The Bonobo and the Atheist (A Personal Review)

Does God imply morality or vice-versa?

God is indeed a jealous God
He cannot bear to see
That we had rather not with Him
But with each other play.
— Emily Dickinson
This is not a completely objective review. Few are, truth be told. I’m on record as an admirer of Frans de Waal, though I’m also on record disagreeing with some of his conclusions about the evolution of human sexuality. In fact, it was the disagreement that led me to admire the man as much as his work. I’ll explain.

When we were nearing the end of writing Sex at Dawn, Cacilda and I decided fairness required us to offer to send passages from the manuscript to a few authors and researchers with whom we disagreed, but whose work was integral to our argument—none of whom we knew personally. We wanted to give them a chance to tell us where we were mistaken or perhaps being unfair in our assessment of their views. We only made this offer to a few people, most of whom either never got back to us or politely declined. (One was offended, claiming it was somehow "intellectually dishonest" to have made the offer.)

Only Frans de Waal was willing to take a look, so I sent him the material. After a few days, he responded, asking if we’d considered this paper or that book that might enrich our discussion a bit. We had, and the conversation went back and forth a few times—always respectful and without a trace of ego on his part.

Keep in mind that this was a world-famous scientist with half a dozen published books and scores, if not hundreds, of scientific papers taking the time to correspond with someone he’d never heard of and who was suggesting he was wrong about important things. After half a dozen exchanges, he wrote, “Who knows? You may be right. In any case, you clearly have an exciting book on your hands, whether people agree with it or not: these are issues that will need debating over and over before we will arrive at a resolution.” Cringing inside, I asked if I could quote him publicly saying this, and he replied, “Sure, you can use it as a blurb, if you like.”

You write to a famous scientist telling him you think he’s wrong about something and he ends up helping you promote your book. That’s the sort of guy Frans de Waal is.

Now, I know this sounds more like a love letter than a book review, but full disclosure is important and—in this case—illuminates the book in question: The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates. Is there a clearer case of an alpha male going out of his way to help a low-status, unrelated male with little to offer in exchange, and a potential competitor, to boot?

According to the prevailing view of human interaction—the one de Waal challenges in this book, such an exchange shouldn’t exist. He quotes Micael Ghiselin, an American biologist whose stark assessment is often cited in the literature:

No hint of genuine charity ameliorates our vision of society, once sentimentalism has been laid aside. What passes for co-operation turns out to be a mixture of opportunism and exploitation … Given a full chance to act in his own interest, nothing but expediency will restrain [a person] from brutalizing, from maiming, from murdering—his brother, his mate, his parent, or his child. Scratch an ‘altruist’ and watch a "hypocrite" bleed.”

This assumption of psychopathy as the cold heart of human nature is central to most of the literature of evolutionary psychology (see, for a very recent example, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature and/or this stinging critique). Indeed, the assumption that our uncivilized animal nature is our “original sin” and that only institutions of authority can keep us from raping and pillaging each other into oblivion has fueled the propaganda of power courtesans cheering on colonialism, slavery, and forced conversion ever since Hobbes famously declared that human existence before the state was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

So this is no small question that de Waal proposes to answer: Are we good to each other because religions force us to be, or are religions merely institutionalized expressions of our innate desire to be good to each other?

In arguing for the latter position, de Waal cites a growing literature (of studies focused on both human and non-human primates) showing that “our first impulse is to trust and assist; only secondarily do we weigh the option of not doing so, for which we need reasons.”

Still, this is not another anti-religion book in the tradition of Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris. De Waal's argument is far more subtle and inclusive. He agrees with Einstein that religious belief is “preferable to the lack of any transcendental outlook of life.” In fact, De Waal ultimately asserts that “The whole purpose of God is … to keep us on the same straight and narrow that we’d been following ever since we lived in small bands.”

God isn’t dead; He's just beside the point.

I found The Bonobo and the Atheist to strike just the right chord. Frans de Waal isn’t telling religious people that they’re wrong to love their fellow humans (and non-humans) because God tells them to. He’s just explaining why the rest of us feel the same way, whether God speaks to us or not.

Published on June 19, 2013 by Christopher Ryan in Sex at Dawn

Hugo Schwyzer owes Johnny Depp an apology.

In a recent column at The Atlantic's web site, Hugo Schwyzer asks us to consider, "What would happen if men stopped chasing much younger women?" I suppose this is an interesting, if impractical question. (Ain't gonna happen, Hugo.)

