Back in mid 2011 I was asked to contribute some writing to a community webzine called Conduit Media which focused on scientifically informed and culturally aware political debate. I reviewed the popular scholarly text Sex At Dawn (with some reference made to a topical genetics discovery of the time suggested by the editor). That website is now inactive but copyright is held by the writer so I'm reproducing my text here for a lazy blog entry.
Recently it was confirmed via gene sequencing
that all human lines of decent that migrated from Africa have some Neanderthal ancestry in them. In other words anyone of non-African ancestry is a blend of two distinct forms of hominid. Put another way - persons of exclusive African descent are pure human!
That last comment is deliberately provocative and this is one of the problems of having a consciously political mindset - one anticipates the mindsets of ones opponents and I suddenly have racists in mind as I contemplate human genetics.
A white supremacist may well lament these latest scientific findings (to the extent that they pay them any heed at all - they may well prefer the power of "will" over "reason"). It is they that are the mongrels according to latest genetic findings. And they cannot twist it the other way by making Neanderthal blood a mark of superiority because it is shared by all
non-Africans. But why am I engaging in racial
ist arguments with imaginary racists? Better I think to assert that there is only one race - Humanity - and that it is what unites us that is of interest rather than the many miniscule differences that can never entirely succeed in dividing us from one another.
In asking what is common to humans we enter into the territory of what separates us from other animals and this has always been a difficult question to answer, if we look honestly at what we are. Many candidates for that unique human quality have been proposed, such as tool use, or language, or warfare, and none of these qualify as exclusive human behaviours. One of the more interesting characteristics described as something that humans do well, and which has shaped us as a species, is sex, and it is to this fascinating topic that I will now turn, with reference to the recently published popular evolutionary psychology text, Sex At Dawn
I remember a sociology lecturer declaring that "serial monogamy" was the human norm. However a closer look at cultures across the world and in history suggests something more complex. And yet the notion of a human norm in sexual relations is a powerful one. The authors of Sex At Dawn argue that the assertion of a norm is itself a product of particular cultural and economic developments in human history that reflect only part of who we are.
The book compares the biology and behaviour of humans with our closest relatives, Bonobos, Chimpanzees, Gorillas, Orangutans and Gibbons. One of many characteristic compared is relative size of genders. For the most monogamous ape, the Gibbon, there is negligible size difference between females and males. The greatest size difference exists among the polygynous Gorillas, among which males are massive, and competition for mates is vigorous. In contrast, the ape most closely resembling Homo Sapiens, the Bonobo, is characterized by a moderate difference in size between the genders, and is also characterized by a non-monogamous (yet also non-polygynous) set of multiple sexual interactions, which serve to promote bonds (including same-sex bonds) among Bonobos as well as for purposes of reproduction.
Such comparisons are hardly conclusive by themselves, but the authors also survey human behaviour in historical times, and among extant nomadic groups today, to conclude that the asserted normality of monogamy is a product of the economic and cultural imperatives of a sedentary agrarian life, one that modern academia has projected backwards onto all of human pre-history. In a society in which inheritance of property is important, establishing paternity becomes an important matter. However there have been many cultures (some existing today) in which the identity of the father is incidental, as there is negligible property or status to be conveyed to children, as property is shared, and the esteem of ones peers is won by personal characteristics and conduct.
It is fascinating what explanations humans devise for natural phenomena in the absence of modern scientific tools and methods. One intriguing pre-modern notion described in Sex At Dawn, which can be found in several separate cultures, is that a foetus is composed solely of semen collected in the uterus as the result of many liaisons. Cultures with such beliefs also hold that a child can have many fathers, and even that this is preferable, as a child can then draw on the good characteristics of many (the best hunter... the best poet... the most hansom fellow...).
Of course, such notions can be disproved with the use of microscopes, but all notions are susceptible to scrutiny and re-assessment in the face of new evidence and arguments. One of the established notions of modern mass society is that competition among males for female "mates" is an evolved human behaviour since pre-human times. Increasingly, however, microbiology demonstrates that it is at the cellular level that competition occurs. Sex At Dawn discusses the discovery of "Sperm Competition" and the implication that rivalry among males is made redundant by this. It is tantalizing to think that a lot of macho posturing could be undermined by understanding the behaviour of our own sperm!
Yet we live in a society in which robust competition for success in many aspects of life is cultivated, so it is hardly surprising that we find this notion natural and so deem it intrinsic to us rather than the product of cultural and economic pressures. The authors of Sex At Dawn ponder why it is that a model of conduct - monogamy - that is deemed intrinsic to humans and bolstered by the conditioning of culture, religion and government policy should so frequently be observed to fail. They note with compassion all the lives that have been marred by acrimonious divorces as a result of aspiring to something that may in fact only be one of the many ways in which humans are naturally inclined to behave.
Sex At Dawn is critical of conventional assumptions, however it refrains from proposing some new utopian model of society to supplant current practices. Rather, its authors say that surveying the circumstantial evidence from biology, anthropology, sociology and psychology, while resisting some of the cultural filters that are often applied to these disciplines, throws many of our assumptions into doubt, but they also admit that they lack answers as to how to respond to this. They do think it is important to question human sexuality however, as it is something that shapes who we are as persons and as a a species. The book, then, exists to promote further debate and examination of human history and experience. It is a fascinating, challenging, evocative, amusing and sometimes moving read, and well worth a visit to your local library.
Since writing this the book has become something referenced by many friends and I think it faces the danger of becoming regarded as "scripture" by some non-monogamists (which I suspect was never the intent of its authors). Like any academic text it is part of a continuing debate. One qualm I had with the book was its tendency to glorify forager and horticulturalist phases of human development - my own prejudice is I'm rather fond of many of the developments of agrarian society and the city-state. Also I suspect that the debate of "what we once were" is less important than "what we are or can be". Nonetheless Sex At Dawn does get you thinking and has plenty to recommend it.
Labels: Internet Observations, Political