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Sex at Dawn: 9 Interesting Things We've Learned About Sex From Studying Our Ancient Ancestors

Christopher Ryan discusses the evolution of human sexuality in a TED talk.

“Human beings aren’t descended from apes,” declared Christopher Ryan at his  TED conference talk Thursday afternoon. "We are apes.” The question he explored during his talk was, “What kind of ape are we in terms of our sexuality?” Quite an interesting and horny ape, it turns out. 

Ryan, a psychologist who co-authored the controversial book  Sex at Dawn with his physician wife, Cacilda Jetha, had some surprising nuggets to share during his presentation.

1. There is a standard evolution narrative inherited, no pun intended, from Darwin. This narrative claims that since the beginning of time, men have “leased women's reproductive potential by providing them with certain goods and services. Meat, shelter, status, protection” etc. and “in exchange, women have offered fidelity or at least the promise of fidelity.” This narrative “sets men and women up in an oppositional relationship. The war between the sexes is built right into our DNA, according to this vision."

Apparently, this narrative is incorrect. 

2. In fact, the war between the sexes is a relatively new development brought on by agriculture: “Agriculture arose about 10,000 years ago at the earliest. Anatomically modern human beings have been around for about 200,000 years. So, we're talking about 5% at most of our time as a modern distinct species.”

Damn you, farming! Daylight savings and the war between the sexes? Before the agricultural revolution, our ancestors lived as hunters and gatherers and practiced “fierce egalitarianism.”

3. Our ancestors were also fiercely promiscuous. They shared everything, including sex: “What I'm saying simply is that this [fierce egalitarianism] is the best way to mitigate risk in a foraging context. There's really no argument about this among anthropologists. All Casilda and I have done is extend this sharing behavior to sexuality.”  

4. But our ancestors weren’t having sex with strangers like some prehistoric Grinder: “Now this [promiscuity] makes some people uncomfortable so I always need to take a moment during these talks and say, listen. I'm saying our ancestors were promiscuous, but I'm not saying they were having sex with strangers…. A hunter-gatherer band, there are no strangers, you've known these people your entire life...Yes, there were overlapping sexual relationships, that our ancestors probably had several different sexual relationships going on at any given moment in their adult lives, but I’m not saying they were having sex with strangers and I’m not saying that they didn’t love the people that they were having sex with. And I'm not saying there was no pair-bonding going on. I'm just saying it wasn't sexually exclusive.”

I feel a lot more comfortable. Do you?

5. Entire communities practice polygamy today! Among  the Mosuo, a small ethnic group in Southwestern China, mothers have multiple sexual partners and raise their offspring with the help of their sisters and brothers. Ryan also talks about societies in the Amazon that practice partible paternity and believe that one child comes from multiple fathers. As Ryan explains it, “they believe that a fetus is literally made of accumulated semen. So, a woman who wants to have a child who’s smart and funny and strong, makes sure she has lots of sex with the smart guy, the funny guy and the strong guy to get the essence of each of these men into the baby and when the child is born, these different men will come forward and acknowledge their paternity of the child, so paternity is actually sort of a team endeavor in this society.”

Sounds like a fantasy sperm bank.

6. We get it on like bonobos and chimps, but not like gorillas, orangutans or gibbons. The average human, chimp and bonobo has sex 1,000 times per birth. Ryan very scientifically explains, “If that number seems high to some of you, I assure you it seems low for others in the room.”

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