Before getting too far into the weeds of this thought experiment, Schwyzer makes it clear that he's not talking about pedophiles or other obvious creeps; he's talking about men like Johnny Depp, who is apparently dating a woman in her late 20s, while he's just hit the big 5-0.

After bemoaning the ubiquity of this pattern of attraction, we come to the nub: "What seems harmless and natural, however, is neither." Schwyzer argues—or seems to—that this isn't in fact happening in response to any innate biological desire men hold for women in their most fertile years, despite the overwhelming biological evidence in support of such a view. To back up his thesis that this isn't a reflection of a "natural" desire on men's part, Schwyzer cites a 
2007 study done in Sweden (though linking only to an article in The Economist that briefly mentions the study).

A few problems here. 

1. You're going to cite a just single study to refute the overwhelmingly accepted understanding that men are attracted to women at the prime of their fertility due to innate, evolved tendencies? Just one?

2. The study Schwyzer cites actually says the opposite of what he thinks it does. The authors conclude that an age difference of 4-6 years (man older) is optimal for greater fecundity, not that partners should be the same age. Here's the first paragraph of their discussion at the end of the paper:

"We show that 
the offspring count of both men and women who did not change their partner (i.e. the other parent) between the birth of their first and last child increased, the younger the female partner was compared with the male. The age difference between the partners yielded a maximum offspring count for men, if the female partner was approximately 6 years younger than the male and for women if the male partner was approximately 4 years older than the female. These findings may account for the phenomenon that men typically prefer and mate with women younger than themselves, whereas women usually desire and mate with men older than themselves (Buss 1989; Kenrick & Keefe 1992)" (emphasis mine).

3. Note that in addition to concluding that "offspring count ... increased the younger the female partner was compared to the male," the authors stipulate that they only included couples who "did not change their partner (i.e. the other parent) between the birth of their first and last child..." So Schwyzer's contention that there is no evolutionary basis underlying this attraction, expressed as reproductive pay-off, is not supported by the only study he cites. In fact, the study he cites refutes both his contention that "the science" shows this to be other than a natural behavior pattern 
and his moralistic scolding of Depp for dating a 27 year-old. After noting that, "The strategic reproductive benefit of choosing a younger woman diminished as the age gap widened," without including the crucial stipulation that the study only included coupleswho only had children with each other, Schwyzer writes, "According to the science, Depp was better matched with Paradis (nine years his junior) than with the new girlfriend." No, that's not what the science says. That's the opposite of what the science says. Schwyzer's "proof" that men's fecundity didn't increase when they hooked up with younger women didn't include men who had a second family after hooking up with a younger woman, as Depp seems poised to do.

It's like arguing that 
smoking doesn't cause cancer without including smokers in your study. Hard reasoning to follow, that.

Which brings us to the moralistic claptrap.

On Older Men, Younger Women, and Moralistic Claptrap
Apparently oblivious to his complete failure to make the scientific point, Schwyzer stumbles along into the judgmental denunciation of men's morals and motivations, writing, "So if older men aren't pursuing much younger women because of evolutionary hardwiring, why do they? It's hard not to conclude that much of the appeal is about the hope of finding someone less demanding. A man in his 40s who wants to date women in their 20s is making the same calculation as the man who pursues a 'mail-order bride' from a country with less egalitarian values. It's about the mistaken assumption that younger women will be more malleable."

Ouch. Poor, pathetic Johnny Depp. Schwyzer somehow knows Depp's not attracted to his 27 year-old girlfriend because she's interesting, smart, has a great sense of 
humor, and is clearly hot (i.e. He's responding to "evolutionary hardwiring"), he's into her because she's powerless and he's intimidated by less "malleable" women of his own age. Think I'm putting words in Hugo's mouth? Read em and weep: "Men who chase younger women aren't eroticizing firmer flesh as much as they are a pre-feminist fantasy of a partner who is endlessly starry-eyed and appreciative."

So here's the 
moral of the story: Old losers like Johnny Depp are too weak-willed to pick on someone their own age, so they chase younger women who will put up with their bullsh*t because the poor young things don't know any better and couldn't do anything about if they did.

Ha! A quick perusal of Amber Heard's 
Wikipedia page suggests that if old Johnny's expecting malleable, starry-eyed, and appreciative, he's got another thing coming. Turns out, Miss Heard is a big fan of Ayn Rand, guns, and other women.

