suggesting that no one should ever be monogamous: That’s not what I’m saying—and it’s not what the authors of Sex At Dawn are arguing, either. ... What the authors of Sex At Dawn believe—and what I think they prove—is that we are a naturally non-monogamous species, despite what we’ve been told for millennia by preachers and for centuries by scientists, and that is why so many people have such a hard time remaining monogamous over the long haul." That's very nice, but it's hardly a radical claim, nor is it a new one. And contrary to what Savage claims, "scientists" have hardly been denying that "we are a naturally non-monogamous species." Much of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology has been arguing the opposite for the past few decades -- "science" hasn't been in a position to make pseudo-authoritative declarations on any subject for centuries. Look at this quotation from Robin Baker's Sperm Wars, which I quoted in an earlier post on this subject:
Some things, of course, will never change. Nothing – short of castration, brain surgery, or hormone implants – can remove a person’s subconscious urge to have as many grandchildren as they can. So, nothing will remove a man’s subconscious urge to have as many children with as many women as his genes and circumstances will allow.
That doesn't look to me like a claim that human beings are a naturally monogamous species -- at least, not male human beings.

At the book's website Ryan writes:
Since Darwin’s day, we’ve been told that sexual monogamy comes naturally to our species. Mainstream science—as well as religious and cultural institutions—have maintained that men and women evolved in families in which a man’s possessions and protection were exchanged for a woman’s fertility and fidelity.
This is a straw man. Darwin seems to have been under no such illusion. It's a stretch to say that "religious institutions" say that "sexual monogamy comes naturally to our species," when non-monogamy is so compatible with so many religious traditions. Christianity is monogamous (though ambivalent about any sexual expression) because of its association with Roman culture, but its Judaic roots are polygamous. But even Christianity recognizes that sexual fidelity is hard work. One workaround has been to claim that though Yahweh created us monogamous, Original Sin made us horndogs; any assertion that we are naturally monogamous requires some fancy redefinition of the term "natural." And that last bit, about women exchanging fertility and fidelity for men's protection and possessions, has nothing to do with monogamy, since it rationalizes polygynous arrangements no less than monogamous ones. It's not a hopeful sign for the realism or coherence of the argument in Sex at Dawn.

According to the book's website,
Ryan and Jeth√°’s central contention is that human beings evolved in egalitarian groups that shared food, child care, and often, sexual partners. Weaving together convergent, often overlooked evidence from anthropology, archeology, primatology, anatomy, and psychosexuality, the authors show how far from human nature monogamy really is. ...

With intelligence, humor, and wonder, Ryan and Jeth√° show how our promiscuous past haunts our struggles over monogamy, sexual orientation, and family dynamics. They explore why long-term fidelity can be so difficult for so many; why sexual passion tends to fade even as love deepens; why many middle-aged men risk everything for transient affairs with younger women; why homosexuality persists in the face of standard evolutionary logic; and what the human body reveals about the prehistoric origins of modern sexuality.
I'd almost like to read Sex at Dawn, just to see what sort of evidence the authors could have for their claims. We don't, in fact, know anything about "prehistoric" human sexuality, or about the evolution of our family arrangements. The usual approach in evolutionary psychology -- and contrary to Ryan and Jetha, many others have toiled in these vineyards before them -- is to cobble together evidence from non-human species, especially primates; other human cultures, especially "primitive" ones; and to assume that we can extrapolate to early human and hominid social and sexual practices from these. But we can't, if only because practices vary so much. For example, modern chimpanzee and bonobos are probably our closest non-human relatives, but their sexual behavior differs in important ways, and the people who want to draw lessons from our primate cousins can't agree which species should be our role model. Besides, there's no reason to suppose that we should live just as our remote ancestors did; no one even wants to. We evolved, for example, in hot climates and very specific hot climates at that, but we have managed to populate every climate on earth, even the most inhospitable. We didn't evolve to read or write, and literacy was a minority practice in most of the world until relatively recently. And so on.

For that matter, we don't even really know much about contemporary human sexuality, because people lie about what they do and whom they do it with. But one thing we do know is that there's immense variation among individual people -- in sexual practices, the number and kinds of partners we want, and the kinds of relationships we form. That's one good reason why human biology can't be used to determine moral questions: first you have to settle which human biology provides the norm.

Both Savage and Ryan stress that they're not saying that monogamy is impossible or even undesirable, just that it ain't easy. This is not exactly a radical new revelation; any minister with experience of counseling couples knows it. By the time they get done backpedaling, all that remains is a handful of platitudes. Savage concludes his second infomercial:
People—particularly those who value monogamy—need to understand why being monogamous is so much harder than they’ve been led to believe it will be. In some cases, this understanding may help people find the courage to seek out non-monogamous relationships and/or arrangements and/or allowances that make them—gasp!—happier and make their relationships more stable, not less, as a routine infidelity won’t doom their marriage/civil union/commitment/slave contract/whatever. But understanding that monogamy is a struggle for most people—and being able to be honest with our partners about experiencing it as a struggle—may actually help some people remain monogamous.
It's not necessary to entertain various speculations (to put it nicely) about prehistoric hominid sexual arrangements in order to understand why being monogamous is so difficult. It's really enough to recognize that being monogamous is difficult, which can be learned from introspection (looking at your own feelings and experience), observation of other people, and just about all the stories people tell about love and relationships. The difficulty of limiting oneself to one partner is talked about almost everywhere. Some of its advocates even try to make a virtue out of the difficulty of monogamy, which will convince only those who want to be convinced.

The question that is rarely asked is why monogamy is a desirable goal despite all this. Savage says, "For the record: I’m happy to acknowledge that there are lots of good reasons to be monogamous and/or very nearly monogamous, e.g., children and other sexually transmitted infections." Children are perfectly compatible with non-monogamous arrangements, as a look at the Hebrew Bible will tell you. Savage offers no better reasons for monogamy than any True Love Waits tractarian could give you. That's not to say that monogamy is a bad thing; only that as with so many moral strictures, I'm still waiting for some good reasons and arguments to be offered.

So, do I have to read Sex at Dawn? I'm certainly not going to spend my own money on it. When it turns up at a library, I'll browse through it and see if it has any more substance than the advertisements indicate. But I still have to finish reading Cristina Nehring's A Vindication of Love and Thornhill and Palmer's A Natural History of Rape before I'll take on any more silly books. And just today I saw a new candidate in Borders: In Defense of Faith, by the Christian Zionist author David Brog, which purports not only to defend Faith against all the New Atheists ("Surprisingly few books have emerged to defend faith from this onslaught," says the jacket copy, which is a major falsehood right there), but to demonstrate that "the belief in the sanctity and equality of all humans at the core of both Judaism and Christianity—what Brog calls the 'Judeo-Christian idea'— ... has provided the intellectual foundation for human rights." That's certainly dubious, and the list of those who provided laudatory blurbs (Elie Wiesel, Senator Joseph Lieberman, Dennis Prager, Bill Donohue) indicates a rather tortured conception of "human rights." And I use the word "tortured" literally.