Speaking of Sex: An Interview with Psychologist Christopher Ryan, Co-Author of the New York Times Bestseller Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality

By Seidman, Barry F.; Dowret, Arnell | The Humanist, March-April 2011 | Go to article overview

Speaking of Sex: An Interview with Psychologist Christopher Ryan, Co-Author of the New York Times Bestseller Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality


Seidman, Barry F., Dowret, Arnell, The Humanist


Christopher Ryan received a BA in English and American literature from Saybrook University in San Francisco, California, in 1984 and returned twenty years later for an MA and PhD in psychology. The intervening decades, he writes, were spent "traveling around the world, living in unexpected places working at very odd jobs (e.g., gutting salmon in Alaska, teaching English to prostitutes in Bangkok and self-defense to land-reform activists in Mexico, managing commercial real-estate in New York's Diamond District, and helping Spanish physicians publish their research)." Drawing upon his multi-cultural experience, Ryan's research focuses on trying to distinguish the human from the cultural; his doctoral dissertation looked specifically at the prehistoric roots of human sexuality. Based in Barcelona since the mid-1990s, he has lectured at the University of Barcelona Medical School and consults at various local hospitals. He speaks about human sexuality to audiences around the world, and his work has appeared in major newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals. He is also the author of a textbook used in medical schools and teaching hospitals throughout Spain and Latin America.

In December 2010 Ryan appeared on the radio program Equal Time for Freethought (ETFF) where he spoke about Sex at Dawn, co-authored with Cacilda Jetha and published by Harper in 2010--and also about just what exactly the anthropological and psychological evidence says about humans' "natural" state. The following excerpt is reprinted with permission from the producers.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

ETFF: Dr. Ryan, can you give us an overview of your work, as explored in your new book?

Christopher Ryan: Essentially, what we argue in Sex at Dawn is that there's a great deal of data--evidence from primatology, from human anatomy, comparative primate anatomy, psychology, sexology, all sorts of anthropology--that all point to the fact that our sexual evolution was as a promiscuous species where most of our ancestors would have had several ongoing sexual relationships at any given point in their lives. And when I say promiscuous, I mean it in the original sense of the word, which is just "to mix". I don't mean any sort of moral judgment. And I certainly don't mean to imply that these were casual, non-loving relationships.

Our ancestors spent their lives in groups, generally of under 150 people, where they would have known everyone very well, very intimately. So even if they had several ongoing sexual relationships, they would have been more intimate in many ways than the casual relationships that people experience these days. We evolved as sharing everything before the advent of agriculture, including sexual pleasure. Then with the agricultural revolution, which was only about 10,000 years ago (a period that's only 5 percent of our existence as anatomically modern humans), we took a 90-degree turn off the path that we had been on for a very long time, and everything changed. And that's when we became possessive about each other, about sexuality, and also about paternity and land and housing and animals and all these things that entered human life with the advent of agriculture.

ETFF: The traditional message we get about our sexuality is that we've always been this way, and always will be. Evolutionary psychologists sometimes tell us bizarre things about human history, for example that rape made us a more successful species evolutionarily speaking. Is it possible that if we look at the evidence carefully, we may find that reality is very different from what the traditional narrative tells us?

CR: Well, we tried to be very careful in Sex at Dawn not to romanticize pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer societies. So we're not saying that sharing was so widespread because everyone was loving and sitting around the fire singing "Kumbaya" every night. The reason that sharing was so widespread--and continues to be in the remaining hunter-gatherer societies in existence--is because it's simply the most efficient way of distributing risk among a group of people. …

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