Sex at Dawn
Sex at Dawn | About this book | Preface | Introduction
Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality is a 2010 book about the evolution of monogamy in humans and human mating systems by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. In opposition to what the authors see as the "standard narrative" of human sexual evolution, they contend that having multiple sexual partners was common and accepted in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. The authors contend that mobile, self-contained groups of hunter-gatherers were the norm for humans before agriculture led to high population density. Before agriculture, according to the authors, sex was relatively promiscuous and paternity was not a concern. This dynamic is similar to the mating system of bonobos. According to the book, sexual interactions strengthened the bond of trust in the groups. Far from causing jealousy, social equilibrium and reciprocal obligation were strengthened by playful sexual interactions.
The book generated a great deal of publicity in the popular press where it was met with generally positive reviews. Several scholars from related academic disciplines (such as anthropology, evolutionary psychology, primatology, biology, and sexology) have commented on the book. Most have been critical of the book's methodology and conclusions, although some have praised the book.
The authors argue that human beings evolved in egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands in which sexual interaction was a shared resource, much like food, child care, and group defense.
The authors believe that much of evolutionary psychology has been conducted with a bias regarding human sexuality. They argue that the public and many researchers are guilty of the "Flintstonization" of a hunter-gatherer society, i.e. projecting modern assumptions and beliefs onto earlier societies. Thus the authors believe that there is a false assumption that our species is primarily monogamous and offer evidence to the contrary. [from: Wikipedia]
About Sex at Dawn | Introduction
PART I: On the Origin of the Specious
PART II: Lust in Paradise (Solitary)
PART III: The Way We Weren’t
PART IV: Bodies in Motion
PART V: Men Are From Africa, Women Are from Africa
References | Suggested Reading | Searchable Terms
Christopher Ryan received a BA in English from Hobart College in 1984 and an MA and PhD in psychology from Saybrook University in San Francisco, California, twenty years later. He spent the intervening decades in unexpected places working at very odd jobs (e.g., gutting salmon in Alaska, teaching English to prostitutes in Bangkok and self-defense to land-reform activists in Mexico, managing commercial real estate in New York’s Diamond District, helping Spanish physicians publish their research). Drawing upon his multicultural experience, Christopher’s doctoral research focused on trying to distinguish the human from the cultural by analyzing the prehistoric roots of human sexuality, and was guided by the world-renowned psychologist Stanley Krippner.
Based in Barcelona since the mid-1990s, Christopher has lectured at the University of Barcelona Medical School and consulted at various local hospitals. He speaks to audiences around the world (in both English and Spanish). His work has appeared in major newspapers and magazines in many languages, scholarly journals, and a textbook used in medical schools and teaching hospitals throughout Spain and Latin America.
Christopher contributes blogs to both Psychology Today and The Huffington Post.
Cacilda Jethá has an Indian face, a European education, and an African soul. She was born in Mozambique to a mixed Muslim/Hindu family that had immigrated from Iran and India a few generations earlier. As a child, she fled civil war to Portugal, where she received most of her education and began her medical training before returning to Mozambique in the 1980s. As a young physician determined to help heal her country, Cacilda spent several years as the only physician serving some fifty thousand people in a vast rural district. While there, she conducted research on the sexual behavior of rural Mozambicans in order to help develop more effective AIDS-prevention efforts.
After almost a decade in Mozambique, Cacilda returned to Portugal, where she completed residency training in both psychiatry (at the prestigious Hospital Júlio de Matos in Lisbon) and occupational medicine.
She speaks Portuguese, French, Spanish, Catalan, English, and some rusty Tsonga.
She and Christopher live together in Barcelona, Spain, where she is a practicing psychiatrist.
The material in Chapter 21 featuring “philandering Phil” struck some readers of previous editions of this book as imbalanced and even hypocritical in light of all we’ve said about the importance of sexual satisfaction for both women and men. “Why only talk about having an affair from a man’s perspective,” we’ve been asked, “when the rest of your book is so balanced and supportive of women’s sexuality?” That’s a fair and direct question for which we can offer only unfair and indirect answers.
First, many men report that they had affairs simply because opportunities arose, while women – for whom opportunities are often more plentiful – tend to report a more complex confluence of motivations. For example, when Shirley Glass and Thomas White anonymously interviewed three hundred men and women about their extramarital affairs, they found that men tended to see their affairs as more sexual while women were motivated more by emotional considerations and reported greater levels of dissatisfaction with their marriages. These findings have been echoed repeatedly in other research.
Second, as we’ve discussed in previous chapters, women’s libidinous motivations tend to be far more fluid, and thus harder to discuss adequately, than men’s. Recall that women are more likely to engage in extramarital sex when they’re ovulating, for example, and are less likely to use birth control than at other points in their menstrual cycle. A woman in her forties may well approach a “friends with benefits” situation completely differently than she would have two decades earlier, for reasons relating both to hormonal levels and life experience.
In addition to these internal factors, women tend to be more responsive to external conditions. (Are the kids grown and out of the house? Is she financially independent? What would her friends and family say? Does she suspect that he’s having an affair?) Men – even highly intelligent, otherwise cautious and calculating men – often blunder into these situations blinded by something that doesn’t seem to render women quite so helpless.
Of course, none of this is definitive or universal. Whatever generalizations we make about motivations will be belied by many, many exceptions among both men and women. Every person is a world and every relationship a universe. Nothing we say here is meant to simplify or minimize anyone’s experience, male or female.
Our purpose is merely to briefly explore how some of the theories we’ve discussed play out in many modern lives by looking at the scenario married couples confront most frequently: the middle-aged man who strays. A similar assessment of women’s motivations and experiences of extramarital affairs would require far more space than we have. Plus, we actually know “Phil,” who was willing to discuss his experience with us. If we know any women who are having affairs as we write this, they’ve chosen not to share their secret with us, perhaps wisely.
The following is heavily edited from two Savage Love podcasts recorded with Dan Savage in 2010 as well as an unpublished conversation. The full, unedited, raunchy, NSFW podcast recordings can be found (free) at the iTunes store or at www.thestranger.com. Episode 194 was broadcast on July 6, and episode 210 on October 27. Dan Savage is the best-known sex advice columnist in the United States. His podcast and syndicated column reach millions of readers weekly.
Dan Savage: You know how every once in a while you see a movie or you read a book or an article in a magazine – or perhaps some advice in an advice column – and you think, “Oh my god, I’m not crazy!”? I’ve just had that experience reading your book. I don’t know how to start this interview with you but by gushing. I understand that you’re married to a woman, but where have you been all my life?
Christopher Ryan: (laughing) I’ve been trying to get your attention for the past couple of years!
