What if the world of sexual relations and practices, if the interaction between men and women, was not what it is now? What if the practices of the past, ignored or denied, influence us today? These are some of the areas covered in Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origin of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha.

The main area challenged in Sex at Dawn is the "standard narrative" that throughout history males and females meet, assess each other's mate value, become monogamous, and then each look for signs of infidelity in the other while seeking opportunities for infidelity for themselves. Much of this is what the authors describe as "Flintstonization:" projecting current beliefs, trends, and practices onto the past.

What evidence is there against ancient monogamy? Ryan and Jetha provide an abundance of sources, but their two main ones are bonobos (polygamous apes that are very close genetically to humans) and foraging societies (the standard before the advent of agriculture) where "sharing is not just encouraged; it's mandatory." Sex at Dawn goes through: the assumptions of and problems with the standard narrative, the development and effects of love, lust, and sex in prehistory; a part dealing not with sex but false assumptions (led by Malthus) about the horrific life of ancient humans; fairly recent sexual sex and society; and how this affects humans today.

Sex at Dawn is a very impressive trip through both history and the distortions and assumptions of history. The authors provide extensive branches of research -- historical, social, psychological, anthropological -- to create a full picture of the full view of human (and pre-human) sexuality. Far from being dry and boring, Sex at Dawn is colloquial and engaging. Quotes are here from Darwin to the Kama Sutra to Stephen Colbert; there's also a lot of humor here, as one can gather from chapters like "On Gettin' Funky and Rockin' Round the Clock" and "The Pervert's Lament." The authors are convincing, taking on some very widely-held social and scientific assumptions about sex, gender and racial traits, and evolution. And they don't romanticize their findings, even while promoting.

My only quibble is that at the opening of Sex at Dawn the authors assert that this work isn't an assault on the status quo, but by the end they have quite a few suggestions that do just that. With that in mind, Sex at Dawn is a fascinating and intelligent look (or new look) at human sexuality -- and how its past impacts our present.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch

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