Editor reviews

In Sex at Dawn, husband and wife team Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá have written a book that questions both modern-day standards of human sexual behavior and the scientific history of our early ancestors. The book first explains and defines what it refers to as “the standard narrative”, the story of how humans evolved from our prehistoric ancestors to be monogamous beings with conflicting biological imperatives for males and females. Then, it goes on to refute this narrative, providing evidence from noted modern scholars like Steven Pinker, Malcolm Gladwell, and Frans De Waal, as well as renowned scientists and philosophers like Charles Darwin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Hobbes.
Ryan and Jethá write, “Science all too often grovels at the feet of the dominant cultural paradigm.” Indeed, one of the most powerful ideas that Sex at Dawn puts forth is that culture has a way of coloring scientific and historical “fact”. Some of the examples given are quite disturbing, especially when large institutions are clearly engaged in cover ups of our true nature. The authors assert that many sexual myths (for example, that masturbation is some kind of medical affliction) have been repeated and disseminated over the years by religious, health, and state organizations. They take a controversial stance that this “cover up” tactic has also been applied to the non-monogamy of our closest primate relatives and early man. They believe that even if non-monogamy is not the dominant mode of being for contemporary humans, at the very least it should be viewed as a historic basis for our desires and behaviors.
The narration, which alternates between Allyson Johnson and Jonathan Davis, is clear and straightforward, particularly well-suited to this kind of book. Johnson especially makes the information, which can sometimes be dense, easily digestible and relatable. One of the authors, Christopher Ryan, reads the preface, which gives a hint of how he came to be interested in exploring the given subject matter. Through this section, we also get a way to connect directly to the authors and thus, the human (as opposed to the scientific) aspect of the issues discussed.
To claim that this work is exclusively or even mostly about sexual behavior would be a stretch. The book is very holistic, tackling bigger-picture issues of science, culture, history, and philosophy. That said, these large ideas are needed as building blocks for the claims the authors make about sex. Another triumph of Sex at Dawn is the attention the authors have given to presenting material on sex as it applies to men and women equally. Along those lines, another high point of the narration is that it echoes this sentiment through the interchanging male and female voices, reminding us that these ideas apply to both sexes in different ways.
What the book posits exactly is somewhat unclear. The authors themselves admit that they're not exactly sure what to do with all the information they have unearthed. That said, the great strength of Sex at Dawn is that it opens the discourse about human sexual behavior sans many of the taboos that traditionally accompany the topic. —Gina Pensiero
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Since Darwin's day, we've been told that sexual monogamy comes naturally to our species. Mainstream science - as well as religious and cultural institutions - has maintained that men and women evolved in families in which a man's possessions and protection were exchanged for a woman's fertility and fidelity. But this narrative is collapsing. Fewer and fewer couples are getting married, and divorce rates keep climbing as adultery and flagging libido drag down even seemingly solid marriages.
How can reality be reconciled with the accepted narrative? It can't be, according to renegade thinkers Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. While debunking almost everything we "know" about sex, they offer a bold alternative explanation in this provocative and brilliant book.
Ryan and Jetha's central contention is that human beings evolved in egalitarian groups that shared food, child care, and, often, sexual partners. Weaving together convergent, frequently overlooked evidence from anthropology, archaeology, primatology, anatomy, and psychosexuality, the authors show how far from human nature monogamy really is. Human beings everywhere and in every era have confronted the same familiar, intimate situations in surprisingly different ways. The authors expose the ancient roots of human sexuality while pointing toward a more optimistic future illuminated by our innate capacities for love, cooperation, and generosity.
BONUS AUDIO: Includes a Preface written and read by author Christopher Ryan.
©2010 Christopher Ryan, Cacilda Jetha (P)2010 Audible, Inc
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Critic reviews

“Funny, witty, and light ... Sex at Dawn is a scandal in the best sense, one that will have you reading the best parts aloud and reassessing your ideas about humanity’s basic urges well after the book is done.” ( Newsweek)
Sex at Dawn is the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior in the Human Male on the American public in 1948.” (Dan Savage)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
4 out of 5 stars
By Ekaterina Banina on 27-05-16

Good ideas presented in a suboptimal way

First of all, I surely learnt a lot from the book as most readers would do. It presents a lot of varied material supporting the theory of human natural promiscuity. In particular, the evidence presented in the last few chapters was very convincing.
what I didn't like, however, was the tone of the writing and the narration The book was full of scientific facts, but the style of delivery is far too casual and borderline disrespectful to the "standard narrative" or most other scientific theories. Comments like "Really?" (delivered in a characteristic tone) undermined the substantially of the evidence the authors were presenting it was very unnecessary Challenging the status quo is a hard task and is probably best tackled with less emotion and more common sense.
overall, however, I'm glad I've finished the book (even though I paused midway as the middle third of the book seemed to be repeating itself over and over).The book has definitely left me with some new thoughts and knowledge and I will be coming back to some examples from the story to better understand life, sexual and romantic relationships.

