Sex at Dawn — Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá

EDIT: This review, from the journal Evolutionary Psychology, is the one I would’ve written if I’d been better read in the field and had more time to read extensively in it. Read the linked review if you really want to understand the problems with Sex at Dawn.

Furthermore, “The Myth of Promiscuity: A review of Lynn Saxon, Sex at Dusk: Lifting the Shiny Wrapping from Sex at Dawn” discusses the (many) problems with Sex at Dawn in a more complete fashion than I did. So if you’re looking for a deeper discussion than the one I can offer, consider Sex at Dusk.

My bottom-line assessment of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality is that the book would never get past peer review because so many of its descriptions of existing research and ideas are wrong or skewed. The book argues that humans are not “naturally” monogamous. That might be true. But Sex at Dawn doesn’t prove it. The data are ambiguous.

The biggest problem with the book starts on page 46, with the chapter “A Closer Look at the Standard Narrative of Human Sexual Revolution.” But there is no standard narrative of human sexual revolution: there are a wide array of people who have made inferences about the evolutionary basis of sexuality, but their narratives aren’t consistent and new papers and ideas constantly jostle or replace old ones. Ryan and Jethá don’t cite anyone else who claims a “standard” narrative, because to my knowledge no one has, and the standard narrative they cobble together is just that: cobbled together from a variety of sources with a variety of views.

I mentioned the lack of citations as a problem that occurs in their chapter on the standard narrative. It continues throughout the book. On page 293, Ryan and Jethá say that “To avoid the genetic stagnation that would have dragged our ancestors into extinction long ago, males evolved a strong appetite for sexual novelty and a robust aversion to the overly familiar.” But they don’t have any evidence for that. Similarly, they accuse scientists and others of claiming that monogamy is “natural” or inborn and cite, the anthropologist Owen Lovejoy as saying, “The nuclear family and human behavior may have their ultimate origin long before the dawn of the Pleistocene” (34). And he’s right: such behaviors may have their origins there. Or they may not have. Good scientists tend to be more tentative than polemicists because scientists recognize the fragility of so much human knowledge.

In Melvin Konner’s The Evolution of Childhood, he writes:

A double standard of sexual restriction is common across cultures; still, most human marriages have been mainly monogamous, owing either to environmental constraint or cultural principle. Modern cultures are monogamous in principle, but both adultery and serial monogamy are common. In at least thirty-seven countries, men express preference for women several years younger than themselves and place more emphasis on appearance, while women prefer men several years older and emphasize status and wealth (41).

The “environmental constraint” is important because it takes a lot of resources to support multiple spouses; this means that most men in most places and most conditions cannot afford to support multiple women. One woman might be able to support or be supported by multiple men, but polyandry is far less common than polygyny, as Konner points out. This is probably as close to accurate as one is likely to get regarding the historical or anthropological record on the subject of polygamy. It also has the advantage of coming from someone who spent his entire career on the subject of childhood development and who is deeply familiar with the vast literature surrounding evolution, anthropology, and childhood.

Ryan and Jethá also have many sections where they ask rhetorical questions or pit themselves against imaginary foes of great power; the page after the Lovejoy quote, they say, “This is what we’re up against. It’s a song that is powerful, concise, self-reinforcing, and playing on the radio all day and all night . . . but still wrong, baby, oh so wrong” (35). Enough with the polemics: if you’re right, show us that you’re right and leave the judgment up tot he reader.

Dan Savage 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.” The statement is hyperbolic and unlikely but nonetheless demonstrates the power of the book, especially when America’s most famous sex columnist is pimping it, so to speak.

In addition, Kinsey was at least doing original research by taking and compiling sexual histories. Ryan and Jethá aren’t: they’re rehashing a variety of other people’s research, and in doing so regularly misrepresenting that research. Furthermore, Kinsey was reacting to a much, much different culture than ours today; Sexual Behavior in the Human Male had essentially no real forerunners, while Sex at Dawn is a weak entry to a crowded field of evolutionary biologists and psychologists like Geoffrey Miller (The Mating Mind), Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (The Woman Who Never Evolved, and David Buss). All three get cited, but out of context, and their deeper arguments are never really engaged. I don’t think it a coincidence that all three are academics.