DS: I’ve been reading your book and screaming and yelling and jumping up and down. I feel so vindicated by the research that you guys have done because for years, I’ve been pointing out just from observation and anecdotal evidence that monogamy is hard, doesn’t work, and makes people kind of miserable. And yet we’re told it should come easily and naturally when we’re in love, that a monogamous commitment is effortless where there’s love. And you guys have demonstrated that this is simply not true.
CR: That’s our conclusion.
DS: What inspired you to write this book, to paint this bull’s-eye on your backs? Because you are going to get criticized from all sides.
CR: I guess what got me into this line of thinking initially was the Clinton-Lewinsky situation. I was thinking, How is it possible that if men have had all the power – political, economic, even physical power – since the beginning of time, how is it that the most powerful man in the world is being publicly humiliated for having a consensual sexual relationship with someone? It just didn’t make sense. So that led me to investigate evolutionary psychology. For the first year or so, I had the passion of the convert. I thought it explained everything. Luckily, at the time, I was living in San Francisco, working for a nonprofit organization called Women in Community Service. I was one of the only men working there. Consequently, I had lots of very intelligent, outspoken women around me who helped me see that the depiction of female sexuality that is fundamental to evolutionary psychology really doesn’t make much sense at all.
DS: And what is the picture painted of female sexuality? You say in the book that “women are whores” – that’s what they’re telling us.
CR: We don’t say that! We half-jokingly say that Darwin says women are whores, in that they supposedly trade sex for stuff: protection, food, status, and so on, according to the conventional Darwinian view. We argue that women aren’t whores by nature; they’re sluts… and we mean that as a compliment! In other words, women evolved to have sex for the same reasons men do – because they like it. It feels good. Not because they’re trying to get something from men.
DS: There’s stuff in this book that will make people’s heads explode, like the concept of partible paternity. Instead of women trading sexual exclusivity and the assurance of paternity to men, that what was actually going on was that women may have been fucking as many men as possible so all the men in the group could believe that the kid could be theirs.
CR: Right. This is something that Sarah Hrdy writes about in several of her books on alloparenting. She explains that it’s actually better for that child if lots of adults feel they have a direct connection to the child.
DS: You guys argue that this was the natural order of things, sort of a polyamorous, all-for-one-and-one-for-all sex culture. So, if monogamy wasn’t our natural state, and now it’s an “ill-fitting garment,” and so on, now what?
CR: Well, this is a book about how we are and how we got to be this way, but it’s not about what anyone should do about it.
DS: Yes, but don’t you think it will help people just to know the reason that they’re falling short? That they’re not doing anything wrong, necessarily? That it’s their inner nature, their inner bonobo? These ideals our culture has created about monogamy and faithfulness and fidelity are nice, but they’re not very functional and our own libidos and reptile brains are at war with them.
CR: Exactly. People often say to us, “But we’re human beings. We can choose how to behave.” That’s true, to a certain extent, but our bodies rebel against decisions that go against our evolved nature. You can choose to wear shoes that are too small, but you can’t choose to be comfortable in them. You can choose to wear a corset, but you may well pass out because you can’t breathe properly.… The human body and mind have evolved for a certain kind of life. The further we diverge from that path, the greater the cost in terms of mental, emotional, and physical health. There’s just no getting away from this. We examine all this in greater detail in our next book.
Getting back to your earlier question – “Now what?” – the ambition we have for this book is humble but important, I think. We hope it encourages and empowers people to give themselves a break, to cut themselves and their partners some slack. It actually promotes family stability to not be so rigid concerning fidelity. A zero-tolerance policy doesn’t help anyone.
DS: I’m constantly arguing that! If we’re interested in preserving marriages and keeping families intact, we need to be less psychotic about never seeing anyone else naked ever again once we’re married. If we make certain allowances, the marriage is more likely to survive over the long run. If the only way you can ever have sex with anyone else is to end the marriage, many people will end or sabotage the marriage.
CR: Well put.
DS: OK, let’s talk about how the book’s been received so far. I’ve seen some negative reaction concerning jealousy and love. What do you say to people who say this vision of prehistory can’t possibly be right because we’re “by nature” possessive about love?
CR: Well, I generally avoid making sweeping statements about these issues, but I’ll give it a shot for you, Dan. Cacilda and I believe that real love isn’t primarily about sex. If you’re lucky enough to find love in your life, you quickly realize how relatively unimportant sex is. Love is about a lot of unerotic things: getting old together, taking care of each other when we’re sick or grieving, raising a child together, paying the bills… sharing the dailyness of life. It’s not primarily about orgasms. So many people confuse these things. They mistake good sexual chemistry for soul-mating, for a reason to sign up for a life together. Then, a few years later, when the chemical thrill has dissipated – as it does – they find they’ve made a horrible mistake. So, even though our book is largely about sex, one of the central points we wanted to make is that most of us take sex way too seriously. We need to chill out. Like music, sex can be sacred but doesn’t always have to be. Sometimes we hear God in a Bach toccata, but sometimes we’re just dancing and having a good time listening to the Rolling Stones. Nothing sacred about it.
DS: You heard it here first, folks! Other than those quibblers, how’s the book been received so far?
CR: To be honest, we’re surprised and thrilled at the reception. Of course, I’ve got a Google alert set to the title, so I see most of the blog discussions, reviews on Amazon.com and GoodReads, etc. Overall, people seem to be very positive about the book. Much more than we’d expected. We figured we’d get about 50 percent hate mail and 50 percent non-hate mail, but probably 90 percent of the people who’ve written to us have been very, very kind in their comments. Some of the emails are heartbreaking. A lot of them along the lines of, “Damn, I wish I’d known all this when I was young!” One I’ll never forget said, simply, “I’m a sixty-three-year-old widow and I consider this one of the most important books I’ve ever read. I wish I could live my life over with this information.” We get a lot of messages that relate to what you said earlier, about how people feel better when they can understand why they feel as they do. Why they can honestly love their partner but still feel attracted to other people. Seriously, the response from readers has been mind-blowing.
DS: But surely not all positive.
CR: No, and maybe this is still the calm before the storm. There hasn’t been much negative response from the academic community – at least not the evolutionary psychology crowd we critique in our book: Pinker, Buss, Chagnon, and those guys.
We’ve received lovely messages from people like Frans de Waal and Sarah Hrdy – certainly two of the most prominent authorities in the evolution of human sexuality – although they don’t necessarily agree with everything we wrote. On the other hand, Alan Dixson, a prominent primatologist we quote extensively, trashed us in an interview he gave to a paper in New Zealand, but he admitted he hadn’t read the book, he was just responding to what he’d heard about it. That’s been sort of typical of the most negative critical responses so far. They admit they haven’t read Sex at Dawn, but they dismiss it anyway. Megan McArdle, the business and economics editor at The Atlantic, wrote what is probably the most negative review to date, and she openly admitted she was only halfway through the book when she wrote it.
