Book Review: Sex at Dusk

I just finished reading Sex at Dusk, independent scholar Lynn Saxon’s reply to Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha’s book Sex at Dawn, which I reviewed last month. This book fills in the biggest gap in my original review, so I wanted to say some more about it.

When I originally read Dawn, I thought that Ryan and Jetha’s strongest argument was the existence of the South American tribal societies that believe in partible paternity, the idea that a child can have more than one biological father. According to Dawn, this belief serves to bond members of those tribes together: women have sex with as many men as possible when they’re trying to conceive, and men cooperate in raising all the children they believe they had a share in siring. Dawn paints an idyllic picture of these societies, depicting them as mini-utopias of free love and cooperation:

Like mothers everywhere, a woman from these societies is eager to give her child every possible advantage in life. To this end, she’ll typically seek out sex with an assortment of men. She’ll solicit “contributions” from the best hunters, the best storytellers, the funniest, the kindest, the best-looking, the strongest, and so on – in the hopes her child will literally absorb the essence of each… Far from being enraged at having his genetic legacy called into question, a man in these societies is likely to feel gratitude to other men for pitching in to help create and then care for a stronger baby. [p.91-2]

But Dusk has painted a more complex picture of these societies, citing many of the same primary sources. If Saxon’s quotes are correct, then Dawn‘s discussion is so badly misleading, it’s hard to see how it could have been an innocent mistake rather than intentional misrepresentation.

As Dusk describes it, partible paternity does exist, but the societies that practice it aren’t hunter-gatherer hippie communes, nor is it ever about women trying to create a mix-and-match baby from all the best men of the tribe. It always plays out in one of two ways:

(1) Women with children will offer sex to an unrelated man as an enticement for him to give extra food to her and her family, as well as a kind of insurance, giving him incentive to shelter and provide for them if her primary husband dies. This runs completely counter to Ryan and Jetha’s argument, which insists (and I’m using their terminology here) that women evolved to be “sluts” rather than “whores”, i.e., having sex purely for pleasure and social bonding, rather than strategically, in exchange for resources.

Nor are these arrangements indefinitely extensible. While it does happen, there is also jealousy and possessiveness, and if a woman has sex with other partners too much or too often, her primary partner may reject her or her children. As Saxon writes about one Amazon society, the Curripaco: “…if a woman has sex with various men they say there is the risk that no one would recognize the child. When the child is everybody’s they mean in effect that it is nobody’s” [p.114]. This is just what evolutionary theory would predict: when the odds of their being the father are too low, men will no longer have a genetic incentive to invest in a child.

(2) More disturbing, partible paternity can take the form of, essentially, societally sanctioned gang rape, where young unmarried women are shared by the men of the tribe to promote social bonding among those men. The woman’s consent isn’t required for this; like female genital cutting, it’s usually treated as a custom that girls must undergo as a rite of initiation into adulthood.

This custom is most vividly illustrated by an Amazon culture called the Canela, which Ryan and Jetha describe by quoting the anthropologist William Crocker, who studied them for several decades, as follows:

Generosity and sharing was the ideal, while withholding was a social evil. Sharing possessions brought esteem. Sharing one’s body was a direct corollary…. No one was so self-important that satisfying a fellow tribesman was less gratifying than personal gain. [p.103]

According to Ryan and Jetha, the Canela practice “community-building, conflict-reducing” [p.103] festival rituals in which a woman may have sex with fifteen or more men in quick succession. Dawn says vaguely that this is part of the process for “the young woman’s gaining social acceptance” [p.120].

