For polyamorists, swingers, and other practitioners of open relationships, America just became a slightly better place, thanks to the publication of Sex At Dawn, the new popular anthropology book that has been tearing up the blogosphere and major news outlets for several weeks now. Since no lesser light than Dan Savage called the book "the single most important book on human sexuality since Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior in the Human Male on the American public in 1948," word about husband and wife duo Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha's work has been spreading like...well, like prehistoric women's legs.
According to Ryan and Jetha, the overwhelming physiological and archeological evidence shows that our pre-agricultural ancestors were not monogamous, nor even serially monogamous as some more liberal thinkers claim. Instead, these hunter-gatherers lived in "fiercely egalitarian" societies where everything was shared: food, shelter, parenting, and yes - sexual partners. The common mode of living in early human bands was apparently closer to a communal marriage than what we think of as a "traditional" one, in which paternity certainty was unimportant and women - as well as men - had sex as often as they wished with as many as they wished.
Predictably, a few misguided idiots and plenty of random internet commenters are responding to the book with a certain amount of vitriol. But more surprising is that the first three pages of today's Google search for the book's title are full of praise for the work - a wave of mainstream media acceptance of the idea that maybe, just maybe, our species isn't naturally monogamous after all.
Ryan himself (clearly the public face of the book) has repeatedly said that people shouldn't take their findings as carte blanche to cheat on their spouses, or that everyone should be polyamorous. In fact, it's impossible to say at this moment what the impact of the findings might be on the lives of people who now, 10,000 years after the advent of agriculture, live so very differently than their ancestors did.
Nonetheless, as Alan at Polyamory in the News points out, the popularity of this book and its scientific underpinnings are a huge step in the literature for those of us who have refused to buy into the monogamy deal. The idea that jealousy is not an inherent human state, that the exchange of sexual exclusivity for security and support is a cultural construct, and that the natural state of human sexuality is much more complicated than the overculture would have us believe may not go over well with everyone, but it is a great leap forward from the slew of evolutionary psychologists and other authorities from Darwin onward who have insisted on our species "natural" propensity for pair-bonded monogamy.
I look forward to interviewing Christopher Ryan soon. If you'd like to submit some questions for him, please do so in the comments! I also highly recommend reading this fun and fascinating book - pick it up at your local bookstore.