Skip to content
Who's in the Video
Christopher Ryan is the author Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, which he coauthored with Cacilda Jethá. Dan Savage called Sex at Dawn “the single most important[…]

“Asked to imagine prehistoric human sex, most of us conjure the hackneyed image of the caveman, dragging a dazed woman by her hair with one hand, a club in the other…This image is mistaken in every detail.” On the other hand, if we took an honest look at our dysfunctional sexual lives today, this is what we would find: “We are all victims of a well-intentioned inquisition: American society has responded to this crisis by inventing a marital-industrial complex of couples therapy, pharmaceutical hard-ons, sex advice columnists, creepy father-daughter purity cults.” Viagra breaks sales records every year. Pornography worldwide is perhaps a $100 billion business.

Christopher Ryan: To understand how closely related we are to Chimps and Bonobos; we’re more closely related to them than an Indian elephant is to an African elephant.  It’s extremely close, whether you look at it in terms of DNA or how long it’s been since the lines, the evolutionary lines diverged.  And it’s important to know that we’re equidistant from Chimps and Bonobos.  So any time you read that Chimps are the closest non-human primate to us or conversely that Bonobos are the closest, they’re both false.  Chimps and Bonobos are equidistant from humans.  As close as your left hand and your right hand are to your head.  They’re exactly the same distance.  So it’s very important to understand that. 

Now, on one side you’ve got Chimps, who are very aggressive, there’s evidence of warfare between groups.  Murder is relatively common, rape is common, infanticide.  All sorts of aggressive behavior is rampant in Chimp societies.  But on the other side, you have Bonobo’s, who are very highly sexualized, and in which over 40 years that they’ve been observed in the wild and in captivity, not a single case of murder or infanticide or rape or lethal combat between groups has ever been observed.  Not in zoos, not in the wild.  So they’re sort of the light and the dark side of human nature, we could say.  And it’s important not to fall for this line that we’re closer to Chimps and therefore the nasty, aggressive, dark side of man, as one book puts it, is more deeply embedded in us than the other side.

What we all share, the three of us, the Chimps, the common Chimps, the Bonobo, and humans is an exaggerated sexuality where the vast majority of the sexual behavior that we experience has nothing at all to do with reproduction. Over 99 percent of our sex acts don’t result in conception.  That’s very unusual in the animal world.  Most animals, including most primates, other than the three of us, the Chimps, Bonobos and humans, might have sex a few times a year.  Gorillas, for example, probably have sex 10 to 15 times for each baby gorilla that’s born. 

Now you think about how many times an average human being has sex over a lifetime.  And I’m not only talking about intercourse, think of all the types of sex we have that can’t possibly result in conception.  It's a very small percentage of our sexual behavior that really has anything to do at all with reproduction.  We share this trait with Chimps and Bonobos.  We split from them about seven million years ago.  So according to conventional thinking and evolutionary theory, if a trait is shared between these three species that separated six to seven million years ago, it’s very likely that that trait was shared also by the last common ancestor.

So we can look back to six to seven million years and say, that has been six to seven million years of human primate promiscuity, pretty much uninterrupted until we get to 10,000 years ago with agriculture and the advent of monogamy.  So that gives you a sense of why it’s so difficult for most people.  We’ve been, you know, going down this same path for so long and then suddenly we’re told, no, no, that’s not the way we behave anymore.  And in fact, that’s not natural.  So if you behave that way or you want to behave that way or you fanaticize about behaving that way or you get off on watching other people behave that way, there’s something wrong with you.  You’re sick.  There’s something wrong with your relationship if you think about someone other than your husband or wife every time you have sex.  There’s something wrong with you or something wrong with him or her.  That’s all wrong.  That’s not only wrong, but it creates untold suffering in people because they feel shame about something there’s no reason they should feel shame about.

Directed by Jonathan Fowler
Produced by Elizabeth Rodd

Up Next