Schwyzer's attempt to 
shame consenting adults out of what he considers to be inapproapriate relationships strikes me as quite the opposite of an informed feminist perspective. If anyone's suffering from a "pre-feminist fantasy" in this situation, it would appear to be Mr. Schwyzer, who thinks a smart, successful 27 year-old woman is necessarily disempowered by her youth and beauty. I don't think she needs your help, Uncle Hugo. She seems to be doing just fine.

* Full disclosure: I've met Hugo Schwyzer when we appeared together on 
The Point, and he seemed like a nice enough guy. I've never met Johnny Depp, but he seems like a nice guy, too. And lastly, my wife is older than me (but far prettier).

Previously published in Christopher Ryan’s Psychology Today blog, June 14, 2013, by
Christopher Ryan in Sex at Dawn

Why is Sex Such a Problem?

Five minutes of Intense Sperm Competition: My recent TED talk.

-- Sperm Competition --

Christopher Ryan Ted Talk Sex at Dawn
If you are interested in seeing me discuss some of the evidence for sperm competition in the human past in greater depth at the big TED event next year, please go to the original TED page here, and say so in the comments section there. If there are enough enthusiastic comments on their site, they're more likely to invite me to the main TED gig. Thanks.

Previously published on July 16, 2012 by
Christopher Ryan in Sex at Dawn

7 Things Bonobos Can Teach Us About Love and Sex

by: Christopher Ryan

What can our close primate cousins teach us about sex?

We've known for some time that bonobos (previously known as "pygmy chimpanzees") are among  the most sexual of all living animals—besides of course, humans. Frans de Waal dubbed them the "make love, not war" species, since they seem to resolve the majority of conflicts through sexual activity. So, it seemed only natural that I ask Dr. Ryan, preeminent "sexpert," to give us some love advice through the lens of these magnificent creatures. From them, we can learn a thing or two--or seven.

1. More sex = less conflict. As the great primatologist, Frans de Waal put it, "Chimps use violence to get sex, while bonobos use sex to avoid violence." While chimps victimize each other in many ways—rape, murder, infanticide, warfare between groups—there's never been a single observed case of any of these forms of aggression among bonobos, who are much sexier than chimps. As James Prescott demonstrated in a meta-analysis of all available anthropological data, the connection between less restrictive sexuality and less conflict generally holds true for human societies as well.

2. Feminism can be very sexy. When females are in charge, everyone lives better (including the males). While male chimps run the show, among bonobos, it's the females who are in charge, with much better quality of life for everyone involved (see #1).

3. Sisterhood is powerful. Although female bonobos are about 20% smaller than males—roughly the same ratio as in chimps and humans—they dominate males by sticking together. If a male gets out of line and harasses a female, ALL the other females will gang up on him. This sisterly solidarity, combined with lots of sex, tends to keep the males behaving politely.

4. Jealousy isn't romantic. While bonobos no-doubt experience unique feelings for one another, they don't seem to worry much about controlling one another's sex lives. Nor do bonobos seem to gossip much...

5. There's promise in promiscuity. All the casual sex among bonobos is arguably a big part of what has made them among the smartest of all primates. Until human beings came along and messed things up for them, bonobos enjoyed very high quality of life, low stress, and plenty of social interaction in hammocks. In fact, of the many species of social primates living in multi-male social groups, not a single species is sexually monogamous. Each of the arguably smartest mammals--humans, chimps, bonobos, and dolphins—is promiscuous.

6. Good sex needn't always include an orgasm, and "casual" doesn't necessarily mean "empty" or "cheap." Most bonobo sexual interactions are nothing more than a quick feel, rub, or intromission—a "bonobo handshake," if you will. (See Vanessa Woods's excellent book by that name for a personal story of living with bonobos while falling in love.) But bonobos are very romantic: like humans, they kiss, hold hands (and feet!), and gaze into one another's eyes while having sex.

7. Sex and food go together better than love and marriage—at least for bonobos. Nothing gets a bonobo orgy started faster than a feast. Give a group of bonobos a bunch of food and they'll all have some quick sex before very politely sharing the food. No need to fight over scraps like a bunch of uncouth chimps!

Originally published on February 15, 2012 by
Christopher Ryan in Sex at Dawn on

“The lovely Cara Santa Maria, sexy neuroscientist and editor at Huffington Post, asked me if I could come up with seven things we could learn about love from bonobos, for a Valentine's Day piece. Here's the link to the original location, with over 160 comments thus far.”

