Sex at Dawn? Dusk? Noon? Midnight?

I really liked the book, Sex at Dawn. Supershort summary: the authors use anthropological and primatological evidence to dispute the general concept of what they call “the standard narrative” of human’s ‘natural’ reproductive involving “coy” women and “randy” men more or less monogamously pairing up to raise children then cheating on one another for genetic diversity and what not.

I was mostly biased towards agreeing with it from the get go. But some of the conclusions seemed to go a bit farther than I felt the evidence warranted, and I wondered if I was indulging in confirmation bias.

Someone wrote a rebuttal book, Sex at Dusk. I thought I should read it to give my skepticism a fair shake. I have read much of the way through it and will probably finish it eventually. However, while the author comes across as knowing her biology quite well, I found her tone difficult to stomach. I felt like Sex at Dusk was, while not constructing straw men, not quite faithfully representing the material in Sex at Dawn, representing that Sex at Dawn posited a pre-historic utopia. (For example, I’m not sure the infanticide frankly, though not extensively, described in Sex at Dawn is consistent with “utopia”).

But the particular two sentences that paused my reading for a bit really seems like a rather stunning anthropomorphization of gametes, particularly when the described difference would have evolved long before animals, let alone humans, came into being:

“It is interesting that this theory of the very beginnings of ‘female’ and ‘male’ present the ‘male’, the smaller sex cell, as the first to evolve, as if cleverly taking the advantage and virtually forcing the evolution of the ‘female’, the larger and high-investing sex cell. The male is portrayed as the exploitative sex from the start.”

One should ask, portrayed by whom? And this seems to be a fairly elaborate tale with a coyly presented “appearance” of intent by haploid cells. How much is being projected here onto distant plant(?) ancestors by modern minds? I read to the next section break and put the book down, moving on to other topics. It was funny that the rest of the section goes on to present a totally different theory of the evolutionary process involved (reducing organelle conflict in the zygote). But those sentences led me to seriously doubt the objectivity of the work, particularly as they seemed reflective of a tone encountered throughout.

I’m sure I’ll finish it, but I’m really not that convinced by the Sex at Dusk interpretation, though I do feel it is a useful counterpoint to Sex at Dawn on several details.

I also find interesting the easy dismissal of group selection in Sex at Dusk, and the severely limited mention of human homosexuality in both books (recognizing I haven’t finished Dusk yet). But that’s a thought for another time.

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