DS: I saw that! “Humans aren’t like bonobos… because we’re not like bonobos!”
CR: Right. Rock-solid logic there, no? She apparently felt so threatened by the book that she couldn’t think straight. I mean, she accused us of leaving out any discussion of jealousy as it didn’t fit our model, somehow missing Chapter 10, which is called “Jealousy: A Beginner’s Guide to Coveting Thy Neighbor’s Spouse.”
But as I said, the negative response has been much less than we were expecting, and is understandable; lots of people feel threatened by the arguments we’ve made.
We’ve received lots of support from academics and clinicians. We’ve heard from scholars at the Kinsey Institute, professors all over the country who are assigning the book to their students, and we were honored when Sex at Dawn was chosen as the best consumer book of 2010 by the Society for Sex Therapy and Research (SSTAR).
DS: I’m so sorry Cacilda couldn’t join you on this trip. What was her role in the book?
CR: Cacilda is one of two psychiatrists who run a psychiatric facility with close to a hundred patients. So she’s pretty tied to her day job these days, much as she’d love to participate more in interviews and meet readers. Strangely, a few people have interpreted her non-presence in interviews as evidence that I made her up just to give the book some cover with women readers. Seriously!
I’d done a lot of this research before meeting Casi, about ten years ago. Still, what she brought to the book was crucial. First, she’d done her own research into human sexual behavior in rural Mozambique for the World Health Organization in the first years of the AIDS crisis, so she had extensive “real life” understanding of how things work in that part of the world. She grew up in a mixed Muslim/Hindu Indian family in Africa, so she brought a lot of multicultural nuance to the project, and of course, being a medical doctor, she was integral to the discussions of diet, longevity, infant care, and so on. Portuguese is her native language, and English is actually one of six that she speaks. As the native English speaker and professional writer, I did the writing, but she read every draft, again and again, before it went to anyone else. To call her anything other than a coauthor would be inadequate.
DS: You’ve lived in Spain for a long time. Have you seen any major differences in the way Americans and Spanish deal with sex?
CR: Oh yeah. In fact, that may be why I’ve lived in Spain for so long! Despite the history of Catholicism as the “official religion,” urban Spanish people, at least, are far less conflicted about sex than the typical American. One of the first things that struck me was how openly and unashamedly Spanish people flirt. I’m not, and never have been, a particularly great-looking guy, but after a few weeks walking around in Barcelona, I felt like Brad Pitt! It’s not sleazy or even necessarily sexual, but women look in your eyes, and if they like what they see, they smile. So simple. There’s not that fear and suspicion of strangers one finds so often in American cities, where eye contact is to be avoided at all costs. In the U.S., there seems to be an assumption that any man you don’t know could very well be a rapist-pervert-murderer or creep of some sort. I’m not blaming women for having that fear, of course, but it’s pretty depressing for men and women. In Barcelona, you can walk down the street and be smiled at by three or four lovely women per block. It sure makes walking a lot more fun!
Cacilda gets the same sort of ego boosts all the time. (But she is particularly beautiful, so it’s less surprising.) Nothing sleazy, mind you, but just guys who say things like, “Hi. I just wanted to introduce myself and ask if you’d like to have a drink sometime. You’re really lovely.” There’s an innocence around flirting here that’s been lost in the States. It’s a shame, as it’s very much a win-win situation that dramatically improves quality of life for everyone involved.
DS: What was the most surprising thing you learned while working on Sex at Dawn?
CR: So many things come to mind, but probably the most mind-blowing was the information about the first “key parties” having been started by elite WWII pilots who were facing very high fatality rates, the highest in the whole military. It was so moving to think about what motivated them to open their marriages with other couples. They were cultivating these webs of love, or at least real affection, because they knew that some of the men wouldn’t survive the war, and they wanted the widows to have as much support and love as possible. This confluence of selflessness and sexuality seemed to connect so directly to the hunter-gatherer groups, where men also have a high mortality rate from hunting accidents, falls, animal attacks, and so on. It was an unexpected yet very clear reflection of the distant past.
DS: Has the experience of publishing this book changed you in any way?
CR: Interesting question. It has. It’s made me much less critical of other people’s books. I don’t think I could write a negative review at this point. When I was younger, it was easy to point out the flaws in books, but at this point, I’m much more aware that there’s a person on the other side who did their best. If I were writing Sex at Dawn again, I’d probably tone down some of the snarkier bits.
I’m also more aware of just how impossible it is to please everyone. We’ve been incredibly fortunate in the response to this book, but still, for every nine comments we get congratulating us for writing the book with humor, we’ll get one or two describing the writing style as “sophomoric” or “unserious.” Some people think serious issues can only be discussed in serious tones. It’s interesting to have become a public figure, even in the very limited way I’m experiencing it. People have the right to their responses to your work, positive or negative. I’ve learned not to take it personally, in either case.
They say publishing a book is like having a baby, but it takes longer and hurts more. Appropriately, this “baby” has many parents. There would be no Sex at Dawn without the insight, encouragement, and patience of our families, especially Frank, Julie, and Beth Ryan, Joana and Manel Ruas, Alzira Remane, Celestino Almeida, and Danial Jethá. Stephan Lang (whose name we inexcusably misspelled in the hardcover version of this book) and Henriette Klauser were incredibly generous in helping us put together a convincing book proposal. Our agent, Melissa Flashman, spent countless hours guiding us through the transition from proposal to manuscript. Unlike most agents, she kept reading and offering wise counsel throughout the entire publishing process, for which we are sincerely grateful. Many thanks to Ben Loehnen, our editor at HarperCollins, who believed in the book from the get-go (even while no doubt discreetly disagreeing with some of its content), and assistant editor Matthew Inman, for his rapid-response professionalism. Lisa Wolff did a first-class copyedit, catching more than a few potentially embarrassing mistakes. Those that snuck through or that we slipped in later are nobody’s fault but our own.
Frank Ryan (WBE), Stanton Peele, Stanley Krippner, Julie Holland, Britt Winston, and Steve Mason masochistically read and re-read early drafts of the entire messy manuscript. Their comments were sadistically honest, which is exactly what we needed. In addition to their crucial scholarship, Robert Sapolsky, Todd Shackelford, Helen Fisher, Daniel Moses, and Frans de Waal contributed scarce free time to review parts of the manuscript.