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16 of 17 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars
By Kirstie McHale and Arthur Gordon-Wright on 02-02-18

Not sciency enough for me, but compelling

I struggled a bit with what sounded like sneering at other's research. I think the authors absolutely had a point, but I found the emotional language used when discussing research methods or analysis a bit off. To me it felt a little mud slingy, which detracted from the argument. Perhaps this came in part from the style of the narration... I imagine it's hard to be entertainingly expressive and also sound impartial.

Also the title is a bit sensationalist?

I found the book very interesting, and convincing. But I did wonder at this slightly wink wink nudge nudge presentation, given the grounded way the book closes: we should chill out about sex, it's not the big deal recent history would have us think.

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5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
2 out of 5 stars
By Carolyn on 18-09-12

Strawmen and Ad Hominems

This book was somewhat interesting, but certainly nothing new if you know much about human sexuality. I went into reading this book agreeing with their general premise that early human culture probably involved multiple sex partners, not monogamy. That makes logical sense to me and I was looking forward to learning more about it.

However, I found the book majorly bogged down with taking things that disagree with the authors way too personally. Having actually read a lot of the scientific literature they reference in the book, I was quite unimpressed by how egregiously they deliberately misinterpreted it so that they could argue against their misinterpretation. For example, The Selfish Gene says many times that it absolutely does not imply that people or animals are selfish, just that genes are. People (and animals) can absolutely behave non-selfishly, and we do so because that kind of behaviour is better for our genes than selfishness. This book uses the fact that "people" (without ever pointing to an example of such a person) could interpret the title of the book to mean that people must be selfish and so they need to spend ages proving it wrong. It was ridiculous. The things they included in the "standard narrative" were mostly things no scientist would really argue for because they are obviously not true and scientists have known that for decades. Because of that, I doubted a lot of their other details that I'm not as familiar with as well. It seems as though the thing they were trying to disprove - their so-called "standard narrative" - is a combination of outdated, pre-1970s anthropology and misinterpretations of real scientific data.

Honestly, I only finished this book so I could review it. The first half was so full of strawman arguments and flimsy, emotional attempts at persuasion that I nearly stopped listening to it. The second half was somewhat better, but the evidence was nothing new (the sweaty t-shirt test, the difference in which men women are attracted to during ovulation and not during ovulation) and the big points were often "duh" moments. It was clear that the authors felt persecuted somehow by both the scientific community and society at large for their point of view and felt the need to make personal attacks on other scientists and to completely denounce monogamy as an option in order to make their point. It came across as bitter and angry, which really turned me off. If you're a scientist, part of that is criticism. It's how science works - you come up with an idea, you're criticized, you prove it, you're criticized, you refine it, you're disagreed with, and with time the best theory wins out. If you wanted to not face negative reactions to your theory - which is in fact a good one - then make it a religion. If you want it to be generally accepted science, it has to be challenged, tested, and proven before that will happen. Get over it.

I agree with other reviewers that the narration was strange. They should have stuck with one narrator for all of the text or else split it chapter by chapter or something more logical like that.

Overall, I was very disappointed with this book. Even though I agreed with their premise, the arguments were so poorly executed that I lost respect for them. This is a topic more people should know about, but from someone with more ability to be objective and who won't rely less on ad hominem and strawman arguments to make their point.

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162 of 177 people found this review helpful

2 out of 5 stars
By Mark on 31-03-12

too much focus on academic in-fighting

I knew nothing more about evolution, evolutionary psychology, and anthropology than what I learned in high school. I was hoping this book would introduce me to some of the key issues in these fields. It didn't. The authors have what appears to be a counter-establishment theory about early human society. To the extent that they explained and supported it, it seems perfectly plausible. However, without exaggerating, they spend less than 20% of the book articulating their theory. The remainder is them bashing all sort of other theories. Their critiques seem reasonable enough, but listening to academics criticize each other over study methodologies is simply not interesting to someone outside the field. They also adopt a snarky tone about the theories they criticize that makes the whole book seem far more petulant than necessary.

There are two readers. The female reader is great. However, she is periodically interrupted by a male reader reading short passages. On paper, this is a nice idea. There are two authors (male & female) and Audible wants to reflect that by having two readers. But, it just doesn't work in practice. You kinda buy into the idea that this woman is telling you a story. You get into it. Then some disembodied male voice interrupts for a short while. It's really distracting.

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71 of 79 people found this review helpful

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