For another example of imprecision in Sex at Dawn, Ryan and Jethá point out that men are only 10% – 20% larger than women (in polygynous species, the larger the size difference between sexes, the greater the number of sex partners). But that raw size or height difference way underestimates how that size translates to muscle. Consider David Potts’ work:

When fat-free mass is considered, men are 40% heavier (Lassek & Gaulin, 2009; Mayhew & Salm, 1990) and have 60% more total lean muscle mass than women. Men have 80% greater arm muscle mass and 50% more lower body muscle mass (Abe, Kearns, & Fukunaga, 2003). Lassek and Gaulin (2009) note that the sex difference in upper-body muscle mass in humans is similar to the sex difference in fat-free mass in gorillas (Zihlman & MacFarland, 2000), the most sexually dimorphic of all living primates.

These differences in muscularity translate into large differences in strength and speed. Men have about 90% greater upper-body strength, a difference of approximately three standard deviations (Abe et al., 2003; Lassek & Gaulin, 2009). The average man is stronger than 99.9% of women (Lassek & Gaulin, 2009). Men also have about 65% greater lower body strength (Lassek & Gaulin, 2009; Mayhew & Salm, 1990), over 45% higher vertical leap, and over 22% faster sprint times (Mayhew & Salm, 1990).

(That’s from Puts, David, A. “Beauty and the Beast: Mechanisms of Sexual Selection in Humans.” Evolution & Human Behavior 31.3 (2010): 157-75.)

The weird thing is that this information supports their assertion that humans are polygynous but hurts their assertion that early societies were mostly kind and peaceful, which they probably weren’t, per Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization. Both the Potts paper and the Keeley book are the kinds of things that peer reviewers should be apt to point out.

Even when they aren’t simplifying the research others have done or selectively quoting writers without fully engaging in their arguments, Ryan and Jethá are merely poor writers. Take this: “For better or worse, the human female’s naughty bits don’t swell up to five times their normal size and turn bright red just to signal her sexual availability,” which is true in many species of apes. But note how bad this writing is: the sentence starts with a cliche, moves on to a childish description of women more appropriate to 14-year-olds than a real book and that also reinforces the very cultural forces the authors are trying to counteract, and then proceeds to something that has already been stated earlier in the chapter. The writing in much of the book is equally bad, the reasoning sloppy, and the thought underdeveloped. Which isn’t to say the book doesn’t have interesting or useful elements—it does—but those tend to get subsumed by its flaws.

The more I read about humanity, history, and the rhetoric of authenticity, naturalness, human instinct, and the like, the more I think there aren’t such things and the claims about what is “natural” reflect more about the person making the claim than anything about humanity itself. I would say that it’s natural for people to make claims about what is natural, but relatively little else is; circumstances affect so much that it’s hard to perceive many higher order behaviors as anything other than reflecting the bizarre combinations of self and environment.

People simply vary widely in their preferences, and most appear to view whatever society and subculture they grew up in as normal and natural. I posit that it’s not normal or abnormal to be polygamous or monogamous: in some circumstances one might make more sense, and in others the other strategy would. And people are too variable to say one mode is completely correct for all people under all circumstances.

I had actually begun this post before I read Paul Graham’s latest essay, “The Top Idea in Your Mind.” This part especially resonated:

I’ve found there are two types of thoughts especially worth avoiding—thoughts like the Nile Perch in the way they push out more interesting ideas. One I’ve already mentioned: thoughts about money. Getting money is almost by definition an attention sink. The other is disputes. These too are engaging in the wrong way: they have the same velcro-like shape as genuinely interesting ideas, but without the substance. So avoid disputes if you want to get real work done. [3]

To really catalog everything that’s wrong with Sex at Dawn, I’d have to go back through at least five or six books (and probably more) and at least a dozen papers. It would take me all day. Why spend that much time on a book that’s not very good? A while ago I promised myself that I wasn’t going to write many more posts on books that are bad in a generic way that doesn’t do anything special because I’m usually not spending my time in an optimal way. And reading Sex at Dawn is unlikely to be an optimal use of your time.

Video Games Live — concert review

A friend and I saw Video Games Live, the concert featuring primarily music from video games; the show was emphatically so-so, mostly because the music kept being interrupted for banal reasons, chiefly related to defending the idea of video games as an art form. The structure of the concert went like this: the musicians would play for five to ten minutes, then a guy would show up to declare that video games are ART, DAMNIT! or run a contest, or show a video game, or pick his nose, or whatever. Then the music would resume. But is a show devoted to music of games really an ideal venue for the purpose of trying to show video games are art? In other concerts I’ve been to, no one comes out to defend Beethoven or The Offspring as art: it’s merely assumed. You’ll know video games are art when people stop claiming they are and merely assume that they are.

