Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha


“Forget what you’ve heard about human beings having descended from apes. We didn’t didn’t descend from apes. We are apes.” These words set the tone for Sex at Dawn, a book that takes an in depth look at the sexual practices and nature of our ancestors. Authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha have taken principles, studies, anecdotes and evidence from several disciplines to put forth some fairly novel and controversial ideas about the way we get it on, mostly that we’re not naturally monogamous.

Firstly, we’re animals. Animals have sex. As humans, we’re not above that. As noted in the introduction of their book, Ryan and Jetha remind us that we are apes. They conjecture that the social lives of our ancestors were closer to present-day bonobos than the chimpanzees or gorillas most people think about as our distant cousins. These apes are lead mostly by females, are nonmonogamous, and often solve problems with sex. Greater amounts of both productive and nonproductive sex for everyone leaves less room for conflict and smiles all around. Sounds pretty good, right?

The main problem as conceived by the authors is the birth of agriculture which occurred approximately 10,000 years ago. Going from a scavenger society like that of the bonobos to a farming system developed the importance of property. You can’t have a farm without land to plant and people to work on it. Thus, monogamy became vastly more important (at least for the ladies) to ensure paternity or “rightful heirs.” Essentially, women and offspring became property as well.  This cultural shift had great impact on how people began to treat each other socially and sexually.

In this way, the authors spend a lot of time disputing the standard narrative of human sexual evolution. It goes as follows: Boy and Girl meet. She is hot (and fertile). He is rich (and hunky). They mate. Girl is insecure about Boy being unfaithful and looks around for other fit boys around ovulation time. Boy is extremely sensitive to Girl’s actual or potential unfaithfulness yet has sex with other girls indiscriminately. Ryan and Jetha believe that there is more to it than that. Given their research, I’m inclined to believe the same.

Bonus: they also give some insights into Darwin’s sex life. Spoiler alert: it was vanilla at best.

I (along with a bunch of other people including one of my favorites, Dan Savage) was excited and enlightened by the information presented in this book. It probably helps that it was written for everyday people and not scientists. While that makes for an entertaining read, it’s important to remember that many of the ideas are still just theories, the authors’ best guess at what our species’ social and sexual development looked like so many years ago. To me, they make a lot of sense but that’s largely because I am eager to think of a world where sexual freedom and equality can exist. To others, that idea may be scary and threatening for a myriad of reasons, be it religion, cultural values or simply unexamined feelings toward sexuality.

At the end of the day, none of us were there at the dawn of humanity. To a degree, we can choose what to believe about it. The lesson here is to be curious, consider different ideas and seek out the truth as best we can. In this spirit, the authors turn it back to us, the readers, in the final chapter. Just because they believe that humans are naturally nonmonogamous doesn’t mean that they suggest we all just go have a big orgy. The truth of the matter is that we take sex too seriously. Everybody does it.  A whole lot of people had to have sex a lot of times for us to be here today. The real aim of the book is to provide insights into our own past and natural inclinations in the hope that we’ll be better equipped to negotiate our sex lives with our partners and society at large. At the very least, it’s worth discussing.

Pages: 312        Total FoA pages: 40,218







One thought on “Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

  1. Zach MacDonald says:

    I enjoyed this book too; it was eye opening in a lot of ways, particularly the sex and child-rearing practices of Mosuo society in China. Great review!

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