Finally, we thank the following people (in random order) for the many kinds of support and encouragement they’ve given us: Michael and Mireille Lang, Brian and Crosby O’Hare, Marta Cervera, Alejandra Peña, Dorothianne Henne, Naomi and Don Norwood, Octavi de Daniel, Adam Mendelson, Richard Schweid, David Darnell, Señor Manolo Reyes, Matt Dondet, Mark Plummer, Cybele Tom, Sean Doyle, Santiago Suso, Victoria Ribera, Antonio Berruezo, Eric Patterson, Don Cooper, Martijn van Duivendijk, Peggy and Raul Rossel, Nacho and Leo Valls-Jové, Celine Salvans, Carmen Palomar Lopez, Anamargarita Otero-Robertson, Viram, Voodoo, Maria da Luz Venâncio Guerreiro, João Alves Falcato, Mario Simões, Steve Taylor, Vince and Carrie Stamper, Susie Bright, Jacqui Deegan, and, of course, Dan, Terry, and D.J.
SEX AT DAWN. Copyright © 2010 by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the nonexclusive, nontransferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse-engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins e-books.
FIRST HARPER PERENNIAL EDITION PUBLISHED 2011.
The Library of Congress has catalogued the hardcover edition as follows: Ryan, Christopher
Sex at dawn: the prehistoric origins of modern sexuality / Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. —1st ed.
Summary: “A controversial, idea-driven book that challenges everything you know about sex, marriage, family, and society.” — Provided by publisher
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-06-170780-3 (hardback)
ISBN 978-0-06-170781-0 (pbk.)
EPub Edition © FEBRUARY 2012 ISBN: 9780062207944
1. Sex. 2. Sex—History. 3. Sex customs. 4. Marriage. I. Jethá, Cacilda. II. Title.
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters
of life’s longing for itself.
To all our relations
Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above. — KATHARINE HEPBURN, as Miss Rose Sayer, in The African Queen
One muggy afternoon in 1988, some local men were selling peanuts at the entrance to the botanical gardens in Penang, Malaysia. I’d come with my girlfriend, Ana, to walk off a big lunch. Sensing our confusion, the men explained that the peanuts weren’t for us, but to feed irresistibly cute baby monkeys like those we hadn’t yet noticed rolling around on the grass nearby. We bought a few bags.
We soon came to a little guy hanging by his tail right over the path. His oh-so-human eyes focused imploringly on the bag of nuts in Ana’s hand. We were standing there cooing like teenage girls in a kitten shop when the underbrush exploded in a sudden simian strike. A full-grown monkey flashed past me, bounced off Ana, and was gone — along with the nuts. Ana’s hand was bleeding where he’d scratched her. We were stunned, trembling, silent. There’d been no time to scream.
After a few minutes, when the adrenaline had finally begun to ebb, my fear curdled into loathing. I felt betrayed in a way I never had before. Along with our nuts went precious assumptions about the purity of nature, of evil as a uniquely human affliction. A line had been crossed. I wasn’t just angry; I was philosophically offended.
I felt something changing inside me. My chest seemed to swell, my shoulders to broaden. My arms felt stronger; my eyesight sharpened. I felt like Popeye after a can of spinach. I glared into the underbrush like the heavyweight primate I now knew myself to be. I’d take no more abuse from these lightweights.
I’d been traveling in Asia long enough to know that monkeys there are nothing like their trombone-playing, tambourine-banging cousins I’d seen on TV as a kid. Free-living Asian primates possess a characteristic I found shocking and confusing the first time I saw it: self-respect. If you make the mistake of holding the gaze of a street monkey in India, Nepal, or Malaysia, you’ll find you’re facing a belligerently intelligent creature whose expression says, with a Robert DeNiro-like scowl, “What the hell are you looking at? You wanna piece of me?” Forget about putting one of these guys in a little red vest.
It wasn’t long before we came to another imploring, furry face hanging upside down from a tree in the middle of a clearing. Ana was ready to forgive and forget. Though I was fully hardened against cuteness of any kind, I agreed to give her the remaining bag of nuts. We seemed safely distant from underbrush from which an ambush could be launched. But as I pulled the bag out of my sweat-soaked pocket, its cellophane rustle must have rung through the jungle like a clanging dinner bell.
In a heartbeat, a large, arrogant-looking brute appeared at the edge of the clearing, about twenty yards away. He gazed at us, considering the situation, sizing me up. His exaggerated yawn seemed calculated to dismiss and threaten me simultaneously: a long, slow display of his fangs. Determined to fill any power vacuum without delay, I picked up a small branch and tossed it casually in his direction, making the point that these nuts were definitely not for him and that I was not to be trifled with. He watched the branch land a few feet in front of him, not moving a muscle. Then his forehead briefly crinkled in eerily emotional thought, as if I’d hurt his feelings. He looked up at me, straight into my eyes. His expression held no hint of fear, respect, or humor.
As if shot from a cannon, he leapt over the branch I’d tossed, long yellow dagger fangs bared, shrieking, charging straight at me.
Caught between the attacking beast and my terrified girlfriend, I understood for the first time what it would really mean to have a “monkey on your back.” I felt something snap in my mind. I lost it. In movement quicker than thought, my arms flew open, my legs flexed into a wrestler’s crouch, and my own coffee-stained, orthodontia-corrected teeth were bared with a wild shriek. I was helplessly launched into a hopping-mad, saliva-spraying dominance display of my own.
I was as surprised as he was. He pulled up and stared at me for a second or two before slowly backing away. This time, though, I’m pretty sure I saw a hint of laughter in his eyes.
Above nature? Not a chance. Take it from Mr. Allnut.
Forget what you’ve heard about human beings having descended from the apes. We didn’t descend from apes. We are apes. Metaphorically and factually, Homo sapiens is one of the five surviving species of great apes, along with chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans (gibbons are considered a “lesser ape”). We shared a common ancestor with two of these apes – bonobos and chimps – just five million years ago.1 That’s “the day before yesterday” in evolutionary terms. The fine print distinguishing humans from the other great apes is regarded as “wholly artificial” by most primatologists these days.2
If we’re “above” nature, it’s only in the sense that a shaky-legged surfer is “above” the ocean. Even if we never slip (and we all do), our inner nature can pull us under at any moment. Those of us raised in the West have been assured that we humans are special, unique among living things, above and beyond the world around us, exempt from the humilities and humiliations that pervade and define animal life. The natural world lies below and beneath us, a cause for shame, disgust, or alarm; something smelly and messy to be hidden behind closed doors, drawn curtains, and minty freshness. Or we overcompensate and imagine nature floating angelically in soft focus up above, innocent, noble, balanced, and wise.
