Christopher Ryan: What Did Cavemen Think About Lust? Christopher Ryan says that human beings are sexual omnivores and hopes that a better understanding of sexual fidelity may end discrimination, shame and unrealistic expectations.
NPR logo

What Did Cavemen Think About Lust?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/378567856/384113918" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What Did Cavemen Think About Lust?

What Did Cavemen Think About Lust?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/378567856/384113918" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today - the Seven Deadly Sins. And in preparation for this episode, we kind of fell down an Internet rabbit hole because if you spend enough time looking, you'll find a surprising number of Internet conspiracy theories that claim that many of the most beloved film and TV characters are based on those seven sins.

(SOUNDBITE OF "GILLIGAN'S ISLAND" THEME SONG)

THE WELLINGTONS: (Singing) Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip...

RAZ: For example, "Gilligan's Island." Apparently it's one long parable with Gilligan representing sloth.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GILLIGAN'S ISLAND")

ALAN HALE: (As Jonas The Skipper Grumby) Gilligan?

BOB DENVER: (As Gilligan) What's the matter?

HALE: (As Jonas The Skipper Grumby) I can't fall asleep with all that snoring going on.

RAZ: The Skipper is wrath.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GILLIGAN'S ISLAND")

HALE: (As Jonas The Skipper Grumby) When we find him, I'll pick him up in my arms and break every bone in his body for worrying us like this.

(LAUGHTER)

RAZ: Ginger, what else? She's lust.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GILLIGAN'S ISLAND")

TINA LOUISE: (As Ginger Grant) Gilligan?

DENVER: (As Gilligan) Yeah?

LOUISE: (As Ginger Grant) Come here.

DENVER: (As Gilligan) But you've never been so friendly to me before.

LOUISE: (As Ginger Grant) There's always a first time for everything.

RAZ: The professor is pride. Mary Anne is envy because well, she is sort of second fiddle to Ginger; greed, of course, Thurston Howell III; his wife - better known as Lovey - is gluttony. And the thing is, it kind of sounds plausible, doesn't it?

And there are lots of other theories like this. "Charlie And The Chocolate Factory" is supposedly a seven deadly sins metaphor. So is "SpongeBob SquarePants," the cast of "Friends," "Winnie The Pooh." True or not, there is clearly something to this idea that these seven transgressions can be neatly arranged into a clean and elegant list, seven behaviors that are deeply embedded into our very nature. So today on the show, we're going to try something a little different - seven TED speakers, each with an idea about one of the seven deadly sins. So first up...

(SOUNDBITE OF MARVIN GAYE SONG, "LET'S GET IT ON")

CHRISTOPHER RYAN: (Laughter). Well, hey, it's got to be lust, right?

(LAUGHTER)

RAZ: Now is probably a good time to tell you - just as a heads up - that this segment contains some discussion about sex and sexual behaviors that exist. So then - to Christopher Ryan.

RYAN: I'm the co-author of "Sex At Dawn," which I co-authored with my wife, Cacilda Jetha.

RAZ: Christopher's idea is a provocative one, and not without critics, but it might change the way you think about monogamy and most importantly, lust.

RYAN: Lust is sort of a - very interesting because the other sins I can see an argument as to how they are destructive and - but with lust, if you look at the famous Old Testament line, thou shall not covet thy neighbor's wife, like, we all think that's about respecting their marriage, right? But if you read it in context it says nor his house, nor his servants, nor his ox, nor his sheep. In other words, keep your hands off your neighbor's property. And his wife is just one part of his property that you shouldn't interfere with. So that's what sexual monogamy is. Sexual monogamy is an institution designed to protect the property of the father or the husband. It's not a response to any sort of evolved tendencies.

