Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sex at Dawn: An Exercise in Evaluating Information (Part 1)

Writing an entry that includes "Part 1" implies that there will be a Part 2. Fair warning that this may or may not happen.

Okay. So I recently finished reading Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. I had heard Ryan as a guest twice on Dan Savage's podcast (one of my favorites, which can be downloaded here). I was intrigued by its central concept (basically, a takedown of what is commonly thought of as "natural" about human sexuality). In terms of content and style, it was an enjoyable and thought-provoking book, though I wish there had been more about homosexuality.

As I was reading, however, I found myself thinking about work. That is, the part of my job where I try to think critically about information and research I encounter, and ask students to do the same. You know, what librarians call information literacy. With each point they made, I tried to ask the questions I'd expect students to ask: Is this argument sound? Do I trust the sources the authors are citing? Are they citing where they need to be? What follows are some preliminary thoughts and examples, with (possibly) more to come.

My first thought is my first problem. If you're writing a book that says that many accepted "experts" have drawn incorrect conclusions, and that even the ways they collected data were often flawed, it's not easy to apply tests of authority and accuracy to the sources authors cite. In other words, how can you compare against established sources when the central argument is that many of those sources are wrong?

That being said, I have some minor quibbles with citation. Sometimes statistics are not cited. Sometimes a citation will be nothing but a URL, with no corresponding entry in the list of references, which raises my librarian hackles; URLs are changeable things. There are also some examples of different standards the authors have for accuracy: for example, looking at two studies on sexual arousal, they point out the importance in one of reported sexual arousal versus measured physical arousal (gone unnoted in the original study). But the next study mentioned studied only reported physical arousal, and used a different method to measure. (pp. 276-277)

That's an example of one place where I think the book's argument could be tightened up. Also, while I accepted the argument about agriculture being the advent of war, competition, and concern with paternity, I didn't think the authors explained as well as they could have how that led (in their view) to the subjugation of women.

In any case, this entry is long enough already. More in Part 2 (maybe), but I do just want to say this. I am nitpicking because I think the argument in this book is extremely important. Even if it's not the most logical or most "true" interpretation of anthropological and evolutionary data, I think that if people even considered it as a point of view, we might be a lot less unhappy. I'm not (and they're not) advocating dishonesty in any way (i.e., lying to your partner about sleeping with someone else or violating an existing monogamous agreement). But if people (and politicians) could acknowledge that sexual monogamy is neither easy or natural, maybe we could stop running people out of office and berating them for it.