Christopher Ryan is one of the freshest voices in the modern scientific movement to decode the mystery of human sexuality. His book, Sex At Dawn, busts many of the myths surrounding human sexual evolution, based upon contextual evidence from our hominid ancestors as well as our living relatives, namely, the great apes.

What Rick Santorum Doesn’t Know About Sex

Rick Santorum doesn’t know what sex is for.
In a recent appearance in New Hampshire, he summarized his thoughts on the subject, saying, “God made man and woman, and men and women come together to have a union to produce children, which keeps civilization going and provides the best environment for children to be raised.” While this may seem a common-sense understanding of the function and purpose of sexuality, it doesn’t apply to human beings.

What Santorum is missing can be expressed in simple math. The vast majority of species have sex only to reproduce—a function reflected in a very low ratio of sex-acts-to-births. Gorillas, for example, have intercourse at most about a dozen times per birth. And as with good Catholics, gorilla sex is all business: no oral, anal, manual, or any other kind of non-reproductive dilly-dallying.

The female of most mammals only has sex when she is ovulating. Otherwise, no go. But the sexuality of human beings—and our closest primate relations, bonobos and chimps—is utterly different. We and our chimp and bonobo cousins typically have sex hundreds—if not thousands—of times per birth, with or without contraception.

Santorum has argued that contraception is morally wrong because, “It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” But human beings happily experience, witness, imagine, and lament a cornicopia of erotic encounters that couldn’t possibly result in conception. Leaving aside the many “perversions” happily practiced by humans the world over, the human female is available even for Vatican-approved missionary position intercourse—at least theoretically—when she’s menstruating, already pregnant, post-menopausal, or otherwise precluded from conceiving. Is this, too, an abomination? Even Santorum and his wife, who have had more children than most couples, have certainly had a lot more non-reproductive than reproductive sex over the years.

It’s the nature of the human beast. For Homo sapiens, sex is primarily about establishing and maintaining relationships—relationships often characterized by love, or at least affection. Reproduction is a by-product of human sexual behavior, not its primary purpose.

Another way in which we differ from most mammals is in our complex, multi-male social networks. The gorillas mentioned earlier are polygynous, with one dominant silverback mating with several females (perhaps more akin to Romney’s
religious beliefs than to Santorum’s). The only monogamous ape, the gibbon, lives in isolated nuclear family units in the treetops of Southeast Asia, while humans, chimps, and bonobos all live in complex social groups with multiple males in attendance. Of the hundreds of species of primates, there are precisely no monogamous species living in multi-male groups—except humans, if you buy scientific or religious arguments for the naturalness of human monogamy.

Although the nuclear family has been promoted like a soft-drink in recent decades, it’s clear that we are the most social species on the planet, interacting with and depending upon each other in ways that extend far beyond Mom, Dad, and Junior. We intermingle in ways no other creature could imagine—or tolerate. We do not raise our children in isolated treetops. We drop them off at school, where they satisfy their instinctive
hunger for community, under the protection of adults whose names we’ll never know. When sick, we take them to doctors we’ve never met in hospitals built and maintained by utter strangers.

If you still doubt that humans are deeply social creatures, consider that our greatest
punishment is solitary confinement. Anyone who’s experienced it will tell you that any human companionship—even that of murderers, rapists, and Washington lobbyists—is better than isolation. Sartre got it wrong: Hell is the absence of other people.

Santorum is inadvertently correct that sex “keeps civilization going.” But he’s wrong to credit only heterosexual reproductive sex. Sex of all kinds comes naturally to our species, and most of it has little to do with reproduction, and a great deal to do with loving one another. Sex and love hold communities—not just families—together. And in the end, it is our communities, as much as our families, we ask to raise our children, protect us from disaster, and offer us some measure of comfort in our final days.
Twitter: @chrisryanphd Facebook: Sex at Dawn
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Created Jan 6 2012
Published on
Psychology Today

Sex at Dawn

Christopher Ryan, PhD,
is a psychologist, teacher, and author. Together with Cacilda Jethá, M.D., he is a co-author of the New York Times best seller, Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins).

Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality
by Christopher Ryan, Cacilda Jethá, Harper

Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships
by Christopher Ryan, Cacilda Jetha, Harper Perennial

Twitter: @chrisryanphd
Facebook: Sex at Dawn
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