On the prehistoric origins of modern sexuality

Ruben Baart
May 1st 2020

Let’s talk about the most controversial of "m words"—monogamy. And let’s have this conversation with in mind its prehistoric origins. Our modern picture of prehistoric societies may look a lot like The Flintstones, where the narrative goes as follows: we’ve always lived in nuclear families. Men have always gone out to work or hunt and women stayed at home to look after the house and the children. Throw in a dinosaur and there’s your family. Yabadabadoo right? Wrong!

Tuning into our Love Issue, we spoke with Christopher Ryan, co-author of ‘Sex at Dawn’. Together with his wife Cacilda Jethá the authors explore the ‘naturalness’ of monogamy from an anthropological perspective, taking us on an adventurous ride from prehistoric times to the modern world, from primates to modern-era societies. 

Drawing from anthropology, human anatomy and physiology, primatology and contemporary psychosexual research, Sex at Dawn seeks the ancient roots of human sexuality and in doing so, it radically alters your ideas about sex and shows how far from human nature monogamy really is. Rather, it’s a cultural construct.

Let’s start at the beginning. Your book ‘Sex at Dawn’ begins by dismantling centuries-old conventional wisdom regarding human sexual behavior; from how we develop as humans, go through a period of sexual array, to settling down with one person for the rest of our lives. In your view, the concept of monogamy came into being with the notion of ownership. Can you elaborate?

Hunter gatherers, who were our ancestors for over 98% of our existence on the planet, had a very different understanding of property and ownership than we do. That's very important to wrap your head around.

Today our society is based on the notion of ownership. Private property. You own your house, or you rent your house from the person who owns it. If the house owner has a mortgage, they then only partially own it, the bank owns the rest. We own debt, we own credit, we own land, we own the rights to water. 

Where I am right now, in Colorado, it’s illegal to collect the rainwater that falls on the roof of your house. Because that water is owned by ranchers, and so you legally are required to let that water go into the ground, into the aquifer from which the rancers pull the water. I don't even own the rain that falls on my own roof.

In order for us to understand everything else that follows, we need to understand how hunter-gatherers societies were organized.

Mobile hunter-gatherers survived by cooperating and sharing. It’s a concept what anthropologists call ‘fierce egalitarianism’. This means that at the heart of its social structure lays the fiercely defended belief that they’re in this together, and the only way to survive is by sharing with—and helping—each other. I can’t overstate how central this is to hunter-gatherers' existence, and therefore, how important this has been to our development as a species.

This is not my opinion, this is not some hippie cumbayaa understanding, or a Rousseauian wish for how our ancestors lived; this is fact. It’s demonstrated by every anthropological study of true hunter-gatherers that’s ever been done. 

Hunter-gatherers didn’t have gardens, they didn’t have houses, they didn’t have domesticated animals, they didn’t have accumulated resources of any kind.

It’s supported by first contact accounts, like the letters that Christopher Columbus wrote back to the King and Queen of Spain when he first arrived at Espanola. Which I quote at some length in my new book ‘Civilized to Death’. It’s supported by virtually every strand of evidence that we have, even in contemporary African society there are expressions like, one of my favorites, “the best place to store extra food is in your friends stomach”.

Hunter-gatherers didn’t have gardens, they didn’t have houses, they didn’t have domesticated animals, they didn’t have accumulated resources of any kind. 

They moved through the environment, finding what they needed as they went. These people had to carry everything they had. So if there was a cooking pot, why would everyone needed their own cooking pot? Because you had to carry that pot, right? Sharing a cooking pot, however, made life easier for everyone. By taking turns carrying it. Boom, problem solved. 

This way of working was proven more efficient and it mitigated risks, rather, it spreaded risk. In a way that benefited everyone. It’s no more noble or ethically involved than insurance is today. This is how insurance works; we minimize risk by spreading it as evenly as we can.

How does monogamy relate to sharing? 

Consider this. In hunter gatherers societies sometimes you were successful when you went on a hunt. But most of the time you were not. Coming home having killed an antelope, the contemporary mainstream view is that you would only share that meat with your woman and your children. That doesn't make any sense. It's not how hunter gatherers lived. In fact, it's not how hunter-gatherers could have lived. 

There’s no refrigeration, there's no way to preserve that meat. So what to do? You’re gonna come home and cook that meat for your little nuclear family? And what about all of your friends, all the people that you grew up with, who love you and who you love? You’re going to let them starve because you’re going to have all of this meat yourself? That’s not how this works.

Why would our notion of sexuality be any different from the way we share other resources?

What you do is you bring the meat home and you share it. Why? There’s a small chance you’ll be successful in killing another antelope the day after. But someone else may. And so, they’ll share theirs. Everyone eats. This way the social group remains cohesive, cooperative, strong and benefiting everyone. 

Now, why would our notion of sexuality be any different from the way we share other resources?

Point taken. In your book you argue that the advent of agriculture and the subsequent shift from a life of communal foraging to competing for personal gain influenced our ancestors’ behavior. How?

