Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Prehistory Wars 1

How did our human ancestors live? A new book, Sex at Dawn, claims that our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived an Edenic life, in which everything was peacefully shared - including sexual partners:

Sex at Dawn makes a well-documented case that for a million years or more, our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolved with an easy-going, egalitarian, polyamorous approach to sex and relationships.

Women in these prehistoric communes were supposedly sexually liberated. A journalist interviewing the author of the book (Christopher Ryan) observes that:

your depiction of early human female sexuality is a radical departure: you depict early hunter-gatherer women as sexually bold, confident, autonomous, and novelty-seeking.

Such claims have consequences. Christopher Ryan has an agenda, which is to portray modern monogamous marriage as both unnatural and harmful. He prefers the option of polyamorous marriage, in which there would be "social monogamy" (couples staying together) but not sexual monogamy.

I'll agree with Christopher Ryan on one thing. What we now call traditional marriage is not the only arrangement that has been known throughout history. We do need to recognise this within our own understanding of anthropology.

But what about Ryan's claims of an easy-going, egalitarian hunter-gatherer prehistory in which women were sexually autonomous?

The evidence from Australia doesn't really match this. The Australian Aborigines lived a primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle remote from the influence of other societies. Yet to the early European settlers relationships between Aboriginal men and women seemed relatively brutal and unequal.

Keith Windschuttle devotes seven pages of his book, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, to this issue (specifically to the situation in Tasmania). I can't reproduce all of the evidence here - the following sample will have to do:

The first European observers called the men 'indolent' and 'extremely selfish' and said they treated their women like 'slaves' and 'drudges' ... In 1807, the French anthropologist Francois Peron observed twenty women deposit the results of their fishing at the feet of their men. Although the women had not eaten, the men:

immediately divided it up, without giving them any; they proceeded to group themselves behind their husbands, who were seated on the back of a large sand-bank; and there, during the remainder of the interview, these unfortunates dared neither to raise their eyes, speak, nor smile.

... there is abundant evidence of the violent nature of relations between the sexes ... In November 1830, on Swan Island ... Robinson observed the Aboriginal men forcing the women to their beds at knife-point. He wrote:

Informed that Mannerlelargenner had cut Tencotemainner with a knife because she would not stop with him. The aboriginal females came to my tent and informed me that several of the men had concealed themselves in the bush and took knives with them, and when night came they meant to cut the women. And why would they do so? Because women no marry them.

...Aboriginal women who rejected advances from amorous males put their lives in danger. Tasmanian marriage was largely monogamous but murder of women because of insult, jealousy and infidelity was common. The Big River Chief, Montpeliatter, killed a 'tall, fine young woman' because she did not like him. Out of jealousy, a man named Nappelarleyer killed 'quite a young girl' on Robbins Island 'spearing her in both her sides and in her neck.' The murderer was himself then killed by another man.

... This endemic violence left women in a state of fear during courtship, lest they offend their suitor

... the biggest single cause of internecine warfare between the Aborigines was the custom of bands raiding one another to abduct women, a practice that sometimes led to all the men on the losing side being killed. (pp. 379-382)

It seems that brute force was often used to decide matters. Perhaps you can get away with this when society is still pretty basic (small nomadic bands who survive by hunting and gathering). It would be difficult to sustain a more settled, large-scale society on this basis, though.

And using brute force to settle matters certainly seems to have given men an advantage over women. Tasmanian Aboriginal society was not, therefore, easy-going and egalitarian and nor were the Aboriginal women sexually bold, confident and autonomous.

I suspect that Christopher Ryan might have things the wrong way around. He believes that it was the lack of property in hunter gatherer societies that meant that women were not treated as sexual property. In fact, Aboriginal men in Tasmania were known to trade their women to European sealers in return for dogs.

It's more likely that it was the development of property when humans began to settle in one place and develop agriculture that led, for a time at least, to women having more sexual autonomy. I'll explain why in the next post.


  1. Is there a recent historical example of a hunter-gatherer society that behaves this way? It sounds unlikely to say the least.

    The first European observers called the men 'indolent' and 'extremely selfish' and said they treated their women like 'slaves' and 'drudges'

    Pretty much like the modern Australian male, heh heh heh.

  2. A friend is a professional shooter and hunts boars for the German market up north and frequently comes across outback Aborigines.

    He often comes across girls with untreated broken limbs inflicted by tribal punishment.

  3. Wait, Richo mate, so during the "state of nature", the sexes did not subsist amid "peace, good will, mutual assistance and preservation"? Was Locke wrong? Blast me with a peal of thunder, you've opened my eyes!

    Sarcasm aside, Mr Ryan's theory of origins is more unvaried, fantastical claptrap from a "special CNN reporter", the aforenamed Mr Ryan, who proclaims that the "true nature of our sexuality is silenced by religious authorities, [and] society".

    Mr Richardson, I expect you are well-versed in philosophical history. I've compared the philosophers of our age, to those of the dying Roman world, and identified Mr Ryan with Maximus the Sorcerer who was consulted by the Emperor Julian for the carrying-out of a Neoplatonic entrails inspection in Pessinus, Asia Minor. Or is that comparison unfair to the Neoplatonists, who were often not brain-dead like Maximus and Mr Ryan?

