We explore the history of monogamy and what science tells us about the true nature of human sexuality. Psychologist Christopher Ryan joins us to discuss his book “Sex at Dawn,” which challenges conventional wisdom about mating and marriage, tracing the prehistoric origins of modern sexuality to explain why people have so much trouble sticking with just one sexual partner.

Christopher Ryan, psychologist and co-author of "Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality"

  • geraldfnord

    “Meant”?  What does that mean?

    Evolution is about genes’ spreading themselves, not about our happiness or some in-dwelling telos any organism has.  Their “desire” to do so (to indulge in the pathetic fallacy) does make certain behaviours easier or harder, and this should (I think) be the occasion of exercising rachmones for our poor, body-imprisoned, selves.

    But, quite frankly, to use our genetic tendencies as normative is even more asinine than the voices in some of my shepherd ancestor’s heads—those at least have been filtered through generations of having to work in human society, whereas the genes don’t care if we’re miserable.  And, make no mistake, the book itself and Mr Savage’s evidently welcome re-popularisation of it even more so, does present its conclusions as normative…though I have detected some backtracking, emphasising now compassion for those who cannot be really monogamous (admirable) rather than a sometimes-sneering evaluation of those of us who like it and find it natural for us.

    (I speak as someone naturally extremely monogamous who enjoys being told that my desires and feelings are ‘unnatural’ as little as any gay or polyamorous person’s being told that theirs are so. And, to be blunt, I read the book and thought it more like apologetics than scientific argument, which latter must readily and extensively deal with obvious objections to it…I am naturally sympathetic to the ‘blame agriculture for everything’ sort of Rousseauianism in which it indulges, but I both think it pat to do so, and naïve to assume that [for example] the morphological evolution of our genitals has exactly tracked our mental and social evolution—we might be keeping the old plunger around because it hasn’t hurt us too much, or maybe makes the sex better, regardless of whether “we” “need” it or not.)

  • Yes, we’re not “meant” for anything. The notion of monogamy is one assigned by culture, not nature.

    • Puck

      Culture is a reaction to nature.

  • Dmike272

    IMO I don’t think monogamy is a natural characteristic to the human species as our intellect commands us to be curious and explore. It is, I believe, however more conducive to educating our young if a man and a woman make the conscious decision to be commited to their relationship before considering conceiving a child. Does this mean that a marriage or an other type of commitment has to be monogamous in the sense that the people involved have to only have sex with one another? Not necessarily so. However, along with our intellect many of us are also emotional creatures which tends to create conflict in the relationship if the lines which seperate love from sex are blurred. Again, I believe a commited relationship is the best thing that parents can give a child. Many people lack the ability to seperate sex from love. So because of that I think monogamy in a union is a necessary commitment if children are involved (as is so often the case even if “on accident”). So yes I believe monogamy is necessary for human beings to thrive. Is it part of our true nature? I don’t believe so. And as long as two consenting adults with the mental capacity to seperate their emotion from their intellect make the conscious decision to allow themselves and eachother the ability to live within the parameters of their true nature, I believe it could be quite successful and fulfilling. I am currently in a monogamous relationship and neither I nor my wife have been very successful at it. We both have had our own completely different reasons and justifications for seeking extra-marital affairs (hers emotional/mine purely sexual). But when it comes right down to it the action taken was completey the same.

  • Adwan

    The issue is who takes care of the children resulting from sex? Care for children for 18 – 20 years is what drives monogamy……

    • antseverywhere

      I don’t recall where I read the article but there was a case made for the 7 year itch and its link to the infantile needs of the child.  It basically said that the first 7 years were the most critical for the child and that is was not purely coincidence that modern married couples tend to reach a limit after 7 years.

      • geraldfnord

        I’ve also noticed a strong drop-off in a woman’s desire for sex after a length of time (roughly seven months) that it would be likely for the two of you to have conceived if you were mutually fertile and in the state of Nature.