As I mention, the mainstream view holds that men have always wanted a sense of paternity, certainly because they’re investing their resources in particular children; they need to know those children are theirs. But if there are no resources in that sense— having no private property—then why would it matter who’s the biological father of which child?

In other words, if we can properly understand the social context in which our ancestors were living, we see that this notion of owning is basically non-existent. 

I mean, what did they own really? They didn’t own anything. They might made some arrows and spearheads, or have a favorite piece of clothing or something, but that’s about it. They didn’t own the shelter they built, as they built a new one every night. 

With the shift to agriculture, everything changed. For the first time in our species, people owned land, buildings and animals. And when I say people, what I mean, is men.

With the shift to agriculture, everything changed. For the first time in our species, people owned land, buildings and animals. And when I say people, what I mean, is men.

Because the shift included a dramatic turn of power to certain men, this created—for the first time—political hierarchies, where power and wealth were concentrated. As a result, power was expressed coercively. 

In hunter-gatherers societies, power and leadership was accrued to the people who were most admired. Whereas in agricultural societies, power can be ceased and defended.

The reason paternity became important was because there was property to pass on to their sons. Without property, there was no concern.

For the first time, we had ownership. Men owning land, animals, buildings and other people. There was no slavery among hunter-gatherers. And women, at that point, centrally entered into this nexus of property and became the property of men. In order to control their sexual behavior, which then assured paternity to the men who controlled that woman.

The reason paternity became important was because there was property to pass on to their sons. Without property, there was no concern.

Sex at Dawn explores monogamy from an anthropological perspective, from prehistoric times to the modern world, from primates to modern-era societies. But—naturally—not from a self-quarantine perspective. Today, some people may experience what you could call ‘forced monogamy’. Do you think this period of quarantine amplifies the dominant narrative of monogamy in our society, or will it amplify alternatives?

I don’t know. See there’s a big difference between behavioral monogamy and evolved monogamy. Quarantine is about behavior being enforced by an external situation. 

Today, people may be trapped in their houses, or trapped with their partner, but that does not change the evolved appetites that people have. Sure, you might be stuck at your home and watching porn all the time. That’s an expression of an evolved appetite that’s not in alignment with the external physical situation. 

I think a lot of people feel that in socially imposed monogamy. And I guess on some level, people are feeling that in the context of a viral quarantine, too.

For our married readers in homestay: can you explain why sexual passion often fades in marriage, even as the love deepens?

It’s because we are a species evolved to be fascinated by novelty. This is a central aspect of our intelligence. Any intelligent species will be attracted to novelty. Curiosity is part of intelligence, perhaps one of the central features of intelligence. And many primates, not only humans, are attracted to novelty in sexual partners. 

There’s a good reason for this. In hunter-gatherer societies you basically see the same people every day for most of your life. If we weren't attracted to novelty, what would happen is that those hunter-gatherer groups would just stay together. Their gene pool would have no new DNA coming into it, and so they would inbreed. As a result their health would suffer and ultimately, they would die. 

No species are designed to die. As we know, natural selection encourages behavior that increases the health of the group. I believe multilevel selection is the most sophisticated and nuanced understanding of natural selection. So, selection is happening at the level of the individual, of the social group, and in some ways of the species itself. 

I believe multilevel selection is the most sophisticated and nuanced understanding of natural selection

Certainly we would be encouraged as an animal to seek out novel partners in order to, not consciously but natural selection would encourage us to seek out novel partners in order to stimulate more vigorous genetic health in our offspring. 

And so, if you would introduce a male monkey to a group of monkeys that have been housed together for a while. All of the females would want to have sex with that male. It doesn’t matter how big he is. Coloration doesn't matter, social dominance doesn't matter. They're attracted to the novelty, I think this runs quite deep in our species. 

As I say, there are very important reasons for that that make a lot of sense. So what happens? Sexual passion fades because novelty fades.

Love deepens because of intimacy, we know eachother better. 

We’re told that sexual passion and intimacy run parallel, but in fact they run away from each other. In some ways—and a lot of couples experience this—they suffer from it and blame themselves and each other.

Human beings are always attracted to something that’s new. So why should our sexuality be any different?

This is one of the tragedies that fueled us to write Sex at Dawn. We saw so much suffering happening that people were blaming themselves for. And it’s totally unfair. 

We are attracted to novelty. We’re attracted to novelty in music, in film, in food, in travel; in virtually every aspect of our lives. Human beings are always attracted to something that’s new. So why should our sexuality be any different? That makes no sense.

The homestay then, challenges us to transform the ways we experience intimacy, love and ultimately, sex. Many of us are seeking to interact in a virtual way. Can you see new forms of relationships coming out of this situation?

I see human sexuality changing—well it’s not sexuality, it’s more the dating behavior around apps and things like that. I think one thing that’s going to have an interesting effect on human sexuality is virtual reality and how that interacts with pornography. 

There’s a book called the ‘Erotic Engine’ in which the author [Patchen Barss] shows that virtually every advance in visual technology has been fueled by human hunger for erotic imagery.