But according to Saxon, Ryan and Jetha have left out some important details about these ceremonies. The Canela are a militaristic and historically violent society which put young men through strict training and discipline to teach them obedience to the village elders. The sex rituals are part of this, and are meant to improve social cohesion and male bonding – which is to say, there’s not much in it for the women. Saxon fills in the details of this: “Crocker concludes… that female orgasm does not occur. The majority of the sex is for male gratification, and… lasts for a matter of seconds” [p.123]. What’s more, the women’s participation – pleasant or not – isn’t optional:

About every other year there is an occurrence where a girl will not agree to sequential sex and so she is forced to comply by a group of men each having sex with her to ‘tame’ her (basically a punitive gang rape). She knows she has no choice and that even if injured she will gain no sympathy… [p.124]

Needless to say, this is worlds apart from Dawn‘s cheerfully hedonistic vision of primitive societies where everyone chose to engage in group sex purely for pleasure and with no concern for paternity. Sexuality is an explosively powerful force, and social norms and taboos controlling its expression have been part of every human culture that’s ever been observed in history. Effective contraception has arguably diminished this somewhat, but especially before the existence of that modern innovation, the idea that there could be a society where no one had any concern about who’s sleeping with whom simply flies in the face of evolutionary reality.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • steve sexauer

    Good to know. Thanks
    Yet I don’t think a few small tribes was their strongest part of the argument, it was rather incidental and speculative in my view. They are after all living now, not in the pre-farming era. The anatomy discussion for me was the clincher that they had something worth listening too. The comparison of chimp behaviors in captivity compared to the wild was also strong, as was the archeology and the logical link to farming.
    And what about the Dawn’s accusations of misrepresentations by Pinker and others? They seemed pretty damning to me, and I havent heard Stephen Pinker’s reply which just creates more questions in my mind.

    From your post it seems like they (Dawn) were biased. I had strongly suspected that but I’m not familiar enough with the research. It was too conveniently supportive of one view, as is much of Pinker’s work in my admittedly rather limited grasp of his research. It’s enjoyable and informative but inevitably supports the status quo time and again.

    While Dawn’s book likely was biased, I think they made a pretty good case and rose some questions about our scientists claims that should be responded to. If Dawn’s remarks were accurate and I understood them correctly (big if) then Marc D. Hauser, for example, was forced to resign for much less authenticity than what Pinker seems to be doing, I was shocked. But in any case, all exaggerations and distortions of facts do a great deal of harm to science and society.

    Both sides seem far too eager to paint a scenario where humans either evolved as poly-amorists or monogamists– any uneducated observer can see we are very, very split on this issue. And what they don’t understand is that over-stating your case creates a black-lash in many, many ways that sabotages your intended message. We need to start making people accountable for ANY misleading work they do when its done professionally. These are not drunk-posts by everyone with internet access at 4am, if we can’t rely on them, to be honest 100 percent of the time, they don’t deserve their job, or their book royalties. Mistakes are part of the process, intentional misleading work is absolutely intolerable because it hurts all of us.

  • justforkicks

    @ steve sexauer Why don’t you read both books before you characterize them? Saxon’s book certainly doesn’t “paint humans as having evolved as monogamists.” She merely points out that marriage (including polygyny) has been found pretty much across human experience. Thus, marriage isn’t purely cultural, as Ryan claims.

    I think you would find that you and Saxon totally agree, which makes it all the sadder that you have totally mischaracterized her work. Pathetic.