Like bonobos and chimps, we are the randy descendents of hypersexual ancestors. At first blush, this may seem an overstatement, but it’s a truth that should have become common knowledge long ago. Conventional notions of monogamous, till-death-do-us-part marriage strain under the dead weight of a false narrative that insists we’re something else. What is the essence of human sexuality and how did it get to be that way? In the following pages, we’ll explain how seismic cultural shifts that began about ten thousand years ago rendered the true story of human sexuality so subversive and threatening that for centuries it has been silenced by religious authorities, pathologized by physicians, studiously ignored by scientists, and covered up by moralizing therapists.
Deep conflicts rage at the heart of modern sexuality. Our cultivated ignorance is devastating. The campaign to obscure the true nature of our species’ sexuality leaves half our marriages collapsing under an unstoppable tide of swirling sexual frustration, libido-killing boredom, impulsive betrayal, dysfunction, confusion, and shame. Serial monogamy stretches before (and behind) many of us like an archipelago of failure: isolated islands of transitory happiness in a cold, dark sea of disappointment. And how many of the couples who manage to stay together for the long haul have done so by resigning themselves to sacrificing their eroticism on the altar of three of life’s irreplaceable joys: family stability, companionship, and emotional, if not sexual, intimacy? Are those who innocently aspire to these joys cursed by nature to preside over the slow strangulation of their partner’s libido?
The Spanish word esposas means both “wives” and “handcuffs.” In English, some men ruefully joke about the ball and chain. There’s good reason marriage is often depicted and mourned as the beginning of the end of a man’s sexual life. And women fare no better. Who wants to share her life with a man who feels trapped and diminished by his love for her, whose honor marks the limits of his freedom? Who wants to spend her life apologizing for being just one woman?
Yes, something is seriously wrong. The American Medical Association reports that some 42 percent of American women suffer from sexual dysfunction, while Viagra breaks sales records year after year. Worldwide, pornography is reported to rake in anywhere from fifty-seven billion to a hundred billion dollars annually. In the United States, it generates more revenue than CBS, NBC, and ABC combined and more than all professional football, baseball, and basketball franchises. According to U.S. News and World Report, “Americans spend more money at strip clubs than at Broadway, off-Broadway, regional and nonprofit theaters, the opera, the ballet and jazz and classical music performances – combined.”3
There’s no denying that we’re a species with a sweet tooth for sex. Meanwhile, so-called traditional marriage appears to be under assault from all sides – as it collapses from within. Even the most ardent defenders of normal sexuality buckle under its weight, as never-ending bipartisan perp-walks of politicians (Clinton, Vitter, Gingrich, Craig, Foley, Spitzer, Sanford) and religious figures (Haggard, Swaggert, Bakker) trumpet their support of family values before slinking off to private assignations with lovers, prostitutes, and interns.
Denial hasn’t worked. Hundreds of Catholic priests have confessed to thousands of sex crimes against children in the past few decades alone. In 2008, the Catholic Church paid $436 million in compensation for sexual abuse. More than a fifth of the victims were under ten years old. This we know. Dare we even imagine the suffering such crimes have caused in the seventeen centuries since a sexual life was perversely forbidden to priests in the earliest known papal decree: the Decreta and Cum in unum of Pope Siricius (c. 385)? What is the moral debt owed to the forgotten victims of this misguided rejection of basic human sexuality?
On threat of torture, in 1633, the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church forced Galileo to state publicly what he knew to be false: that the Earth sat immobile at the center of the universe. Three and a half centuries later, in 1992, Pope John Paul II admitted that the scientist had been right all along, but that the Inquisition had been “well-intentioned.”
Well, there’s no Inquisition like a well-intentioned Inquisition!
1. Maybe as recently as 4.5 million years ago. For a recent review of the genetic evidence, see Siepel (2009).
2. de Waal (1998), p. 5.
3. Some of these numbers are reported in McNeil et al. (2006) and Yoder et al. (2005). The hundred billion figure comes from: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-fg-vienna-porn25-2009mar25,0,7189584.story.
Like those childishly intransigent visions of an entire universe spinning around an all-important Earth, the standard narrative of prehistory offers an immediate, primitive sort of comfort. Just as pope after pope dismissed any cosmology that removed humankind from the exalted center of the endless expanse of space, just as Darwin was (and, in some crowds, still is) ridiculed for recognizing that human beings are the creation of natural laws, many scientists are blinded by their emotional resistance to any account of human sexual evolution that doesn’t revolve around the monogamous nuclear family unit.
Although we’re led to believe we live in times of sexual liberation, contemporary human sexuality throbs with obvious, painful truths that must not be spoken aloud. The conflict between what we’re told we feel and what we really feel may be the richest source of confusion, dissatisfaction, and unnecessary suffering of our time. The answers normally proffered don’t answer the questions at the heart of our erotic lives: why are men and women so different in our desires, fantasies, responses, and sexual behavior? Why are we betraying and divorcing each other at ever increasing rates when not opting out of marriage entirely? Why the pandemic spread of single-parent families? Why does the passion evaporate from so many marriages so quickly? What causes the death of desire? Having evolved together right here on Earth, why do so many men and women resonate with the idea that we may as well be from different planets?
Oriented toward medicine and business, American society has responded to this ongoing crisis by developing a marital-industrial complex of couples therapy, pharmaceutical hard-ons, sex-advice columnists, creepy father-daughter purity cults, and an endless stream of in-box come-ons (“Unleash your LoveMonster! She’ll thank you!”). Every month, truckloads of glossy supermarket magazines offer the same old tricks to get the spark back into our moribund sex lives.
Yes, a few candles here, some crotchless panties there, toss a handful of rose petals on the bed and it’ll be just like the very first time! What’s that you say? He’s still checking out other women? She’s still got an air of detached disappointment? He’s finished before you’ve begun?
Well, then, let the experts figure out what ails you, your partner, your relationship. Perhaps his penis needs enlarging or her vagina needs a retrofit. Maybe he has “commitment issues,” a “fragmentary superego,” or the dreaded “Peter Pan complex.” Are you depressed? You say you love your spouse of a dozen years but don’t feel sexually attracted the way you used to? One or both of you are tempted by another? Maybe you two should try doing it on the kitchen floor. Or force yourself to do it every night for a year.4 Maybe he’s going through a midlife crisis. Take these pills. Get a new hairstyle. Something must be wrong with you.
Ever feel like the victim of a well-intentioned Inquisition?