        As I said, the genes care naught for our own happinesses….

  • Genie345

    We may not be ‘meant’ for monogamy, but the alternatives seem more problematic.Polyandry, polygamy, or any other type of poly-amorous lifestyle requires people to have extreme control over their own emotions, or just keep their feelings to themselves, so it seems as if they cannot be completely open with their partner(s). I’d love to hear about that issue from people in those types of relationships.

    • in Berkeley, CA

      We have the same issues that monogamous relationships have: “you didn’t do the dishes!” “please don’t leave your dirty socks in the livingroom”

      What makes you think that the problems people in open relationships have are so very different from those in monogamous ones? Every relationship, regardless of who is in it or how many people there are, takes work and communication about feelings, frustrations, limits and needs. Those conversations can be skipped in many monogamous relationships because so many of the limits are taken for granted. And yet, how many people do you hear getting upset because their monogamous spouse crossed a line they didn’t even know was there until it was too late? 

      Polyamorous relationships don’t really take all that much more work than monogamous ones, but everything we are told from birth, by parents, teachers, books and movies tells us we must want only one person and they must want only me and that the best way to show love is to be violently jealous. That sort of social programming is hard to break free from, but that doesn’t mean it’s natural or healthy.

      • Genie345

        Thanks for the insight. I was simply referring to getting over the jealousy issues and sharing deep personal feelings. Every relationship no matter what type has to deal with those issues as you’ve stated I was just asking how that works for you since you have more people to work with. To answer your question, “What makes you think that the problems people in open relationships have are so very different from those in monogamous ones?” Well, the multiplied equality(mainly in polygamy) and jealousy issues I ‘expect’ to be problems makes me think that so thanks for clearing that up.

  • Neil

    When talking about a person who is deciding whether to be monogamous, the guest used the phrase “I don’t want to live a lie.”  And he says he not advocating something?  Calling monogamous lifestyle a lie sure seems to be advocating one side over another.

    • I think the point the guest was making is that by having to pretend to agree with the standard narrative that monogamy is the only healthy relationship … they were living a lie.  Like a liberal pretending to be conservative, or a gay person pretending to be straight.  They want to be accepted for who they are … a person who feels that a non-monogamous relationship works better for them.

      • geraldfnord

        I agree in the main, but (as I’ve nattered elsewhere) I’ve caught strong whiffs of “…and it’s not right for _anyone_, they are actually living inauthentically if they believe they like and are successful at monogamy” in the past…this just does not jibe with my experience, and sounds like the self-reässuring murmurs of people with a strong internal voice telling them that they’re bad.

  • dsherer

    Promiscuity without practical and reliable forms of birth control, something very much against the naturalness factor of sex and curiosity, would be a very different reality. I would like to hear what the guest has to say about birth control and the drive to be sexually curious without the implications of natural, non-birth controlled sex? Maybe even understanding the ovulation cycle and being connected to it as a form of birth control, how do these concepts and technologies affect the promiscuity factor?

  • Douglas

    Steven Pinker was a guest on this program recently and presented anthropological evidence that humans were much more violent in hunter/gatherer societies. Is Mr Ryan disputing that?

  • stella

    I’m just curious as to why Mr. Ryan’s wife isn’t also on this show? It would be really interesting and valuable to hear her opinions and expertise on the subject as well, for a balanced discussion.

    • $311151

      His wife was coauthor of the book.

    • Bartzieboy

      Perhaps it’s because he’s a researcher, and she’s a clinician.  I expect it’s more difficult for her to break away.  That said, it would have been lovely to have her on as well.

  • Bronwyn

    It’s interesting that we say “history was written by white males,” and now we are hearing history being interpreted by white males within a very masculine context.  As a marriage and family therapist, I would argue that this perspective is extremely biased against most women’s psychological health.

