Favorite Books Of 2010

Favorite Books Of 2010: Peter Sagal On 'Sex At Dawn'

cover of Sex At Dawn
Harper Collins

Throughout the month of December, we'll be looking to a wide variety of NPR hosts, reporters and writers to fill us in on their very favorite books of 2010. We couldn't be more pleased to kick off with Peter Sagal, the host of NPR's news quiz, Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! and the author of The Book Of Vice. There are many more favorites to come. As Carl Kasell would say: And now your host, Peeeeeeeter Sagal.

If you are interested in evolutionary biology (as I am) and are interested in sex (as everybody is), eventually you seek out an evolutionary explanation of human sexual behavior. It always goes something like this: Men, eager to spread their genes (in the form of unlimited sperm) far and wide, are naturally promiscuous, and women, eager to provide resources for their genes (in the form of rare and precious eggs), are nesters, trading sex with men for security for their offspring. Thus, horndogs and housewives: Eliot and Silda Spitzer, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Tiger Woods and his wife Elin Nordegren, ad, quite literally sometimes, nauseam. With all that evidence on cable news, I, like millions of others, bought into this model. I even referenced it, approvingly, in my own book.

Which is why my favorite book of 2010 is Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha's Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins Of Modern Sexuality – it's the only book I read this year that proved that I was badly mistaken about something. The "standard model" is, as authors Ryan and Jetha point out, as false as the Piltdown Man. Even worse, it is, as they call it, a "Flintstonization of Prehistory," a way of mapping modern mores backwards onto our ancient past. For centuries, men were allowed sexual freedom, women were not, and thus this explanation exists to provide a "scientific" basis for what we already believe.

Their eminently convincing case argues that our current sexual practices — pair bonding in marriage, monogamy (which, again, historically we've imposed only on women), even the nuclear family — are all a cultural construct, dating from after the rise of agriculture and civilization. To describe sexual behavior in our natural state, in the hundreds of thousands of years before the scant few millenia of recorded history, they use evidence from anthropology, comparative zoology, and evolutionary biology. Their conclusion is that we are evolved to be highly sexualized creatures, almost unique in the world, who use sex as a form of social communication and bonding. And that in our natural state, females enjoy and exercise as much sexual freedom as males, if not more.

They are careful not to draw any conclusions about modern sexual morality, other than to urge sympathy towards those who "fail" at monogamy (see list above). What makes the book so valuable – beyond its good humor, sharp writing, and its remarkable asides on issues such as "female copulatory vocalization" – is the way it casually and effectively demolishes a Solomon’s Temple worth of conventional wisdom about something we thought we understood pretty well: who we are. It made me wonder how much else of what I think I know is wrong, and it makes me eager to find out.

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