  4. Yet another tiresome iteration of the Noble Savage myth. Being primitive is not innately virtuous. The Indians taught us that.

  5. One of the dubious pleasures of having published a book is coming across discussions such as this one, where no one (including Oz Conservative himself) has bothered to read the book in question. While I'm thrilled to be compared to Maximus the Sorcerer, it would be even better to read comments from people who actually took the time to understand what they're dismissing! Brain dead? Please.

  6. Here is a discussion of the book at Citizen Renegade:

    David Collard

  7. Christopher Ryan,
    If we waited until we had read your book before we dared to comment on your thesis, this thread would have long since died. Presumably the description you gave of your books central proposition in the linked interview is accurate, and one can criticize a proposition without knowing the arguments an author advances to support his argument.

    It is certainly possible that primitive humans were more promiscuous than modern humans. The conventional wisdom is that tropical climates do not select against the children of men and women who do not practice strong, lasting, and exclusive pair bonding. This is because women can gather food year-round, so the children of "single mothers" don't starve.

    In the temperate zone seasonal variation in the availability of plant food makes females more dependent on males, whose vastly superior strength (see previous post at this site) was necessary to hunt large mammals. Thus there is selection against the children of parents who do not practice strong, lasting and exclusive pair bonding.

    Obviously culture was used to reinforce this tendency toward monogamy, just as culture today (including books like yours) discourages monogamy.

    The behavior of primitive hunter-gatherers in Africa 100,000 years ago is, however, totally irrelevant to the question of how we should order our sexual lives today. One large reason is that 100,000 years of natural selection have changed human nature. To this we might add the fact that we are not hunter-gatherers and the opinion that monogamy can be considered as a discovery.

  8. Christopher Ryan wrote,

    "where no one (including Oz Conservative himself) has bothered to read the book in question"

    Has Mr. Richardson quoted you inaccurately? Is it your contention that he simply made up the quotes cited in this article?

    No? Then, what's your complaint?

  9. Yet another variation on the "Noble Savage" of Rousseau, a man who knew nothing of man outside of Europe. Libertines are forever trying to find some justification for their adultery and fornication, and since scientism is the reigning religion among the self-anointed elite, then that justification must be found in science. Well, pseudo science, actually.

  10. Christopher Ryan,

    To quote from your own press release,

    "Is it even possible for two people to stay together happily over an extended period of time? Since Darwin’s day, we’ve been told that sexual monogamy comes naturally to our species. It doesn’t, and it never has.

    Mainstream science—as well as religious and cultural institutions—have long maintained that men and women evolved in families where a man’s possessions and protection were exchanged for a woman’s fertility and fidelity. But this narrative is collapsing. Fewer and fewer couples are getting married and divorce rates keep climbing as adultery and flagging libido drag down even seemingly solid marriages."

    You make your political agenda perfectly clear.

  11. Christopher Ryan,

    You claim in your book that pre-agricultural societies were egalitarian, sharing everything including sex and that it wasn't until the advent of agricultural and settled communities that the position of women declined. From your book:

    "Until agriculture, human beings evolved in societies organized around an insistence on sharing just about everything ... But human societies changed in radical ways once they started farming and raising domesticated animals. They organized themselves around hierarchical political structures, private property, densely populated settlements, a radical shift in the status of women, and other social configurations that together represent an enigmatic disaster for our species"

    What I've pointed out in this post is that the Australian evidence doesn't match the theory. The Aborigines in Tasmania were amongst the most remote and primitive populations in the world at the time of European contact. They were definitely pre-agricultural.

    And yet women had a relatively low status and there was sexual jealousy and copious amounts of violence.

    BTW, I should make clear to my readers where you are coming from in writing your book. You prefer a system in which people still get married but have meaningless sex on the side:

    "The authors, who are married, are actually in favor of matrimony -- especially, Ryan says, when "it provides an emotionally and economically stable environment for a kid to grow up in."

    The problem, as he sees it, comes when an expectation of absolute fidelity is placed on marriage. "There's a lot of suffering -- and what I would say is unnecessary suffering -- between couples who have unnecessary expectations of what life is going to be like," he says.

    The authors draw a sharp distinction between love and lust -- in their view, an act of sex outside of marriage doesn't necessarily diminish the love one has for a spouse. "When it's just sex," they write, "that's all it is."

    In their own 11-year relationship they've "had a similar understanding from the get-go," says Ryan, 48."

    There do seem to have been some societies (but primitive agricultural ones rather than primitive forager ones) in which female promiscuity was tolerated to a degree. But as I'll discuss in my next post, these societies adapted logically to such female promiscuity in ways which put them at a disadvantage - and so they never became the norm.

  12. Ryan, as quoted by Richardson, writes,

    "When it's just sex," they write, "that's all it is."

    In other words, what we do with our bodies--in this case having sex--doesn't matter. Why not? Because "love"--something we do with our minds/emotions--is the thing that really matters. It's as if these authors believed our minds and bodies inhabited separate universes, one completely unaffected by the other.

