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."

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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.”

The other three apes, the gorilla, the orangutan and the gibbon, have sex about a dozen times per birth. Damn. What do they do all day? It’s not like they have jobs! Humans, bonobos and chimps also share female copulatory vocalization (seeWhen Harry Met Sally). And only humans and bonobos have sex face-to-face.

7. External testes are like beer fridges: “The human, chimp and bonobo all have external testicles…. If you're the kind of guy who has a beer fridge, in the garage, you expect a party to happen at any moment and you need to be ready. That's what the external testicles are. They keep the sperm cells cool, so you can have frequent ejaculations.”

So if a guy doesn’t keep a beer fridge in the garage, does that mean he’s just not that into me?

8. Sorry about your penis, fellow apes. Despite our similarities, human beings have the longest and the thickest penises. Everybody calm down. There’s no need for intra-ape penis envy, ummkay?

9. All of this news should make us a lot happier. Ryan is concerned that “A lot of families are fractured by unrealistic expectations that are based upon this false vision of human sexuality.” He hopes that a more complex understanding of our more complex sexual history will lead to more tolerance and ease some of the tension between modern societal norms and our sexual feelings: “The contradictions between what we’re told we should feel and what we actually do feel generates a huge amount of unnecessary suffering. My hope is that a more accurate updated understanding of human sexuality will lead us to have greater tolerance for ourselves, for each other, greater respect for unconventional relationship configurations, like same-sex marriage or polyamorous unions.”

Ryan also hopes his theories will help us fight the war on women: “And that we’ll finally put to rest the idea that men have some innate and instinctive right to monitor and control women’s sexual behavior.” And Ryan wants everyone, not just the gays to come out of the closet: “we all have closets we have to come out of. Right? And when we do come out of those closets, we’ll recognize that our fight is not with each other. Our fight is with an outdated Victorian sense of human sexuality that conflates desire with property rights, and generates shame and confusion, in place of understanding and empathy. It’s time we moved beyond Mars and Venus, because the truth is that men are from Africa and women are from Africa.”

Call me old-fashioned, but I’m still not convinced that men aren’t from Mars. Some scientists charge Ryan and Jetha with distorting or ignoring modern science and conflating anatomy with destiny. But a bestseller is a bestseller, and some good TED talk can really get you in the mood!

Katie Halper is a writer, comedian and filmmaker and hosts  The Katie Halper Show  on WBAI. @kthalps