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Female Agency and a Diversified Sperm Pool

While I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality as it wends its way through the libraries in San Francisco, I wanted to get down what I know and think about this topic before I read the book, then follow up with new findings.


While streaming The Great Courses Plus lecture series on "What Darwin Knew and Why it Still Matters" the lecturer suggested that Darwin's book on sexual selection had far more difficulties being taken seriously or adopted in any way because the Victorians were unwilling to acknowledge the extent of female agency (or the ability of women to make and carry out important decisions on their own).  ("Wait, it's all the choice of a ...female?? Preposterous! Women are too fickle!") The idea that all species on earth are based on and driven by the choices of females was simply an untenable amount of power to put in the hands of female animals and women, when the reality is that the entire world is created by female choices.


Birds and Dogs Do It

Interesting, I thought, and concluded the course (five stars for that one) then moved on to "The Scientific Wonder of Birds", also from The Great Courses Plus. The ornithologist first stated that the bird species under discussion mate for life. Next breath, he revealed that for 83% of birds, the female will make eggs with a variety of males. The parenting chores may fall to just one, but the bird mother clearly believes in diversifying the gene pool. And it makes perfect sense: after she chose the male who will be the childcare worker, she goes on to mate with the one who has a strong beak, then the one with the most solid legs. (And some suggest that she's also attracted by beauty, that most unproductive and ephemeral of life's essentials). She safeguards the survival of her lineage by diversifying the traits. (Obvious joke here about not wanting all her eggs in one basket! Ha!)


What about dogs? Apparently, the female will mate with several males, diversifying the traits of her pups, giving you different breed combinations in the same litter. (Dog mating is frequently described as 'gang bangs' or group rapes. This is the ultimate in erasing the knowledge of female agency.)


The "Discovery" of Biological Fatherhood

And then we come to humans: When we hear that men's role in procreation was 'discovered' in the latter part of our [Paleolithic] life, I think we chuckle to ourselves and consider it a quaint bit of ignorance. But how do paleontologists know that men didn't understand their role in fatherhood? On what do they base that decision? Homo sapiens of the era saw procreation all around them. While sperm itself wasn't discovered until the 1700s AD, I doubt early men didn't know their contribution.


It's because the paleontologists et.al assume that if early humans knew about men's involvement in procreation, they would jealously guard it as they do in our time (to the great misfortune of women.)


Deeper reading suggests something else:

In the Paleolithic "a good mother will make a point of having sex with several different men, especially when she is pregnant, so that her child will enjoy the qualities (and parental care) not merely of the best hunter but also of the best storyteller, the strongest warrior and the most considerate lover." (Sapiens, Chapter 3 page 2)


Perhaps rather than not knowing about fatherhood, early humans decided that fatherhood wasn't exclusive. Fatherhood was important, but collective. Not my child, our child. The question "which one is yours?" wasn't heard and didn't matter. A different type of fatherhood. A non-possessive, collective fatherhood in which all members of the band/clan participated.

This is certainly in keeping with the findings that "ancient foraging bands were not composed of nuclear families centered on monogamous couples. Rather, foragers lived in communes devoid of private property, monogamous relationships and even [possessive] fatherhood. It's well documented among our closest relatives the chimpanzees and bonobos. There are even a number of present-day human cultures in which collective fatherhood is practiced, as for example among the Bari Indians." (Sapiens, Chapter 3, pg. 2)


So the transition was not from ignorant to knowledgeable, but from collective/inclusive participation in fathering, to possessive/exclusive fatherhood. Suddenly the storyteller, warrior and lover are all excluded from fathering, (to the detriment of all, IMHO.)


It wasn't an increase in knowledge, it was a breakdown in social collectivism.


Now that the book has arrived and been studied, here's a succinct description of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality:


It is his objective to prove that monogamy is an unnatural state for humans but my interest in the book is in piecing together a look at prehistoric societies. From my reading, I'm coming to understand that:

  • We are not descended from violent chimpanzees but from socially connected, matriarchal, nonviolent bonobos.
  • Homo sapiens are 200,000 years old
  • 190,000 years of our existence has been spent in equality with each other, no private property, no nuclear family, no patriarchy. "What many anthropologists call fierce egalitarianism was the predominant pattern of social organization around the world for many millennia before the advent of agriculture." Page 9
  • That bears repeating: "Nomadic foragers are universally – and all but obsessively – concerned with being free of the authority of others." Sapiens, pg. 179
  • 10,000 years ago, there was the rise of "coercive power" as Prof. Craig Benjamin says in the course "The Big History of Civilizations"
  • I particularly love this quote: "only 3% of mammals and one in 10,000 invertebrate species can be considered sexually monogamous." Sex at Dawn, pg. 97
  • Many species practice "communal parenting" which is described mostly in terms of the number of men who are involved in conception because we consider it so strange but it makes sense: by having sex with six men in the tribe a woman vastly increases the chances that the child would be cared for if one of the men dies. It was believed, as it is in some current tribes, that by taking in the sperm of six men, the baby gets the best of the storyteller, the best of the hunter, the best of the water diviner, etc.
  • The non-monogamous and non-patriarchal nature of prehistory means that women had a tremendous amount of agency i.e. the ability to choose multiple partners, to change those partners at any time, to have multiple people care for and care about their children, and equality meant that women were valued and free.
  • It has also been very interesting the amount of evidence he delivers to show that foragers were healthier, larger, and lived longer than the agriculturalists who arose 23,000 years ago (new evidence shows. Standard scholarship suggests that it was developed 12,000 years ago, just before the dawn of coercive power.)
  • He also suggests an idea called sperm competition. "There is striking evidence that the female reproductive system is capable of making subtle judgments based upon the chemical signature of different men's sperm cells. These assessments may go well beyond general health to the subtleties of immunological compatibility… Paternity was determined in the inner world of the female reproductive tract where every woman is equipped with mechanisms for choosing among potential fathers at the cellular level." (pg. 264)
  • A friend and I have reasoned that men reach orgasm so quickly because prehistoric women would like to sample a number of men; and that the woman has an orgasm after a long period of time because she has to last through several sessions of sex. He is the sprinter, she is the marathon runner, which makes perfect sense in a world where women were intimate with many men in the tribe.

Hats off to new thinking that contributes to an understanding of women's power.



Citations and Sources:


Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari, 2014 by Harvill Secker (first published 2011)

Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, Christopher Ryan Phd, Cacilda Jetha, MD, (Harper Collins, 2010)

"The Big History of Civilizations", Prof. Craig Benjamin, Phd, The Great Courses Plus


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