This split-personality relationship with our true sexual nature is anything but news to entertainment corporations, who have long reflected the same fractured sensibility between public pronouncement and private desire. In 2000, under the headline “Wall Street Meets Pornography,” The New York Times reported that General Motors sold more graphic sex films than Larry Flynt, owner of the Hustler empire. Over eight million American subscribers to DirecTV, a General Motors subsidiary, were spending about $200 million a year on pay-per-view sex films from satellite providers. Similarly, Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Fox News Network and the nation’s leading conservative newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, was pulling in more porn money through a satellite company than Playboy made with its magazine, cable, and Internet businesses combined.5 AT&T, also a supporter of conservative values, sells hard-core porn to over a million hotel rooms throughout the country via its Hot Network.
The frantic sexual hypocrisy in America is inexplicable if we adhere to traditional models of human sexuality insisting that monogamy is natural, marriage is a human universal, and any family structure other than the nuclear is aberrant. We need a new understanding of ourselves, based not on pulpit proclamations or feel-good Hollywood fantasies, but on a bold and unashamed assessment of the plentiful scientific data that illuminate the true origins and nature of human sexuality.
We are at war with our eroticism. We battle our hungers, expectations, and disappointments. Religion, politics, and even science square off against biology and millions of years of evolved appetites. How to defuse this intractable struggle?
In the following pages, we reassess some of the most important science of our time. We question the deepest assumptions brought to contemporary views of marriage, family structure, and sexuality – issues affecting each of us every day and every night.
We’ll show that human beings evolved in intimate groups where almost everything was shared – food, shelter, protection, child care, even sexual pleasure. We don’t argue that humans are natural-born Marxist hippies. Nor do we hold that romantic love was unknown or unimportant in prehistoric communities. But we’ll demonstrate that contemporary culture misrepresents the link between love and sex. With and without love, a casual sexuality was the norm for our prehistoric ancestors.
Let’s address the question you’re probably already asking: how can we possibly know anything about sex in prehistory? Nobody alive today was there to witness prehistoric life, and since social behavior leaves no fossils, isn’t this all just wild speculation?
Not quite. There’s an old story about the trial of a man charged with biting off another man’s finger in a fight. An eyewitness took the stand. The defense attorney asked, “Did you actually see my client bite off the finger?” The witness said, “Well, no, I didn’t.” “Aha!” said the attorney with a smug smile. “How then can you claim he bit off the man’s finger?” “Well,” replied the witness, “I saw him spit it out.”
In addition to a great deal of circumstantial evidence from societies around the world and closely related nonhuman primates, we’ll take a look at some of what evolution has spit out. We’ll examine the anatomical evidence still evident in our bodies and the yearning for sexual novelty expressed in our pornography, advertising, and after-work happy hours. We’ll even decode messages in the so-called “copulatory vocalizations” of thy neighbor’s wife as she calls out ecstatically in the still of night.
4. See “Yes, dear. Tonight again.” Ralph Gardner, Jr. The New York Times (June 9, 2008): http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/09/arts/09iht-08nights.13568273.html?_r=1
5. Full disclosure: Murdoch also owns HarperCollins, the publisher of this book.
Readers acquainted with the recent literature on human sexuality will be familiar with what we call the standard narrative of human sexual evolution (hereafter shortened to “the standard narrative”). It goes something like this:
- Boy meets girl.
- Boy and girl assess one another’s mate value from perspectives based upon their differing reproductive agendas/capacities:
- He looks for signs of youth, fertility, health, absence of previous sexual experience, and likelihood of future sexual fidelity. In other words, his assessment is skewed toward finding a fertile, healthy young mate with many childbearing years ahead and no current children to drain his resources.
- She looks for signs of wealth (or at least prospects of future wealth), social status, physical health, and likelihood that he will stick around to protect and provide for their children. Her guy must be willing and able to provide materially for her (especially during pregnancy and breastfeeding) and their children (known as male parental investment).
- Boy gets girl: assuming they meet one another’s criteria, they “mate,” forming a long-term pair bond – the “fundamental condition of the human species,” as famed author Desmond Morris put it. Once the pair bond is formed:
- She will be sensitive to indications that he is considering leaving (vigilant toward signs of infidelity involving intimacy with other women that would threaten her access to his resources and protection) – while keeping an eye out (around ovulation, especially) for a quick fling with a man genetically superior to her husband.
- He will be sensitive to signs of her sexual infidelities (which would reduce his all-important paternity certainty) – while taking advantage of short-term sexual opportunities with other women (as his sperm are easily produced and plentiful).
Researchers claim to have confirmed these basic patterns in studies conducted around the world over several decades. Their results seem to support the standard narrative of human sexual evolution, which appears to make a lot of sense. But they don’t, and it doesn’t.
While we don’t dispute that these patterns play out in many parts of the modern world, we don’t see them as elements of human nature so much as adaptations to social conditions – many of which were introduced with the advent of agriculture no more than ten thousand years ago. These behaviors and predilections are not biologically programmed traits of our species; they are evidence of the human brain’s flexibility and the creative potential of community.
To take just one example, we argue that women’s seemingly consistent preference for men with access to wealth is not a result of innate evolutionary programming, as the standard model asserts, but simply a behavioral adaptation to a world in which men control a disproportionate share of the world’s resources. As we’ll explore in detail, before the advent of agriculture a hundred centuries ago, women typically had as much access to food, protection, and social support as did men. We’ll see that upheavals in human societies resulting from the shift to settled living in agricultural communities brought radical changes to women’s ability to survive. Suddenly, women lived in a world where they had to barter their reproductive capacity for access to the resources and protection they needed to survive. But these conditions are very different from those in which our species had been evolving previously.
It’s important to keep in mind that when viewed against the full scale of our species’ existence, ten thousand years is but a brief moment. Even if we ignore the roughly two million years since the emergence of our Homo lineage, in which our direct ancestors lived in small foraging social groups, anatomically modern humans are estimated to have existed as long as 200,000 years.* With the earliest evidence of agriculture dating to about 8000 BCE, the amount of time our species has spent living in settled agricultural societies represents just 5 percent of our collective experience, at most. As recently as a few hundred years ago, most of the planet was still occupied by foragers.
So in order to trace the deepest roots of human sexuality, it’s vital to look beneath the thin crust of recent human history. Until agriculture, human beings evolved in societies organized around an insistence on sharing just about everything. But all this sharing doesn’t make anyone a noble savage. These pre-agricultural societies were no nobler than you are when you pay your taxes or insurance premiums. Universal, culturally imposed sharing was simply the most effective way for our highly social species to minimize risk. Sharing and self-interest, as we shall see, are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, what many anthropologists call fierce egalitarianism was the predominant pattern of social organization around the world for many millennia before the advent of agriculture.
