10 January 2012

Neuroanthropology's take on the Sexual Revolution

Greg Downey, Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at Macquarie University in Sydney, has an interesting post at Neuroanthropology on evolution, anthropology, and gender and sexuality. I won't say that I fully agree with his argument. But I would like to endorse its complexity, subtly and nuance. So much of what we read these days offers rather trivial narratives about the interplay of human evolution, neuroscience, and culture and society that this essay (and video) comes to us like a breath of fresh air. At least, someone is thinking!

This idea that we have an inherently contradictory sexuality, the sixth point, is important because a one-sided narrative (say, for example, an argument that humans are ‘naturally’ bonobo-like, polyamorous and peaceful) shouldn’t be simply pitted against a pre-existing, opposing one-sided account, like the Mars-Venus contrast. I’ll come back to this point in part three of this series, but my fear of the over-corrective is the reason that I’m a touch uncomfortable with Ryan and Jethá’s (2010) book, Sex at Dawn. Although many of their innovative ideas are well worth considering, if for no other reasons to cleverly counter-balance other pervasive accounts of human sexuality in evolution, the book does run the danger of a competing partiality, however important the corrective may be.

The statistical prevalence of institutions like male dominance, female-centred family structure, and widespread idealization of monogamy (even alongside equally-widespread patterns of extra-pair mating and other forms of sexuality) is incontrovertible. Our discussion of sexual evolution has to be consistent with observable facts, both now and in our phylogenetic past, and we can’t be cherry-picking data to fit a feminist Darwinist or bonobo-ist polyamorous account any more than to fit an anti-feminist one.

Different proclivities in a species need not be harmonized by natural and sexual selection, nor need sexual selection be one-directional; the presence of unresolved conflicts in instincts or behavioural tendencies can produce a more flexible and responsive behavioural repertoire and a two-way form of social selection is likely in a highly intelligent primate. (Of course, unresolved tendency can also produce confusion and ambivalence, but that’s for part three). For example, a tendency toward male domination underwritten by sexual dimorphism and high levels of male aggression can be pitted against tendencies towards greater egalitarian sexual relations grounded in female sibling solidarity, female mate choice, and foraging versatility. Together, opposing tendencies can produce a behavioural repertoire that tips in quite different directions given the right conditions.


  1. The publishers should take a specific aspect as to what part of the human sexuality they were trying to study on. Human sexuality like the brain is influenced by many factors - what with the advent of technology, such that even those who do not have any related sexual dysfunction will consider purchasing a viagra.

  2. That's why, there's still this ongoing studies happening, to perpetually search and figure out things on this issue. The researchers, especially that which under the medical field are performing several experimentation and testing to make sure what they could possibly make of this discovery. Just to make sure it'll not be put into waste.