Thursday, July 25, 2024

Now there you have a sample of man’s “reasoning powers,” as he calls them. He observes certain facts. For instance, that in all his life he never sees the day that he can satisfy one woman; also, that no woman ever sees the day that she can’t overwork, and defeat, and put out of commission any ten masculine plants that can be put to bed to her. He puts those strikingly suggestive and luminous facts together, and from them draws this astonishing conclusion: The Creator intended the woman to be restricted to one man. — MARK TWAIN, Letters from the Earth

We recently spotted a young man strolling down Las Ramblas in Barcelona proudly sporting a T-shirt proclaiming that he was Born to F*ck. One wonders whether he has a whole set of these shirts at home: Born to Bre*the, Born to E*t, Born to Dr*nk, Born to Sh*t, and of course the depressing but inevitable Born to D*e.

But maybe he was making a deeper point. After all, the argument central to this book is that sex has long served many crucial functions for Homo sapiens, with reproduction being only the most obvious among them. Since we human beings spend more time and energy planning, executing, and recalling our sexual exploits than any other species on Earth, maybe we all should wear such shirts.

Or maybe just the women. When it comes to sex, men may be trash-talking sprinters, but it’s the women who win all the marathons. Any marriage counselor will tell you the most common sex-related complaint women make about men is that they are too quick and too direct. Meanwhile, men’s most frequent sex-related gripe about women is that they take too damned long to get warmed up. After an orgasm, a woman may be anticipating a dozen more. A female body in motion tends to stay in motion. But men come and go. For them, the curtain falls quickly and the mind turns to unrelated matters.

This symmetry of dual disappointment illustrates the almost comical incompatibility between men’s and women’s sexual response in the context of monogamous mating. You have to wonder: if men and women evolved together in sexually monogamous couples for millions of years, how did we end up being so incompatible? It’s as if we’ve been sitting down to dinner together, millennium after millennium, but half of us can’t help wolfing everything down in a few frantic, sloppy minutes, while the other half are still setting the table and lighting candles.

Yes, we know: mixed strategies, lots of cheap sperm versus a few expensive eggs in one basket, and so on. But these flagrantly maladjusted sexual responses make far more sense when viewed as relics of our having evolved in promiscuous groups. Rather than spinning theories within theories in an effort to prop up an unstable paradigm — monogamy with mistakes, mild polygyny, mixed mating strategies, serial monogamy — can we simply face the one scenario where none of this self-contradicting, inconsistent special pleading is necessary?

Okay, fine, it’s embarrassing. Maybe even humiliating, if you’re prone to that sort of thing. But 150 years after On the Origin of Species was published, isn’t it time to accept that our ancestors evolved along a sexual trajectory similar to that of our two highly social, very intelligent, closely related primate cousins? With any other question we have about the origins of human behavior, we look to chimps and bonobos for important clues: language, tool use, political alliances, war, reconciliation, altruism… but when it comes to sex, we prudishly turn away from these models to the distantly related, antisocial, low-I.Q. but monogamous gibbon? Really?

We’ve pointed out how the agricultural revolution triggered radical social reconfigurations from which we’re still reeling. Perhaps the far-fetched denial of our promiscuous sexual prehistory expresses a legitimate fear of social instability, but insistent demands for a stable social order (based, as we’re often reminded, upon the nuclear family unit) cannot erase the effects of the hundreds of thousands of years that came before our species settled into stable villages.

If female chimps and bonobos could talk, do we really think they’d be griping to their hairy girlfriends about prematurely ejaculating males who don’t bring flowers anymore? Probably not, because as we’ve seen, when a female chimp or bonobo is in the mood, she’s likely to be the center of plenty of eager male attention. And the more attention she gets, the more she attracts, because as it turns out, our male primate cousins get turned on by the sight and sound of others of their species having sex. Imagine that.