  • steve sexauer

    @justforkicks, I wasn’t talking about her work specifically nor did I say that I was or even mention her name, and obviously dawns work doesnt address saxon. you seem anxious to discredit something here, u don’t agree that there has been a lot of scientific bias in the conservative vein on this topic?”We’ve been told that our ancestors life expectancy was 30ish, to find out the data only measured “at least 3o”, and it was rounded down, is a total f_cking outrage, did saxon dispute that totally, partially or ignore it? or you find that less upsetting than comments posted “by a “scientific nobody”? AND the “credibility” of my casual post seems incomparable to the credibility of a TED conference talk, or….maybe you wouldn’t agree with that? but any erroneous comment I might make is “pathetic” and pinkers is not worth mentioning?.. I think I get your mentality. My comments were about “both sides” pertaining to “the standard narrative”, I mentioned pinker but not saxon, as did “dawn” but I read another review of sex at dusk – “the myth of promiscuity” who came away with the same seemingly wrong conclusion — that its only “dawn” that is wrong in this scenario. I seriously doubt that, but it is possible I suppose .. but in all these reviews I haven’t heard very strong evidence that “dawn” was wrong about all those points that science supports Hobbes undeservingly. so I doubt that I would wholly agree with saxon because I wouldn’t be criticizing just “dawn”. Their excesses don’t excuse Pinker or any other scholar. Although they got carried away, I’m not still unconvinced that they were so wrong as to write a book focused as a rebuttal. but I’ll probably read saxon to be sure about that assumption. They were one sided as was made clear by the tone, just as Hitchens rarely said a good word about Christians. It was a popular book for an audience interested in sex and its evolutionary beginnings, not a scientific journal or even as “even handed” as a ted talk. The people who accused hitchens of bias were christians, who are a bit biased by definition. So far the same seems true of the criticism of sex at dawn, they pick and choose the weakest points. I’d be quicker and more motivated to criticize ongoing deliberate misrepresentations, and dawn” pointed out dozens of them. which presumably were all dismissed? something is amiss here. but you are right, I’m summarizing that “the other side” is claiming women are mainly monogamous. one conservative view of sex at dusk said over and over that sex at dawn’s view of women was some male’s wishful thinking,… maybe, just as the idea that women are totally monogamous is a conservative male’s wishful thinking. that the tendency increased drastically when we accepted the increased importance of possessions and more social structure – two ideas that both seem to have come with farming is quite plausible, far more plausible than the notion that women are as monogamous as is claimed. And Present day Thailand, the Eskimos and the ancient Romans and others , all aren’t nearly as uptight about women’s sexuality as the American status quo, Again, — That people take sides too eagerly says more about them and their bias (or their funding), than prehistoric humans. Does Saxon allow for farming/civilization as a significant change? From the 4 reviews I’ve seen she must not have. I suspect dishonesty when people discredit plausible ideas without justification. Lee’s “orchard theory” was the similar to my “small lake” theory, but it doesn’t totally wipe out that farming was a major change. But if she did allow for it, my apologies to her and my condemnation w/b solely directed at the reviews.

  • Adam Lee

    And what about the Dawn’s accusations of misrepresentations by Pinker and others? They seemed pretty damning to me, and I havent heard Stephen Pinker’s reply which just creates more questions in my mind.

    I addressed that in the second part of my review: Dawn condemns Steven Pinker for discussing warfare in horticultural societies which it says are not representative of the ancestral condition, but then cites some of those very same horticultural societies as evidence of the way humans supposedly behaved sexually in the ancestral condition. You can’t have it both ways here.

    And Present day Thailand, the Eskimos and the ancient Romans and others, all aren’t nearly as uptight about women’s sexuality as the American status quo…

    This is another of those things that’s pointed out in Dusk: the Inuit (that’s the preferred term, not Eskimo, as I understand) are portrayed in Dawn as another sexually liberal forager society, but what actually happens is that chieftains sometimes offer their wives sexually to guests and visitors without asking or requiring the consent of the woman. It’s another example of a forager society treating women as male property to be traded or bartered.

  • steve sexauer

    Thanks Adam, regarding the Intuit, that sounds like a more accurate picture, not a good situation by our standards, yet it still is an example of where jealousy is not viewed the same. And because its expected of her it doesn’t mean it often wasn’t a pleasure or an “honor” at least some of the time. Not to mention, without birth control the chief knew he could be raising a foreign kid. Ryan should have mentioned the lack of the women’s choice. (Assuming they didn’t) But in rural areas of Thailand, (less so in Bangkok), the average woman is thrilled to sleep with a foreigner. Usually foreigners choose the most beautiful and to be chosen is a big status boost. Its difficult to portray that situation even tho I know it well because its just so different. Families often seem to have too much to say about their daughter’s choice, and sometimes do what we think of as prostitute them, however they see it as trying to hook her up with a better future, which is often true.