RAZ: OK. So Christopher's not only suggesting that monogamy is basically a human invention, but that by being monogamous, by resisting the sin of lust, we might be acting in a way that undermines our very nature, even our survival. Here's his TED Talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RYAN: Now, since Darwin's day, there's been what Cacilda and I have called the standard narrative of human sexual evolution, and you're all familiar with it, even if you haven't read this stuff. The idea is that, as part of human nature, from the beginning of our species' time, men have sort of leased women's reproductive potential by providing them with certain goods and services. Generally we're talking about meat, shelter, status, protection - things like that, right? And in exchange, women have offered fidelity or at least a promise of fidelity. Now, this sets men and women up in oppositional relationship, right? What Cacilda and I have argued is that no, this economic relationship, this oppositional relationship, is actually an artifact of agriculture, which only arose about 10,000 years ago at the earliest. So we've argued that human sexuality essentially evolved, until agriculture, as a way of establishing and maintaining the complex, flexible social systems -networks - that our ancestors were very good at. And that's why our species has survived so well.

Now, this makes some people uncomfortable and so I always need to take a moment in these talks to say, listen, I'm saying our ancestors were promiscuous. But I'm not saying they were having sex with strangers. There were no strangers, right? A hunter-gatherer band - there are no strangers. You've known these people your entire life. So I'm saying, 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. I'm not saying that they didn't love the people they were having sex with. And I am not saying there was no pair-bonding going on. I'm just saying it wasn't sexually exclusive. And those of us who have chosen to be monogamous - my parents, for example, have been married for 52 years monogamously - I'm not criticizing this, and I'm not saying there's anything wrong with this. What I'm saying is that to argue that our ancestors were sexual omnivores is no more a criticism of monogamy than to argue that our ancestors were dietary omnivores is a criticism of vegetarianism. You can choose to be a vegetarian, but don't think that just because you've made that decision, bacon suddenly stopped smelling good, OK? So this is my point.

(LAUGHTER)

RYAN: That one took a minute to sink, huh?

RAZ: OK so just to clarify, you're basically arguing that we are designed - that humans are basically lustful, promiscuous animals, right?

RYAN: Well, in "Sex At Dawn" essentially what we argue is that a casual, friendly promiscuity is the natural, most deeply resonate human behavior. And that's why we have so much lust, right? The fact that human beings think about sex so much is - we're off the scale. Most mammals only have sex when the female's ovulating. And when I say most, I mean virtually all. The number of mammals who have sex regularly when the female's not ovulating are just a handful - humans, chimps, bonobos and dolphins, which you'll notice are all highly social, highly intelligent animals. And in all those species, what's happened is that sexuality has become useful for social purposes, for establishing and maintaining social bonds and social networks of trust and intimacy. So, you know, when someone says, oh, you know, that person is like an animal sexually. No, animals aren't anything like humans sexually. They're embarrassed by us, right? It's sort of the opposite of what most people think.

RAZ: So in your book, you're arguing that it's not only OK to feel lust all the time, but also to act on it?

RYAN: Not really, no. It's not a guidebook. We're not advocating that everyone should be swingers or polyamorous or, you know, promiscuous or anything. In fact that's the main complaint about "Sex At Dawn." People write and say, you left me hanging. You didn't say what I should do now, because I don't know what you should do, right? And, you know, it's not a particularly sexy book. It's a popular science book. But what's happening is that they're feeling a sense of liberation. There's nothing wrong with me that I'm thinking about sex. There's nothing wrong with me that I love my boyfriend, but I'm attracted to other men, right? There's nothing wrong with my marriage that my wife thinks about other people and I think about other people. There's a sense of forgiveness and acceptance that we're very gratified by.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S GET IT ON")

MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) Trying to hold back this feeling for so long.

RAZ: OK so we have this list of seven sins. And I guess you would argue that this one doesn't belong. Like, you could just strike it off?

RYAN: Strike it off the list, you know? All the others - wrath, pride, envy - they're all harmful in some way. Lust isn't harmful necessarily. Lust can be lust for life. Who doesn't feel lust for life? And how can we tell someone not to feel lust?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S GET IT ON")

GAYE: (Singing) Let's love baby.

RAZ: Christopher Ryan, his book is "Sex At Dawn." His full talk is at ted.com. On the show today - the Seven Deadly Sins.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.