But human societies changed in radical ways once they started farming and raising domesticated animals. They organized themselves around hierarchical political structures, private property, densely populated settlements, a radical shift in the status of women, and other social configurations that together represent an enigmatic disaster for our species: human population growth mushroomed as quality of life plummeted. The shift to agriculture, wrote author Jared Diamond, is a “catastrophe from which we have never recovered.”6
Several types of evidence suggest our pre-agricultural (prehistoric) ancestors lived in groups where most mature individuals would have had several ongoing sexual relationships at any given time. Though often casual, these relationships were not random or meaningless. Quite the opposite: they reinforced crucial social ties holding these highly interdependent communities together.7
We’ve found overwhelming evidence of a decidedly casual, friendly prehistory of human sexuality echoed in our own bodies, in the habits of remaining societies still lingering in relative isolation, and in some surprising corners of contemporary Western culture. We’ll show how our bedroom behavior, porn preferences, fantasies, dreams, and sexual responses all support this reconfigured understanding of our sexual origins. Questions you’ll find answered in the following pages include:
- Why is long-term sexual fidelity so difficult for so many couples?
- Why does sexual passion often fade, even as love deepens?
- Why are women potentially multi-orgasmic, while men all too often reach orgasm frustratingly quickly and then lose interest?
- Is sexual jealousy an unavoidable, uncontrollable part of human nature?
- Why are human testicles so much larger than those of gorillas but smaller than those of chimps?
- Can sexual frustration make us sick? How did a lack of orgasms cause one of the most common diseases in history, and how was it treated?
* We use the terms “foragers” and “hunter-gatherers” interchangeably throughout the text.
6. Diamond (1987).
7. Such relationships would have been among many group-identity-boosting techniques, including participation in group bonding rituals still common to shamanistic religions characteristic of foraging people. Interestingly, such collective-identity-affirming rituals are often accompanied by music (which — like orgasm — releases oxytocin, the hormone most associated with forming emotional bonds). See Levitin (2009) for more on music and social identity.
In a nutshell, here’s the story we tell in the following pages: A few million years ago, our ancient ancestors (Homo erectus) shifted from a gorilla-like mating system where an alpha male fought to win and maintain a harem of females to one in which most males had sexual access to females. Few, if any experts dispute the fossil evidence for this shift.8
But we part company from those who support the standard narrative when we look at what this shift signifies. The standard narrative holds that this is when long-term pair bonding began in our species: if each male could have only one female mate at a time, most males would end up with a girl to call their own. Indeed, where there is debate about the nature of innate human sexuality, the only two acceptable options appear to be that humans evolved to be either monogamous (M–F) or polygynous (M–FFF+) – with the conclusion normally being that women generally prefer the former configuration while most men would opt for the latter.
But what about multiple mating, where most males and females have more than one concurrent sexual relationship? Why – apart from moral disgust – is prehistoric promiscuity not even considered, when nearly every relevant source of evidence points in that direction?
After all, we know that the foraging societies in which human beings evolved were small-scale, highly egalitarian groups who shared almost everything. There is a remarkable consistency to how immediate return foragers live – wherever they are.* The !Kung San of Botswana have a great deal in common with Aboriginal people living in outback Australia and tribes in remote pockets of the Amazon rainforest. Anthropologists have demonstrated time and again that immediate-return hunter-gatherer societies are nearly universal in their fierce egalitarianism. Sharing is not just encouraged; it’s mandatory. Hoarding or hiding food, for example, is considered deeply shameful, almost unforgivable behavior in these societies.9
Foragers divide and distribute meat equitably, breastfeed one another’s babies, have little or no privacy from one another, and depend upon each other for survival. As much as our social world revolves around notions of private property and individual responsibility, theirs spins in the opposite direction, toward group welfare, group identity, profound interrelation, and mutual dependence.
Though this may sound like naïve New Age idealism, whining over the lost Age of Aquarius, or a celebration of prehistoric communism, not one of these features of pre-agricultural societies is disputed by serious scholars. The overwhelming consensus is that egalitarian social organization is the de-facto system for foraging societies in all environments. In fact, no other system could work for foraging societies. Compulsory sharing is simply the best way to distribute risk to everyone’s benefit: participation mandatory. Pragmatic? Yes. Noble? Hardly.
We believe this sharing behavior extended to sex as well. A great deal of research from primatology, anthropology, anatomy, and psychology points to the same fundamental conclusion: human beings and our hominid ancestors have spent almost all of the past few million years or so in small, intimate bands in which most adults had several sexual relationships at any given time. This approach to sexuality probably persisted until the rise of agriculture and private property no more than ten thousand years ago. In addition to voluminous scientific evidence, many explorers, missionaries, and anthropologists support this view, having penned accounts rich with tales of orgiastic rituals, unflinching mate sharing, and an open sexuality unencumbered by guilt or shame.
If you spend time with the primates closest to human beings, you’ll see female chimps having intercourse dozens of times per day, with most or all of the willing males, and rampant bonobo group sex that leaves everyone relaxed and maintains intricate social networks. Explore contemporary human beings’ lust for particular kinds of pornography or our notorious difficulties with long-term sexual monogamy and you’ll soon stumble over relics of our hypersexual ancestors.
Our bodies echo the same story. The human male has testicles far larger than any monogamous primate would ever need, hanging vulnerably outside the body where cooler temperatures help preserve stand-by sperm cells for multiple ejaculations. He also sports the longest, thickest penis found on any primate on the planet, as well as an embarrassing tendency to reach orgasm too quickly. Women’s pendulous breasts (utterly unnecessary for breastfeeding children), impossible-to-ignore cries of delight (female copulatory vocalization to the clipboard-carrying crowd), and capacity for orgasm after orgasm all support this vision of prehistoric promiscuity. Each of these points is a major snag in the standard narrative.
Once people were farming the same land season after season, private property quickly replaced communal ownership as the modus operandi in most societies. For nomadic foragers, personal property – anything needing to be carried – is kept to a minimum, for obvious reasons. There is little thought given to who owns the land, or the fish in the river, or the clouds in the sky. Men (and often, women) confront danger together. An individual male’s parental investment, in other words – the core element of the standard narrative – tends to be diffuse in societies like those in which we evolved, not directed toward one particular woman and her children, as the conventional model insists.
But when people began living in settled agricultural communities, social reality shifted deeply and irrevocably. Suddenly it became crucially important to know where your field ended and your neighbor’s began. Remember the Tenth Commandment: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that [is] thy neighbour’s.” Clearly, the biggest loser (aside from slaves, perhaps) in the agricultural revolution was the human female, who went from occupying a central, respected role in foraging societies to becoming another possession for a man to earn and defend, along with his house, slaves, and livestock.