    Regarding Pinker’s use of those tribes, I tend to disagree with you. First, seeing Pinker’s TED presentation and then hearing more about those societies makes the listener feel very, very misled. Especially if you add in other information that shows this violence scenario isn’t supported by all the evidence or all scientists. Pinker presents it as open and shut and apparently, way overstated it to boot. That “dawn” still point out something from any of those societies that supports their side in no way makes it okay that Pinker misled us. It’s only less convincing in one aspect for Ryan, for Pinker it seems incriminating. assuming Ryan’s claims are accurate. But in another way it supports Ryan even more, he can say they “still” maintained earlier practices even tho they’ve been subject to modernity. Perhaps Saxon clears that up, but I doubt its totally cleared up because you not other reviewers haven’t taken issue with any of Ryan’s facts, you are merely claiming a logical fallacy and that they left out stuff which didn’t support their side. The cant have it both ways is a weak rebuttal Adam. That they left out facts is worse, but its unclear how misleading it was, whats clear is that it was one-sided. Maybe when the dust settles, thats all that Pinker has done, but we need to find out.

    A previous acquaintance had been mentioning god too often and disparaging science too often for my sensibilities but Ryan has showed us that science is more corrupt than previously assumed. Sure I knew those working for pharmaceutical companies were subject to pressure and biased, but I assumed Harvard was a shiny example of truth at its best. And there are other similar cases in other Univ….. J. Haidt claims science should support religion even tho it isn’t true because its politically beneficial. by that standard you can justify saying anything you want and there is no reason to require scientific evidence. Its becomes merely propaganda. Telling people what makes them happy is not science. And much worse is the lack of outrage, apparently no one cares if science is bull shit, or more to the point twisted to suit political and social attitudes.

  • Azkyroth

    She merely points out that marriage (including polygyny) has been found pretty much across human experience. Thus, marriage isn’t purely cultural, as Ryan claims.

    It suggests that, but it’s not as though there’s ever been a culture which genuinely developed in isolation…

  • Robin

    @steve sexauer
    Re. Thailand and the exchange of resources from foreigners for sex with young beautiful girls, that is not what Ryan argues is our ‘nature’ but it is more what Saxon argues. Remember, Ryan criticizes the science, including Darwin, for saying “your mother’s a whore”. You sound as if you would agree far more with “Dusk” than with “Dawn”.
    Re. the partible paternity tribes, some of those listed by Ryan do not even allow extra-marital sex. Ryan says things like anthropologist William Crocker saying that jealousy is not natural when in fact he says the opposite. One tribe Ryan discusses saying that they don’t have our modern illnesses he leaves out that around two thirds die from violence (both sexes and at all ages).
    William Crocker writes about the Canela, probably the tribe with the most ritualized sex. This is very much tied to male-male bonding as warriors and the control of the young by the elders. So they’re not holding onto some promiscuous past in spite of more recent violence, the two things are intimately tied together at their roots.
    Anyway, you really need to read “Dusk” to understand just how bad “Dawn” is.
    Ryan misses out things such as the Ache killing young children if the mother does not have a husband. Or the former practice of killing older women who were deemed no longer useful – there is a quote from Hrdy in “Dusk” where an elderly Ache man says how the sound of his footsteps brought fear as that had been his job.
    And generally female sexual enjoyment is not even thought to exist or meant to be expressed in these tribes. The women are often meant to remain still and there is nothing other than quick genital contact (outside of marital relationships). And the women are “whores”, exchanging sex for meat or other resources.
    So there’s a whole motherload of fact-checking in “Dusk” which shows “Dawn” to have deliberately misled its readers. It is hard to do “Dusk” justice by trying to pick out a handful of examples.

  • Daka John

    My understanding is that the Inuit suffer low fecundity and inbreeding, hence mate sharing is beneficial. The benefit is for the female genes and collectively for the group if there’s a child. There is little benefit I can see to the tribes men.

  • abundantlifedisqus

    The Yanomamo believe in partible paternity. I’ll leave it fo you to look them up.