    • from Berkeley, CA

      As a woman IN an open relationship, I have to disagree with you, Bronwyn. My relationship is four years running and no where near ending. I love my partners and they love me. The exponential reward I get from communication and consideration of more than one person far far outweighs any stress it might cause me. Moreover, I am not a fluke! I know many people who make this relationship style work, where one or more people have multiple partners or even live in multi-partner homes and families where children are raised communally over years and even decades. You have to realize that the people who come to you are the ones for whom it has gone badly. As a therapist, you’re hearing disproportionately about the relationships that are failing, unhealthy and broken, when there are so many happy, healthy and thriving open relationships that will never come knocking at their door because they don’t need the help of a therapist to make their relationships work.

      • Puck

        Anyone got Herpes?

        • Steve

          Around 3/5’s of the adult, sexually active population has HSV I and/or II (i.e. “Herpes”).  There are now drugs that can drastically reduce communicability.  Probably a whole generation should take them daily if we really wanted to wipe out HSV.  It seems HPV may be more prevalent, although we now have vaccinations for some strains.  In any case, unlike HIV, these are somewhat unavoidable and not such a big deal.

          Certainly it would be nice for people to pair with those with the same status and avoid further spread.  Current stigmatization means that since most don’t know they are infected, that it currently spreads at just about a maximum rate even for “standard” dating and monogamy practices.  Probably some who do know they are infected avoid sex altogether, which is not healthy in an overall sense.  I suspect that there are many women in this situation.

          • Puck

            I once met a girl who had Herpes on her forehead, and claimed everyone in her family had it there. Apparently her mother had genital Herpes and delivered vaginally.

            I can think of two decent strategies to avoid genital Herpes, namely (A) date women who are most likely to be virgins i.e. 18 year olds, or (B) date migrants from sexually repressive countries.

    • Pharoh1906

      I agree. His theories seem extremely self-serving. I sympathize with his need to understand where his sexual desires may stem, but it doesn’t justify backing into a complete rewrite of human evolutionary biological history. 

    • Seven

      The co-author of this book is Cacilda Jetha, MD, a practicing psychiatrist and a woman who doesn’t appear to be caucasian. I hope you are able to recognize and check your own biased assumptions – as a marriage and family therapist.

    • “…interpreted by white males within a very masculine context.”

      Okay. But how does that actually relate to the topic?

      Are you saying we shouldn’t listen to Christopher Ryan, because he’s just another white male? Or do you have a substantive criticism of something specific?

  • Antonio (millbrae)

    How can people practice polygamy? I can BARELY keep up with ONE wife: “antonio, work more”, “Antonio don’t work too much”, “Antonio, do this”, “Antonio don’t do that” …. “Yes, honey”, “Yes, honey”

    • Andrew

      > “Yes, honey”, “Yes, honey”
      Try something else 😉

  • Craig in Sebastopol

    Homicide rates in hunter/gatherer societies are purported to be very high by Jared Diamond in The Third Chimpanzee among others.  Does the low homicide rate in modern society hold lessons for us about the higher monogomy rate in modern society.  If we can change one culturally, why not the other?

    • Puck

      Hunter-gatherers simply didn’t have fluoride and television to keep them under control.

    • geraldfnord

      I’m not sure if the modern ethnography of hunter/gatherer societies—pushed to the margins, and living in a world where Dr Malthus’ Magic Bullet has taken its toll (I mean: we enter Paradise, and breed until it’s hell, or at best purgatory), accurately reflect what life was like for the hunter gatherers tens of millenia ago.

      I doubt it were Paradise, as we are all too human, but my intuition (easily faulty, of course) is that it were a more satisfying life than getting up in the dark to go to a desk or a factory for a set period doing things of no real, immediate, import.  I think this important, because it should be more and more possible for more and more of us to live this way.  

      Step 0: stop hating people on welfare.
      Step 1: channel anger at work into its elimination, instead
      Step 2: beat or go around those who _like- being on the top of a bad and now-unnecessary world.  (See: the Abominable Fancy)
      Step 3: Be human, own all your own time, get to work on destroying senescence and death as well.