It shows how the first cameras, the first film, the first video and all of these advances in visual technology were funded by this massive hunger to see naked people and see people having sex. I think the same thing will happen with virtual reality. 

Every advance in visual technology has been fueled by human hunger for erotic imagery

There’s already VR porn. And as that becomes more advanced and perhaps includes teledildonics, where sextoys are connected into the same network, people can actually have sex, of a sort, with each other, without being in the same physical space. 

I’ve heard that the US Defense department is funding a lot of this research. It would allow soldiers in Afghanistan to virtually have sex with their wives back home in Virginia. There’s a device that would go on the genitals of each partner and those devices can be controlled through the internet.

So maybe if this quarantine situation persists for a long time, that would certainly drive funding toward that kind of research and development. Maybe we’ll have sex more mitigated by computers than we do now, even though probably if you looked at total human orgasms per day, I’ll bet more than half of them are driven by pornography as opposed to actual sex with other humans. I don't doubt that but it’s just a hunch.

As an anthropologist you study human behavior in the past and present. At Next Nature, we aim to look ahead. Now, speculate with us. Imagine you could live in a future without social and technological constraints in regards to your sexuality. What would such a world look like?

Without constraints, I don't know? I guess it would be kind of like Westworld where you would be able to experience any sexual situation you choose by simply programming it. With robot I guess? Life-like robots that you could program in ways you cannot imagine. 

Hypothetically I could want to be with Sophia Loren as she was in 1968, and Raquel Welch as she was in 1974, and Salma Hayek as she was in 2003—all at the same time. I guess there’s enough existing data of those three women that could easily be reconfigured. 

I am curious though. Would these three virtual women have a sense of humor? Would they interact with each other? Those are all questions for technologists. But when I imagine a world, that’s what I imagine. 

It’s like, I could have sex with anyone I want and any combination of people I want.

It’s like, I could have sex with anyone I want and any combination of people I want. That would be pretty interesting.

Although, I can imagine it would get boring after a while. Just like I can go on Google Earth and zip to any part of the planet right now. If, thirty years ago, someone had told me this would be possible, I would’ve thought “holy shit I would spend all day doing that, get a big computer screen. Let’s go up this river in Mongolia and see what's going on there,” and just zip around the panet.

It’s an amazing technology, it truly is. And yet I haven't spent more than five hours in the last year just looking at Google Earth, strangely. Rather, I look at where I already am. I imagine that that’s what it would look like, you can have sex with anyone you want, but it would probably get boring—just as Google Earth would get boring. 

Do you think we can augment our social experiences through technology?

We are designed to respond to so much more than technology can give us. People are learning this now, doing all these Zoom meetings. It’s frustrating because it’s not ‘real’. 

You’re staring at a computer and your body knows it. Your brain, or at least a part of your brain, thinks that you’re presented with the people that you're interacting with, but a larger part of your brain knows that you're not; it knows you're sitting in a room looking at a screen. We will never be able to fool ourselves into believing this is an immersive experience. 

You’re staring at a computer and your body knows it, but a larger part of your brain knows that you're not; it knows you're sitting in a room looking at a screen

I heard something interesting the other day. I was interviewing a music producer, and we were talking about the language acquisition of babies. He told me about a research that showed that, if you had someone come into the room of your baby and speak Mandarin for an hour a day, the baby started to pick up on—not the language but—the phonetics. They could recognize the different sounds that are part of the Mandarin language. 

Whereas, if you had a person come on a screen and speak Mandarin for an hour a day to that baby, or you just played a recording of someone speaking Mandarin for an hour a day to the baby, the baby does not pick up the recognition of those phonetics.

It shows that the baby needs to be in the room with the person because that triggers a social interaction part of the brain that then learns these sounds. Whereas just hearing the sounds, or seeing someone on the screen making those sounds, doesn't trigger that part of the brain.

We are designed to respond to so much more than technology can give us

I think that there, no matter how much we seek to replicate social experience through technology, will always be something missing. We won't smell the other person, we won’t feel the heat of their body, we won’t see them moving holistically, we'll just see their face on a screen in two dimensions. We are not designed to exist in two dimensions. 

One of the great tragedies of our age is that we continue to believe that the problems that we have created through civilization are somehow going to be solved by civilization. As we chase this illusion with greater and greater urgency what we are actually doing is making our fundamental problems worse and worse.

As I wrote in Civilized to Death, “when you’re going in the wrong direction, progress is the last thing you need”. 

And so I hope that people like you, who are interested in technology and in a technological future, will consider the notion that what we really should be using our technological intelligence for, is to find ways to return to ways of living that worked for our ancestors for hundreds of thousands of years, and bring the most generous and earth-friendly technologies and technological knowledge with us, so that we can merge the lessons that we've learned over these last ten thousand years with the fundamental principles required for a fruitful and meaningful human life.

📚 Signed copies of ‘Sex at Dawn’ and ‘Civilized to Death’ are now available via Ryan's website.

This interview was transcribed by Britta de Vries and co-authored by Hendrik-Jan Grievink, initiator of Reprodutopia, an ongoing research project into the future of biological reproduction, intimacy and relationships.

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