    Isn't it interesting how well this idea reduces to standard autonomy theory? Only those things which we choose should matter, and since we do not choose our bodies, our bodies shouldn't matter (of course, how does one explain physical attraction?). And from there it follows that nothing we do with those bodies should matter either--even if we choose to do it--because our bodily actions are just physical, i.e. products of something we did not choose.

    Taken to its logical conclusion, this idea would mean that the only real crime could be mental--crimethink, I suppose--and all physical acts would have to be decriminalized. Asocial behavior (e.g. murder, theft, rape, etc.) becomes a symptom of "disease" in need of "treatment", etc. And from there we're off to Orwell-land.

    Has there ever been a lie--Autonomy theory and its corollaries--that has so thoroughly and completely poisoned the Western mind?

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  14. It is a gross injury to families and young women especially to suggest that "sexual monogamy" is better abandoned in the West. Assuming a married man will have a fling with a younger, unmarried woman, what message does that send to her? How could this possibly leave her unaffected as far as considering men and marriage later on?

    "Sex at Dawn makes a well-documented case ..."

    I'd like to know what this documentation consists of exactly. I would be surprised if the evidence available were uniform across the main variables. The evidence from Mr Richardson on aboriginal ethnology suggests it is not.

  15. I've read the book and i agree with Oz.
    I would much rather have agriculture,modern life and monogomy than live under some rock and get gangbanged several times a week.

    could it be that instead of having sexualy liberated lives our female ancestors were forced into having multipul partners? That maybe the advent of agriculture and monogomy were a good thing that helped advance society.

    concidering how much stronger most men are than most women i don't see how women could of had the bargining power to be so autonomous.


  16. "Sex at Dawn makes a well-documented case ..."

    I'd like to know what this documentation consists of exactly.

    Probably references to other Leftist academic screeds that say the same thing. Guess they don't know that however times you multiply zero by zero, the result is still zero.

  17. "But human societies changed in radical ways once they started farming and raising domesticated animals. They organized themselves around hierarchical political structures..."

    As Mark points out with Aborigines there is always some form of hierarchy. The difference in hunter-gatherer societies is that the the hierarchy is more informal and this increases the danger of thuggish behaviour. I also think hunter gatherer societies may appear more egalitarian because hunter gatherers live in small groups and so no one person can accumulate a large amount of status, partners or resources. However, this doesn't mean that they are aren't organised along hierarchial lines, it just means there are practical limits to inequality when people are organised in small groups.

    In terms of the modern family, the main reason for family break-ups are economic problems, not sexual, frustration, specifically that men are less suited to post industrial service jobs and that wages are declining and unemployment increasing, in part because there are now twice as many people competing for many of the better positions.

  18. I've read the book. Ryan goes too far in portraying hunter-gatherer life as easy and egalitarian. That said, the authors rightly point out the difference between "pre-state" societies and forager societies. Pinker, et al, are right to point out that pre-state societies had plenty of violent warfare and subjugation of women. Ryan acknowledges that but correctly points out that most of the evidence for pre-state violence is from cultures that are not foragers, as our ancestors were a million years ago. Settled tribes crowded together on an island engage in constant warfare, but that's not who we were a million years ago. Ryan omits reference to the high murder rate among !Kung San foragers, but he might be right in saying that warfare is rare among foragers. If someone has actual evidence of warfare among foragers, please let me know, because I think Ryan is wrong but I don't have any evidence to back myself up on this point. That's how I found this discussion, searching for some hard evidence that Ryan is wrong about foragers not being warriors.

    In any event, the authors make a good point. I don't agree with them as far as they go, but they do have some evidence on their side. Stated simply, it's hard to argue with their general point. Here goes....

    Our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in kin-based clans where sharing with the others was as important and providing for oneself. Like their bonobo cousins, our ancient ancestors innovated a new use for sexual contact, as a social bonding mechanism. Traditional evolutionary psychology has a good handle on sex as a reproductive strategy, but it has overlooked sex as a bonding mechanism. We can't understand the evolution of human sexuality without taking its bonding function into account.

    So our pre-verbal ancestors did form pair bonds (they fell in love), but they also had extra-pair encounters as a routine part of foraging life. That sounds a lot like every culture under the sun, where men and women pair up, but they're rarely 100% faithful.

  19. "The notion of pristine natives with a "pure" culture was an artificial one - many Aborigines had considerable contact with Melanesians and Indonesians long before the European colonists arrived in Australia."

    Just because one pre-agricultural society is misogynistic does not disprove the capacity for sexual equality. I took the time to read the book and the argument is that several cultures with no history of interaction managed to establish cultures with varying (but considerable) degrees of sexual freedom.

    Your argument doesn't disprove this. It just proves that some Aborigines (who aren't a monolithic culture, so one example of misogyny doesn't say much) developed a harsh culture some unspecific time before Europeans arrived.

  20. Anon,

    I doubt the Tasmanian Aborigines were having a lot of interaction with Indonesians.