  • Pharoh1906

    The author’s theory is just about supporting his own life-style choice. His theories fly in the face of everything we’ve been told about hunter-gatherer societies. Look, if you want to have multiple partners, do it. If you want to have multiple partners and have a “primary relationship”, or even be “married”, do it! But to re-write scientific history to justify your own desires is ridiculous. It would have been a far better show if you had brought an actual scientist or evolutionary biologist to discuss how we have evolved as a species to where we are now. 

    • Frank

      I agree with you, Pharoh1906. It is increasingly disturbing to see media including KQED, and NPR in general, blindly promote the pure opinions of commercial authors under the pretension of discussing science. Psychologists in general are producing nothing but their own imagination, if not outright non-sense. Because people blindly believe in almost anything if presented as “science” these days, they often pretend that they are also doing nothing but science when in fact they are nothing but pseudo-scientists. We are not even sure of our recent history; and every history is to a certain extent a fiction reconstructed by those who wrote it with fragments of anecdotal evidence. Like Pharoh1906 pointed out, do it if you desire it. Just don’t lie that it is somehow science-based. It is increasingly disappointing to see this Forum show to advocate a series of commercial authors without a minimal critical review expected for public radio. It is all about money, isn’t it? If public radio succumbs to commercialism like other commercial media with no critical assessment, why should we continue to support it with our donation. 

      • Yep

        Ha ha, “I agree with you, Pharoh1906.” Too funny.

        Science is the application of reason without bias. Science is not always conclusive. The above paragraph represents an extended ad-hominem attack and is entirely unscientific in its approach.

  • Pharoh1906

    The author says that the reason most women tend to be monogamous is 10,0000 years of culture. But this argument is completely unsatisfying considering the author’s argument that how we’ve evolved over millions of years. 

    • You missed the argument … he says that we have deep seeded non-monogamous traits honed over millions of years of evolution, and that we have spent 10k years trying to socially engineer monogamy.  It is a human construct, not the result of evolution.  10k years is not enough time to change our DNA … it is too short for meaningful evolutionary changes to take place.

  • Tristan

    All of what he says has a strong link with what we experience at the Famous Burning Man event! Sharing,fredom of sex *for who wants* and respect of all acts,respect of others; be part of a community where no real leader drives the whole. This maybe takes us back to where we belong and maybe this is w gohy we feel so good…

  • Pathos

    You’re all thinking about this from the wrong perspective. The real question is not whether humans are meant for monogamy. It is rather whether gonorrhea is meant for promiscuous humans, or whether evolution will favor its colonizing monogamous humans. To infect or not to infect, that is the question. I kind of hoping it will go after the monogamous hominids. I’m rooting for the little guy.

  • repressed

    As a woman, I feel so vindicated by this argument.  I have felt that monogamy felt very forced from a very early age.  While I have been a faithful monogamous partner, it has not been easy and I have often felt resentful of my “place” as a monogamous woman.  So far my desire to fit in socially has won out to my repressed desire to live in a poly relationship.

    • Ditto … people who chose monogamy should be happy with their choice, and those that chose some other relationship type need to feel that they are not broken.  I think that is the gift of this book.  Relationships need rules and boundaries … the cool thing is that we get to define those with our partner(s).  It has been very vindicating for me as well.

  • Lenamarika

    I would really like Mr. Ryan to speak about this notion of “sex addiction”, and compulsivety and the damaging effects that many men and women claim to experience within themselves due to this behavior, claiming a loss of control and emptiness, etc. does he believe that it’s just a matter of instilling realistic agreements to not be monogamous, or is there really something to the idea of what’s perhaps seen as compulsive sex being damaging to the individual who engages?

    • $311151

      Those seem to be two different dimensions. People who have no qualms with monogamy – who want to be monogamous – might be sex addicts. Poly relationships would not be an answer for those people. There were alcoholics before Prohibition, during it, and after.