“The origins of farming,” says archaeologist Steven Mithen, “is the defining event of human history – the one turning point that has resulted in modern humans having a quite different type of lifestyle and cognition to all other animals and past types of humans.”10 The most important pivot point in the story of our species, the shift to agriculture redirected the trajectory of human life more fundamentally than the control of fire, the Magna Carta, the printing press, the steam engine, nuclear fission, or anything else has or, perhaps, ever will. With agriculture, virtually everything changed: the nature of status and power, social and family structures, how humans interacted with the natural world, the gods they worshipped, the likelihood and nature of warfare between groups, quality of life, longevity, and certainly, the rules governing sexuality. His survey of the relevant archaeological evidence led archaeologist Timothy Taylor, author of The Prehistory of Sex, to state, “While hunter-gatherer sex had been modeled on an idea of sharing and complementarity, early agriculturalist sex was voyeuristic, repressive, homophobic, and focused on reproduction.” “Afraid of the wild,” he concludes, “farmers set out to destroy it.”11
Land could now be possessed, owned, and passed down the generations. Food that had been hunted and gathered now had to be sowed, tended, harvested, stored, defended, bought, and sold. Fences, walls, and irrigation systems had to be built and reinforced; armies to defend it all had to be raised, fed, and controlled. Because of private property, for the first time in the history of our species, paternity became a crucial concern.
But the standard narrative insists that paternity certainty has always been of utmost importance to our species, that our very genes dictate we organize our sexual lives around it. Why, then, is the anthropological record so rich with examples of societies where biological paternity is of little or no importance? Where paternity is unimportant, men tend to be relatively unconcerned about women’s sexual fidelity.
But before we get into these real-life examples, let’s take a quick trip to the Yucatán.
* Anthropologist James Woodburn (1981/1998) classified foraging societies into immediate-return (simple) and delayed-return (complex) systems. In the former, food is eaten within days of acquisition, without elaborate processing or storage. Unless otherwise noted, we refer to these societies.
8. The precise timing of this shift has recently been called into question. See White and Lovejoy (2009).
9. For more on the sharing-based economies of foragers, see Sahlins (1972), Hawkes (1993), Gowdy (1998), Boehm (1999), or Michael Finkel’s National Geographic article on the Hadza, available here: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/12/hadza/finkel-text.
10. Mithen (2007), p. 705.
11. Taylor (1996), pp. 142-143. Taylor’s book is an excellent archaeological account of human sexual origins.
PART I: On the Origin of the Specious
The function of the imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange. — G. K. CHESTERTON
Forget the Alamo. The Yucatán provides a more useful lesson.
It was early spring, 1519. Hernán Cortés and his men had just arrived off the coast of the Mexican mainland. The conquistador ordered his men to bring one of the natives to the deck of the ship, where Cortés asked him the name of this exotic place they’d found. The man responded, “Ma c’ubah than,” which the Spanish heard as Yucatán. Close enough. Cortés proclaimed that from that day onward, Yucatán and any gold it contained belonged to Spain, and so on.
Four and a half centuries later, in the 1970s, linguists researching archaic Mayan dialects concluded that Ma c’ubah than meant “I do not understand you.”1
Each spring, thousands of American university students celebrate with wet T-shirt contests, foam parties, and Jell-O wrestling on the beautiful beaches of the I Do Not Understand You Peninsula.
But confusion mistaken for knowledge isn’t limited to spring break. We all fall into this trap. (One night, over dinner, a close friend mentioned that her favorite Beatles song is “Hey Dude.”) Despite their years of training, even scientific types slip into thinking they are observing something when in fact they are simply projecting their biases and ignorance. What trips up the scientists is the same cognitive failing we all share: it’s hard to be certain about what we think we know, but don’t really. Having misread the map, we’re sure we know where we are. In the face of evidence to the contrary, most of us tend to go with our gut, but the gut can be an unreliable guide.
1. This account comes from Todorov (1984), but Todorov’s version of events is not universally accepted. See http://www.yucatantoday.com/culture/esp-yucatan-name.htm, for example, for a review of other etymologies (in Spanish).
Take food, for example. We all assume that our craving or disgust is due to something about the food itself — as opposed to being an often arbitrary response preprogrammed by our culture. We understand that Australians prefer cricket to baseball, or that the French somehow find Gérard Depardieu sexy, but how hungry would you have to be before you would consider plucking a moth from the night air and popping it, frantic and dusty, into your mouth? Flap, crunch, ooze. You could wash it down with some saliva beer. How does a plate of sheep’s brain sound? Broiled puppy with gravy? May we interest you in pig’s ears or shrimp heads? Perhaps a deep-fried songbird that you chew up, bones, beak, and all? A game of cricket on a field of grass is one thing, but pan-fried crickets over lemongrass? That’s revolting.
Or is it? If lamb chops are fine, what makes lamb brains horrible? A pig’s shoulder, haunch, and belly are damn fine eatin’, but the ears, snout, and feet are gross? How is lobster so different from grasshopper? Who distinguishes delectable from disgusting, and what’s their rationale? And what about all the exceptions? Grind up those leftover pig parts, stuff ’em in an intestine, and you’ve got yourself respectable sausages or hot dogs. You may think bacon and eggs just go together, like French fries and ketchup or salt and pepper. But the combination of bacon and eggs for breakfast was dreamed up about a hundred years ago by an advertising agency hired to sell more bacon, and the Dutch eat their fries with mayonnaise, not ketchup.
Think it’s rational to be grossed out by eating bugs? Think again. A hundred grams of dehydrated cricket contains 1,550 milligrams of iron, 340 milligrams of calcium, and 25 milligrams of zinc — three minerals often missing in the diets of the chronic poor. Insects are richer in minerals and healthy fats than beef or pork. Freaked out by the exoskeleton, antennae, and way too many legs? Then stick to the Turf and forget the Surf because shrimp, crabs, and lobsters are all arthropods, just like grasshoppers. And they eat the nastiest of what sinks to the bottom of the ocean, so don’t talk about bugs’ disgusting diets. Anyway, you may have bug parts stuck between your teeth right now. The Food and Drug Administration tells its inspectors to ignore insect parts in black pepper unless they find more than 475 of them per 50 grams, on average.2 Some estimates suggest that Americans unknowingly eat anywhere from one to two pounds of insects per year.
An Italian professor recently published Ecological Implications of Minilivestock: Potential of Insects, Rodents, Frogs and Snails. (Minicowpokes sold separately.) Writing in Slate.com, William Saletan tells us about a company by the name of Sunrise Land Shrimp. The company’s logo: “Mmm. That’s good Land Shrimp!” Three guesses what Land Shrimp is.
Witchetty grub tastes like nut-flavored scrambled eggs and mild mozzarella, wrapped in a phyllo dough pastry… This is capital-D Delicious.