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Sex at Dusk: Lifting the Shiny Wrapping from Sex at Dawn Paperback – 14 Jul 2012
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Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
Dawn strikes me as a pop science book for a scientific theory that hasn't been scientifically argued yet. Dawn argues against a straw man version of the "standard narrative", without ever explaining why the "standard narrative" is standard. Dawn scoffs at ideas about "mixed strategies", without explaining what that means. Evolutionary biology is not a simple subject, and Dawn glosses over a lot of the complexities that get in the way of its arguments.
Sex at Dusk does a much better job of keeping its political motivations from interfering with making a scientific argument - though there are still some clear political motivations. Dawn comes from the perspective of sex-positive feminism, and is promoting polyamory (an agenda I agree with). Dusk comes from the feminist view that men and women are different, but that women should still be respected as women.
Dusk really lays bare how Dawn takes quotes out of context, and misrepresents the views of various academics. By the end, I don't think I can really trust anything Ryan or Jetha say. Some of the misrepresentations were so blatant they blew me away. Dusk also explains all the evidence and reasoning for why scientists say humans are a monogamous species with some polygynous tendencies, even with all the cheating. It's hard not to come out the other side feeling like Dawn tried to pull the wool over my eyes. Dawn met so perfectly with my own social views that I wanted to believe it. However, I believe in the scientific pursuit of truth more than getting talking points to back up my own agenda. (For example, the E.O. Wilson quote, "All that we can surmise of humankind's genetic history argues for a more liberal sexual morality, in which sexual practices are to be regarded first as bonding devices and only second as a means for procreation," was about homosexuality in the context of bonding emotions developed for monogamy. Dawn never mentions that.)
Dusk points out that Dawn fails to explain a lot of things - a lot of really important things. Why are there so many monogamous species outside of primates that are very intelligent, but so few promiscuous ones? How could promiscuity and paternity uncertainty lead to paternal investment in children with there is no example of that in any other species, and when all examples of paternal child rearing come from polygynous and especially monogamous species? If sex evolved to be pro-social because it was so important to our evolution, why are we capable of jealousy at all - specifically, why are women so capable of jealousy when females in non-monogamous species display little to no jealousy? How can we assume that our close hominid ancestors were so similar to bonobos, but not chimps, when we're equally related to both? How can we assume that our ancestors were like either, when we've had 6 million years of separate evolution for both us and bonobos to evolve into completely separate species? How can women's sexual moans be to attract more men, when it's been shown that that's not why chimps or bonobos make noises during sex? How can monogamy be an artificial byproduct of agricultural societies, when every hunter-gather society - even partible paternity ones - show some form of publicly acknowledged pairing between two individuals, and do not 100% raise children collectively? How is Dawn's argument better than the argument that humans have extra-pair sex and serial monogamy like most other observed monogamous species?
Even if all of this is just misunderstanding on the part of Ryan and Jetha, it's so extensive and egregious that I'd have to worry about the general quality of their academic work. Some of their arguments focus too much on female promiscuity, to the point that it seems they're ignoring a woman's right to say "no" in their effort to give women the right to say "yes". (In our current culture, I think women have less ability to say "no" than "yes".) Dusk argues that early in our evolution, female mate choice - i.e. the ability to divorce a bad mate - was crucial in the evolution of bonding emotions in men. In the societies Ryan and Jetha posit, there's little focus on female choice (which means the denial of some men's libidos) and more focus on female promiscuity. Most promiscuous species are actually stupid, because they're competing with their genitals, and not their brains. When females get to consciously choose their partners, they can pick the smart and trustworthy ones, not the ones with the best testicles.
This doesn't mean we evolved with "marriage". Marriage is a social construct. However, even without marriage, we'd still be pairing off, falling in love, and getting jealous, and breaking up: it's what we evolved to do. This doesn't mean polyamory is impossible or bad, but it does mean that for the majority of people overcoming jealousy is harder than just a little cultural reprogramming.
That said, Saxon misrepresents some of their arguments. Dusk makes too many assumptions whenever Dawn fails to make its arguments completely explicit. When Dawn says hunter gatherers knew their various mates "all their lives," it's hyperbolic. What it means is that, from the time females entered their new clan group, they knew everyone else in the group all their (remaining) lives. This is more clear in talks Ryan gives. Saxon also sees the amount of effort Dawn puts into arguing for female sexual availability and acceptance for male promiscuity, and makes an assumption that Dawn only really cares about liberating men from sexual constraints, which she rightly points out is not revolutionary given humanity's ancient history of polygyny. She says that if they were arguing that men should disregard the paternity of the children that they're raising, children their wife has had with other men, then that would be something. The thing is, Dawn does argue that most of human history was marked by the communal raising of children and the disregard for paternity.
I like Dawn's motivations, but I disagree with it's misrepresentations and weak arguments. Dusk fails to give Dawn the benefit of the doubt, but otherwise is more scientifically accurate. I think the real problem is that Dawn tries to justify polyamory by making it seem natural. Dusk points out that true polyamory - multiple unrelated men and women, raising each other's children together without regard for paternity - isn't natural, it's revolutionary. Polyamory, at it's best, isn't about random sex, it's about extending the social and emotional benefits of monogamy to multiple people. Maybe we should stop trying to shoehorn nature into our modern ethical and political systems, and accept that what we're doing is new. Nature is full of violence and rape, maybe doing something new isn't such a bad thing after all.
However, most of Dusk is simply a reiteration of the standard narrative and even at times a dogmatic upholding of tradition, even going so far as to imply that monogamy is how societies advance. Perhaps so, but this is obviously not the fair, balanced take on the subject of human evolution that I had hoped for.
It took me a week to read Dawn and two months to read Dusk because Saxon's writing style is a little tough to read. I would need to re-read whole paragraphs a number of times to get at the heart of the matter, and often the arguments were non-linear, disconnected, or poorly and falsely interpreted. A number of her arguments actually bolster Ryan's case and an even greater number prove nothing in either direction, though much of the discussion is quite relevant and effective to her goals. At the very least, all of the subject matter is interesting -- it's sex, after all!
My big problem is with the straw man she evokes, saying Dawn promotes everyone sleeping with everyone or old men sleeping with young women in incestuous groups (p. 308). It's an unfair portrayal of Ryan's social-bonding hypothesis and utter disregard for the social and emotional architecture that men and women own. She immerses her rebuttal in biology, rather than sociality, where Ryan's thesis lives, thus missing the point entirely. Additionally, her analysis shows a misunderstanding of the mismatch between modern society and the ancestral environment, an important caveat to any interpretation. Saxon's tone reveals itself to protect women and tradition, which led me to suspect religious dogmatism or at least status quo traditionalism, though this is only a guess.
I did appreciate much of the scientific presentation, which is plentiful, painstakingly accurate, and relevant. Though interpreted poorly on some accounts, there are a number of important points she makes about human sexuality. Many times, she corrects Ryan's errors and interpretations by digging deeply into the same resources he used himself. In many cases, she furthers the discourse. The scientific underpinning in this work is truly impressive, but the reader must be wary of what the science means in the big picture.
I recommend this book to those who have a sharp eye for science and argument, an interest in human sexuality, and a willingness to wade through the muddy language of this book. Dusk is a excellent pairing with Dawn simply because both of the books take extreme sides and readers will naturally find themselves landing somewhere in the middle. And, of course, this subject is important to everyone's life, to say the least.