I feel the worst for the musicians themselves, who presumably haven’t spent more than 10,000 hours of practice time for underdeveloped pieces that, to highly trained ears, probably sound bombastic or manipulative, like bad romances seem to literary critics. You could see them looking at one another when the conductor / showman stopped to extol the virtues of video games and drench himself in glory for putting the show together.

You may notice that I haven’t mentioned much about the music: that’s because the show wasn’t really about music. Some video game music is interesting and deserves serious attention; Final Fantasy is particularly famous for its soundtracks. The Mario theme music has become a pop culture cliche. But you won’t find attention to music at Video Games Live: look elsewhere for that.

Without being able to discuss much of the music, someone dealing with the concert is left to discuss what the nominal concert really engages. Like a dizzying array of phenomena, Tyler Cowen has asked similar questions about the status of video games and art, which he engages a little bit here regarding a New York Times piece and also here. is asking the same questions, but is more rah-rah about video games. I don’t think anyone has argued that video games don’t “matter,” whatever that means in the context. It seems unlikely to me that games will have a strong claim to art until they can deal with sexuality in a mature way—which paintings, novels, poetry, and movies have all accomplished.

We’ll know video games are art when their defenders stop saying that video games are art and merely assume they are while going about their business. This change happened in earnest with novels around the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Mark McGurl argues in The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James. Maybe it’s happening now with video games. If so, I don’t think Video Games Live is helping.

One good thing: my friend won tickets. So the only cost of the show was opportunity, not money.

Anathem — Neal Stephenson

I read Anathem when it came out and tried it again recently because I’m a literary masochist. It concerns a giant graduate school/university where really smart people gather in seclusion from the rest of humanity, who are busy running around distracted by cell phones (now called “jeejahs”), futuristic TV, and religious-style demagogues. Erasmus (get it?) is in the middle of this and realizes something bad is going to happen. He’s a low-ranked “avout” who lives in one of those cloisters, which demands an kind of autarky of ideas, a bit like Vermont without Internet access. There are a lot of passages like this, taken from the beginning:

Guests from extramuros, like Artisan Flec, were allowed to come in the Day Gate and view auts from the north nave when they were not especially contagious and, by and large, behaving themselves. This had been more or less the case for the last century and a half.

It’s unfair to take this out of context and not explain what the hell is going on. But for the first quarter to half of the book, there is no context until you’ve created your own.

Confused yet? Hopefully not too much; if you pick up Anathem, you will be further. The novel famously comes with a glossary, which reads like code with too many GOTOs in it. And if I make the novel sound ridiculous, I’m doing so intentionally and picking up the flavor of those lofty New Yorker reviews whose greatest tactic against the manufactured noise and lights that sometimes pass as popcorn movies is ridicule. In Stephenson’s case, the noise is highbrow and intellectual, or maybe pseudo-intellectual, but noise nonetheless, regardless of the number of philosophic references put in it.

The biggest problems with the silly vocabulary is that it a) makes the the novel harder to take seriously, even in a humorous way, and b) make it more likely that readers will abandon the novel before reading it, and in turn badmouth it to their friends (and on their blogs, as I’m doing). I wanted to like the novel, but Neal Stephenson is beginning to feel like Melville: someone who peaked before he stopped writing novels, to the detriment of his readers, but who nonetheless still writes a lot of unconventional and interesting stuff. Stephenson’s Moby Dick is Cryptonomicon, a novel still justifiably beloved, and his earlier novels The Diamond Age and Snow Crash are both unusually strong science fiction.

By now, one gets the sense no one restrains Stephenson’s grandest impulses: the long well-done novel is a unique beauty, but the poorly done long novel is more likely to be abandoned than finished, and one could say that all the more of a poorly done series of long novels like The Baroque Trilogy , which is destined not to be a collected in a single physical volume thanks to its heft.

In Further Fridays, John Barth writes of great thick books that “One is reminded that the pleasures of the one-night stand, however fashionable, are not the only pleasures. There is also the extended, committed affair; there is even the devoted, faithful, happy marriage. One recalls, among several non-minimalist Moderns, Vladimir Nabokov seconding James Joyce’s wish for ‘the ideal reader with the ideal insomnia.’ ” Neal Stephenson answers this call for heft and then some: Cryptonomicon is a marvelous book that would demand more than a single night of insomnia to read, and yet none of it seems extraneous, or at least not in a way that deserves to be cut. Even the several page description of how one should eat Captain Crunch seems apt to the mind of the hackers and proto-hackers Stephenson follows. So it is again with Anathem, a novel whose demands are much greater.

