As was noted yesterday, Biaggi's essayists examine the emergence of patriarchy in order to persuasively analyze and explain our current global issues — such as environmental devastation, a near-perpetual social injustice which particularly oppresses women and the poor, the increasing corporatization of the massive war and prison industry — then posit a brighter and feasible future if we deliberately choose to shed the ultimately-destructive patriarchal ethos which exigencies theoretically forced upon our ancestors. In contrast, the next book examines the species' deep prehistory in a non-androcentric attempt to uncover why something which is culturally held to be both normative and evolutionarily pre-ordained (as in: the social and sexual dominance of the active male over his passive female[s]) has required, throughout all of history, such an astonishing amount of violence and brutal oppression to enforce. Written by the married couple Christopher Ryan (white American psychologist and teacher) and Cacilda Jethá (African-born and European-trained medical doctor of Indian descent), the 2011 book Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships has both fascinated and outraged the public in near-equal measure.

Deliberately writing for the lay reader, the authors perform a sort of comparative analysis of a vast number of studies and research on their chosen subject of human sexuality. They do not simply report the results, however; instead they choose to re-examine and re-interpret the empirical data which is so presented. While this has caused no end of academic ire (most famously independent scholar Lynn Saxon's self-published denunciation titled Sex at Dusk: Lifting the Shiny Wrapping from Sex at Dawn), it should be noted that this practice is in fact an accepted part of modern scientific methodology.

Considering the vituperation and accolades simultaneously heaped upon Sex at Dawn, it is unsurprising to discover the authors strongly question the standard conventional narrative of evolutionary psychology, which maintains that the "natural" — as opposed to culturally patriarchal — elements of human sexuality include sexually active males but passive females, jealousy, female prostitution, possessive pair-bonding, male paternal insecurity, and so on. Instead, Ryan & Jethá believe scientists and similar authors are projecting modern patriarchal standards onto the data, thereby missing the connection between these sexual components and the eventual emergence of patriarchal agricultural societies in the Old World starting at about 10,000 BCE. For a more accurate depiction of our ancestral gatherer-hunter sexual relations, the authors suggest closer examination of our nearest primate relatives — in particular the flexibly promiscuous bonobos, who utilize sex as a remarkably effective means of dispelling interpersonal aggression and defusing potential conflict.

While the book is chock-full of fascinating information, its writing style is unfortunately occasionally rather flippant. Further, while I agree with many of the re-interpretations of earlier research (at least that with which I am familiar), there are a number of studies where the authors came to very different conclusions; I believe Ryan & Jethá would have better served their arguments by noting this. For example, in the study Rapid Evolution of Male Reproductive Genes in the Descent of Man, its authors Gerald J. Wykoff, Wen Wang, & Chung-I Wu are referenced in regards to evolutionary changes in the size of the human male testes. However, the original paper discussed possible rapid evolutionary changes in sperm and seminal fluid production by several of the great apes, rather than the genetics of testes size. Also, in contrast to Ryan & Jethá's presentation of Cai Hua's studies of the Mosuo as showing them to be indifferent to paternity, in his book A Society Without Fathers or Husbands: The Na of China Hua asserts the Mosuo nobility practiced primogeniture.

Finally, in their efforts to free women from patriarchal social constraints, the authors went somewhat overboard: their focus on women's true ancestral sexual freedom has opened them to the (false, I believe) accusation of being simply another androcentric effort to encourage women's promiscuity for the benefit of men. Taking those caveats into account, however, the book still remains both a valuable exploration and explosion of modern assumptions of patriarchy's evolutionary inevitability, and a fascinating diffusion of a more accurately female-friendly perspective on prehistory.

The need for scientific rigor becomes particularly poignant upon examination of the next selection: James M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer, & Jake Page's 2009 book The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory. While the subject is similar — prehistoric women and their influence in the creation of civilization — the book itself feels slightly more agenda-driven, effectively appearing to assert a prehistoric female superiority, rather than the more likely egalitarian prehistoric social system. This is somewhat understandable considering the book is predominantly a deliberate and much needed refutation of the still overwhelmingly androcentric mythology concerning prehistory which is prevalent today; as the Introduction notes, "When you realize that until recently the field called archaeology … has been practiced almost exclusively by men, it will be no surprise that the story they have told has been largely free of females, of women" (Adovasio et al, Introduction). The authors are also careful to explain that much of archaeology is no more than an educated guess, and these are theirs. The book itself is extremely informational, an excellent introduction to what the authors claim as being "a new version of the story of human evolution — one that is neither HERstory nor HISstory … [but rather] OURstory" (Adovasio et al, Introduction). With fluid, easily understandable text, the authors effectively debunk the male-only version of prehistoric civilization, theorizing instead from the empirical data a world where women are responsible for language, humans' unique sociability, agriculture, the String Revolution and other important tools, and the vast majority of food provisioning — thereby crucially ensuring both the survival and thriving of the species.

However, it is my suspicion the predominant writer of the three authors of the book was Page rather than Adovasio or Soffer. While both Soffer and Adovasio are professors and archaeologists, Adovasio is one of the foremost experts today in perishable artifacts, whereas Soffer (who immigrated from Russia) arrived in the field by way of the fashion and art industries. Page, on the other hand, is heavily involved in editing, publishing, and science writing, and it would appear (from some of the small science-related inaccuracies which crept into the book despite editing) that it is he presenting Adovasio's and Soffer's theories for a lay audience. Two quick examples: on page 91 is the statement: "Genes are themselves made up of base pairs of amino acids." Actually, a gene is more correctly described (in Jocelyn E. Krebs, Elliott S. Goldstein, & Stephen T. Kilpatrick's Lewin's Essential Genes, 3rd ed.) as a sequence of DNA (a nucleic acid) which directly produces a single strand of RNA in a matching sequence. In protein-coding or structural genes, the RNA in turn encodes a polypeptide, which consists of amino acids in a sequence determined by the original DNA sequence of the gene. It is individual subunits of DNA which are referred to as bases. Also, I believe Page unwittingly conflates "sex" and "gender" when he notes on page 277 that humans have three genders: "male, female, and gay." In her fascinating book Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World, Anne Fausto-Sterling points out that an individual's biological sex is ordinarily determined by the external genital anatomy, and the first two elements listed are indeed biological categories. However, the third element — "gay" — is a cultural creation explicating a particular type of sexual preference. Adovasio, Soffer, and Page's phrasing is also unfortunate in that it effectively invisibles lesbians. Finally, gender identity is the individual's choice of self-presentation, which can be either based upon, or defy, expected social roles for each sex.

I am not yet entirely convinced, therefore, that the authors have truly presented us with the prehistoric OURstory; this still feels more like the story of women than that of both women and men. Somewhat more empirical data would have helped in supporting the excellent arguments made, though it is possible those proofs do indeed exist but were simply left out as tedious for the lay reader. Nevertheless, this book is an important addition to the library of information which denies and corrects the often deliberate omission and appropriation of women's work and worth by obsessively androfocused patriarchal societies.

 

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