Only Natural

If there turns out to be such a thing as reincarnation, can I put in an early request to come back as a Bonobo chimp? They have all the fun.

A markedly peaceable species that distribute food fairly between themselves, they solve conflicts by having sex with each other. Or a spot of frottage, they’re not terribly fussy. Primate life being what it is, this means that their lives appear to be a series of sexual encounters with every passing group member.

Bonobos are one of the few animal species that use sex for pleasure rather than reproduction – in other words, they form homosexual pairs, engage in group sex, masturbate, perform oral sex and mate outside of their fertile period. Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, authors of Sex at Dawn, argue that the only other creature that gets close to this is the human being.

Sex at Dawn is a fascinating look at the biological and social anthropological evidence for how human sexuality evolved. Crucially, it re-evaluates this data, challenging the more traditional interpretation that sought to justify ‘desirable’ human behaviour.

We’re all familiar with the arguments that human females naturally seek to form life-long monogamous pairs. They have lower sexual desire than males, we’re told, because it’s in their best interests to form a stable, loving relationship with one man who can provide for them while they raise children. Meanwhile, men desire to ‘spread their seed’ as widely as possible, but are also keen to ensure that they don’t accidentally raise another man’s offspring. In this model, men choose to suppress their broad sexual urges in favour of guaranteeing the dominance of their own genes, whilst women are helpless without male support and interested in sex only to produce children.

Somehow, in the modern world, it’s hard to find that picture appealing. Personally, I’ve always favoured the view that there’s no ‘natural’ form to human relationships, only a variety of choices over how to make them work. But Ryan and Jetha present a set of ideas that are new to me – that human beings, like Bonobos, are naturally polyamorous, and that western, industrialised cultural behaviour suppresses women’s sex drives.

Sadly, there isn’t the space here to delve into the detail of Ryan and Jetha’s arguments, but the conclusion they draw is this: the monogamous marriage is an institution that is imposed on human beings very much against their natural will and inclination. The sheer level of effort and rule-making that it requires is enough to prove it.

You might expect me to violently disagree with this, but I don’t. To me, there is no higher moral purpose in marriage, and in its most contemporary form, it seems to me that it too often isolates couples into their own, high-pressure world. The early human communities that Sex at Dawn describes, with greater sharing of food-gathering and child-rearing, and no sense that anyone owns anyone else, make a great deal of sense to me. If nothing else, they would surely stave off the hideous anxiety and loneliness that new parents seem to go through. I might even consider having children myself if it didn’t mean facing the void.

Moreover, it’s time we acknowledged that sexual infidelity has always existed, sometimes with the tacit consent of the ‘wronged’ partner. It’s time that we learned to talk about these desires for sex outside of marriage, and whether this actually affects our love for our more permanent partners.

That said, I live very happily in an entirely monogamous relationship, so I’m not sure what Ryan and Jetha would make of me. Am I fooling myself? Or is there a risk that Sex At Dawn replaces one set of assumptions about what is ‘natural’ with another set?

It’s great to see the variety and voracity of human sexuality being not only acknowledged but supported by a great deal of evidence. But it seems to me that humans are different to all other animals because of their ability to reason and make conscious choices. This means that we can engage in a rainbow of sexual behaviour that would raise the eyebrows of even a Bonobo, but it also means that we can select the form in which we live too.

The important thing is that we don’t impose any abstract moral rules on the way we ‘should’ live and love – and I think we’ve got a long way to go before we truly accept people who choose to live outside of the idealised couple format (although we may have finally got over the idea that we ought to legitimise our relationship by marrying). Different people will choose different forms, for different reasons. We must learn to accept these very human choices, rather than imposing a new concept of what is ‘natural’.

I’d recommend this book to everyone. It feels to me like a key text in understanding and liberating human sexuality, and the world is ready for it. It’s vital that we begin to accept that female desire easily equals male desire in frequency and intensity, if we allow it free reign. I just think that this must be a part of broadening our view, rather than replacing it with a new set of strictures.

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4 Responses to Only Natural

  1. Beccy 28/02/2011 at 18:01 #

    I was fascinated by the bonobo’s when I first came across them – and also by the fact that evolutionary anthropologists always tend to draw more strongly on chimp, than bonobo, models, when trying to reify current gender relations by placing them in the deep past. What is “natural” becomes what is “right”……

    And don’t worry, you’re not that weird! Even within polyamorous species, particular pairs do bond exclusively – animal relationships are as complex and variously constituted as those in human species. We simplify their relationships when we try and communicate them as scientists to a broader public – in fact, most modern primatology reads increasingly like enthnography.

    And personally, given new evidence for Neanderthals processing bird bones to deliberate remove large, decorative feathers – you can’t help but wonder what *they” were up to…..or is that just me ;-)

    • Betty Herbert 01/03/2011 at 11:17 #

      Carnival costumes? ;-)

      • Beccy 01/03/2011 at 16:16 #

        in my head, they’re decidely burlesque

  2. The Hill Mouse 10/04/2012 at 15:42 #

    I broadly agree with what you’re saying here – minimal rules and do what works – but the one ingredient you haven’t factored in (or have only touched on) is children. What is best for any children is, for me, now the most important factor. That isn’t to say that I agree with the ‘all-children must have a stable, married couple as parents’ but I do agree with the view that all children should be brought up in a loving environment where their emotional and physical needs are put before anybody elses. If that can be achieved in a polyamorous environment then that’s good. If it requires a traditional family structure then that’s also good. Either way, or for anything in between, those involved should be thinking of how their decisions and actions will affect any children involved at the same time as considering any other factors.

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