  • RegListener

    Biggest obstacle to future polymoury is not “Hollywood” or organized religions but the fact that children need more resources now in post-industrial world now than even in agricultural era when children worked much earlier, let alone in the hunter-gatherer period. A huge chunk of such extra resources now come from the children’s parents rather than society as a whole.. Those children whose parents will commit resources to them will contine have a big advantage compared to those whose parents commit fewer (or no) resources or time to them, or who switch their resources to a younger or more attractive mate and his/her children. Current child-support laws are grossly inadequate to make up for the socio-economic inequites children without committed parents face.Unfortunately economic trends in the US,(college getting much more expensive, depressed wages of wage-earners, which requires two wage-earners in a family to support kids, etc.) are exacerbating these inequities.   

    • $311151

      That would be an argument for polyamory not against it. Multiple adult households would be unlikely to produce a proportionally larger number of children. So you’d have more adults supporting few children.

      • RegListener

        Not credible. Millions can attest that having sex with someone does not necessarily lead the sex partner to actually commit significant reources to existing or future children. All sex partners are certainly not supportive/contribuing parents, & child support laws are grossly inadequate to force sex partners to support his/her partner’s existing or future children.. And his argument was mainly about sexual partnering, not about household struture.
        (Also many “multiple adult households” are not cases of more adults supporting fewer children: In many polygynous harems, one father produces so many children, that he has little emotional availibility to each one,,something that all those stepmoms cannot easily make up for..Indeed, since the mothers almost always favor their own children,there often is more conflict than mutual help from co-wives & stepmoms)…

  • I don’t think the book advocates a non-monogamous relationship, it just describes who we are as a very sexual animal.  Humans also biologically crave salt and fat (something rare on the savanna), but no one advocates a diet consisting mostly of potato chips.  We need to recognize that non-monogamy is in our nature and that monogamy is a choice.  It works for some … but many others “cheat”.  Rather than treating a wondering spouse as an immoral sinner, we might be better to recognize it for what it is … being perfectly human.

  • what i mostly appreciate from this discussion today is how our society is based on property and ownership, and how that enters EVERYTHING, also our sexuality…

  • Ralph Kacy

    Unless you’ve actually read the book, most of your negative comments about this interview have no basis.

  • Bikalou

    All was good in my ~20years old open marriage until my wife decided that after all monogamy was what she wanted. I think that she is missleading herself but she has to discover on her own… She likes flirt and men too much.
    Anyway, now she wants a divorce, like so many “standard” couples…
    There may be other problems beyond sexual freedom, but she say that she has decided that this is deal killer.
    I think that seven years with kids did not help. They definitely seem to kill monogamous couples… non monogamous as well I guess.
    Anyway, I can say that all in all I have been more happy and for longer time in my marriage than most if not all the guys of my age I know.
    Interestingly, she says that most her “traditional” girlfriends are unhappy too…

  • CB

    Well, here I am listening to the interview and thinking about the whole thing… again.  The non monogamy discussion has entered into my 27 yr. marriage (with a disclosure of serial infidelity – 11 years! and two favorite women and declared “love” this Feb.) on numerous occasions.  The idea of an open marriage has always intrigued me but fear enters in… always.  My three reasons:  Emotional Security.  Physical Security.  Financial Security.  ….and I am not sharing a hospital visiting room with any “extras.”  He may have to either decide on divorce because I just can’t do it (share) or he will have to “give up” this part of his authenticity to be with me.  Or… he declares, he is not even sure if this is part of his value system.  As we continue this journey of healing with therapists, reading, listening and just being, I can’t help but think that some of this #$%^& truly is justification for behaviors.  Sorry folks… Utopia doesn’t exist anywhere last time I looked.  Also, please read this man’s blog in response to much of Dan Savage’s “advice.”  http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2011/1103.dueholm.html

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