Stephenson has made steadily greater demands of his readers, and I wonder if those demands were most justified for Cryptonomicon. Midway through Quicksilver I gave up, and what The Baroque Trilogy demands in sheer length, Anathem demands in depth. As has often been mentioned in reviews, it has a glossary, and the dangers of it are well-expressed by this graph:

(I will note, however, that one of my favorite novels of all times has not just made up words, but an entire made-up language embedded: Lord of the Rings. So it’s important to note that the probability of a book being good descends but never reaches zero, at least as far as we can tell from this graph.)

One other point: as Umberto Eco said of The Name of the Rose:

But there was another reason [beyond verisimilitude to the perspective of a 14th C. monk] for including those long didactic passages. After reading the manuscript, my friends and editors suggested I abbreviate the first hundred pages, which they found very difficult and demanding. Without thinking twice, I refused, because, as I insisted, if somebody wanted to enter the abbey and live there for seven days, he had to accept the abbey’s own pace. If he could not, he would never manage to read the whole book. Therefore those first hundred pages are like penance or an initiation, and if someone does not like them, so much the worse for him. He can stay at the foot of the hill.
Entering a novel is like going on a climb in the mountains: you have to learn the rhythm of respiration, acquire the pace; otherwise you stop right away.

Or, worse, you might think you get to the mountain’s summit and then intellectually die during the descent (and yes, the link embedded in this sentence is highly relevant to the issue at hand).

In the novel, Stephenson is dealing with the potential for an increasingly bifurcated society with supernerds on one side and proles on the other. You can see the same ideas in 800 words instead of 120,000 in his essay Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out, which I assign to my freshmen every semester and which almost none of them really get.

Still, the concern that smart people are going to rule others does have a certain pedigree, and the idea of a cerebral superclass detached from the material world is hardly a new one; monks were an expression of it in a religious context for centuries if not longer. H.G. Wells thought of something not dissimilar in his idea of an “Open Conspiracy,” through which leading scientists and philosophers would form a benevolent world government. In Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb, he describes physicist Leo Szilard similar conception of an improbably super-competent elite ruling the world:

[…] we could create a spiritual leadership class with inner cohesion which would renew itself on its own.

Members of this class would not be award wealth or personal glory. To the contrary, they would be required to take on exceptional responsibilities, “burdens” that might “demonstrate their devotion.”

Sounds great. Keep them away from me.

People who like second-hand philosophy and who need a superiority complex or to feed one that’s developing might like Anathem. Mastering it is perhaps as esoteric as being able to quote at will from Hegel The Phenomenology of Spirit and about as fun. I’ve barely talked about the novel, the text, and the story because the story feels like a skeleton for the novel’s concerns. Again, like Melville, Stephenson seems to have forgotten about the pull of story in his later.

Umberto Eco, in contrast, is another writer of enormous books filled with ideas, and his two best—The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum contrast with weaker efforts in those others—like The Island of the Day Before and The Invisible Flame of Queen Loanna—become obsessed with how story is told rather than the story itself. The “how” is a fine subject to address in novels, as many postmodernist novels do, but it can’t be subjugated to the what—otherwise one isn’t writing a novel; one is writing literary criticism. Trying to shoehorn the latter into the former isn’t going to create anything but boredom, with characters who aren’t characters but Vessels of Great Meaning. Erasmus in Anathem isn’t a person—he’s a convenient way to explore ideas. I’d like a character who explores the idea of why idea must be integrated into characters rather than vice-versa.

Is there something wrong with story? For a novel to work, its meaning has to be at most equal to, but more likely subsumed beneath, its story and the language used to convey that story. But Anathem is too busy preening to let that happen. I’m reminded of something Philip Pullman said regarding the His Dark Materials Trilogy: for every page he wrote he threw five away, and he concentrated ceaselessly on moving it along. That has our hero, Lyra, in a closet, where she’s hiding because she’s broken a rule and sees someone attempt to poison her father, a returning hero. The novel moves ever faster from there.

It’s a beginning so forceful that I’m recalling it by memory. Where does Anathem begin again? I can’t remember, and I look at the tome on my desk and considering finding out. If I were to force myself to remember, it would be doing so with all the joy of memorizing for school. His Dark Materials, in contrast, I remember for pure joy, and for its impact.

This is, to be sure, an overlong post, but it suits an overlong novel. Let this serve as a warning regarding and substitute for Anathem.

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