One of my new favorite podcasts is comedian Moshe Kasher’s “Hound Tall Discussion Series,” where three comedians interview an academic expert (Warning: it’s not a show for those with sensitive ears!). It’s the best combination of intellectual satisfaction and hilarious non-sense on the internet, next to TNT of course
In episode two, the expert featured was psychologist and expert on the history of human sexuality, Christopher Ryan. I’d never heard of him before, but apparently Ryan has been around for a while, writing the NYT best-seller Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What it Means for Modern Relationships, with his partner, and being featured in various TV interviews as well as a TED talk.
Ryan’s radical thesis is this: we didn’t just descend from apes, we are apes. Granted, we’re a special kind of ape, but we still are part of nature.
Radical! I know. Well…not really.
But—and here’s where it gets really interesting—Ryan suggests that, when it comes to how we engage in sex, humans are closer relatives to Bonobo monkeys (dubbed the “make love not war” monkeys) than standard Chimps. At one point in the podcast Ryan sums up the difference between Bonobos and Chimps this way: Chimps fight over sex, Bonobos use sex to avoid fighting. Human sexuality, Ryan points out, is naturally promiscuous for men AND women. Sexuality evolved, according to Ryan, first and foremost as a bonding function, reproduction was secondary. Sex, for early humans definitely played a major social function.
What’s more, unlike the tribal, territorial Chimps, Bonobo monkeys are intensely communal and engage in “fierce egalitarianism,” i.e. they share everything: possessions, food, as well as sex partners (homo and hetero). Ryan speculates that early humans lived this way as well and, sexually speaking, followed suite with their close primate relatives.
The “fierce egalitarianism” part really caught my attention.
Ryan correctly, I think, rejects the common assumed narrative of human sexuality that men bargained for women’s sexual functions by being providers/hunters, and that women graciously complied out of gratitude for this manly protection. Instead, it’s more likely that women played just as large a role as men (if not more so) in early human societies. Again, this idea of fierce egalitarianism suggests that if one didn’t share they were simply kicked out of the group.
This happy communal-ism all seemed to stop when agriculture and private property came on the scene. I think we all know where the story goes from here…Women of course, along with animals and the land, become property of men. In order to properly identify heirs, Men all of a sudden needed to know who’s kid was who’s–no more raising children as a community. Monogomy, in this sense then, can indeed be seen as a patriarchal myth.
Anyway, I see at least two more takeaways here for the theological/spiritually/religiously inclined:
- We modern, monogamous humans shouldn’t be too surprised when we find ourselves struggling with those old “sinful” sexual urges (e.g. lust, masturbation etc…). An evolutionary understanding really helps put these things into context, I would think, which is definitely needed because, as we’re all aware, too often in Christian culture shame and guilt have been unjustly attached to sex.
- Ryan’s work all fits in nicely with environmental and political theologies like that of Ched Myers for example, whose work really focuses on (among other things) environmental/social justice and the “conviction that there was some sort of epochal ‘rupture’ that signaled the beginning of the end of the widely dispersed, clan-based hunter-gatherer culture that had likely prevailed since ‘the beginning’ of human life on earth. The implications of this rupture have been devastating not only for the natural world, but also for human social life and spiritual competence.” Myers (and others) reads the Bible as a testimony to this epochal “rupture.”
So there you have it, yet another tasty ingredient to add to your #zesty faith.
Painting: Peter Paul Rubens, “Adam and Eve”