Dr. Christopher Ryan is the co-author of the 2010 bestseller Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, cited by many as one of the most important books on sex and sexuality to emerge in the past fifty years.
In opposition to what the authors see as the ‘standard narrative’ of human sexual evolution, [the authors of Sex At Dawn] contend having multiple sexual partners was common and accepted in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness.
Mobile self-contained groups of hunter gatherers are posited as the human norm before agriculture led to high population density. According to the authors, before agriculture, sex was relatively promiscuous, and paternity was not a concern, in a similar way to the mating system of Bonobos.
According to the book, sexual interactions strengthened the bond of trust in the groups; far from causing jealousy, social equilibrium and reciprocal obligation was strengthened by playful sexual interactions.
And thus, one could argue that all jealousy is influenced by society and culture, rather than our biology as humans, and that retroactive jealousy is a by-product of growing up in sexually-repressed, sex-negative societies, unlike those of our distant ancestors.
Below, Ryan offers a very interesting take on why we get jealous [NSFW]:
But this raises another question: why, then, doesn’t everyone who grows up in sexually-repressed societies experience sexual jealousy?
In my view, retroactive jealousy (and/or “sexual jealousy”) is caused by a potent combination of biochemical, evolutionary, and social influences, and that we cannot fully “explain” or “make sense” of retroactive jealousy by looking to only one of these influences as an explaining factor.
This combination of influences arises in certain people, at certain times, and it’s impossible to know why, for example, I used to suffer from retroactive jealousy, but my best friend never has.
The more I talk with the students in my online course on overcoming retroactive jealousy, however, the more I am convinced that insecurity is the principal explaining factor for all forms of sexual jealousy, retroactive or otherwise.
In addition to the meditations, perspectives, and exercises I present in the course, the students who have made the most progress in their struggle with retroactive jealousy are the ones most committed to identifying, challenging, and overcoming their insecurity. This seems to fit in with many of Chris Ryan’s arguments in Sex at Dawn.
(Here’s another interesting video of Ryan in conversation with Robert Wright (author of The Evolution of God) discussing his experience at a swingers’ convention as it relates to his arguments regarding sexual jealousy.)
Chris Ryan’s arguments are, of course, contentious; there’s a case to be made (and many have made it) that sexual jealousy is a direct by-product of our biology, rather than our social environment.
Some argue that jealousy in females (whether “rational” and/or fact-based, or not) is related to a concern about a partner squandering resources that would otherwise be utilized by her and her partner’s shared offspring. (Whether children are in the picture or not, this is often a subconscious concern.)
And, as men, on some level we may be concerned that our offspring/potential future offspring may not be truly “ours,” and thus, our genetic legacy will not continue for future generations.
Whatever you think of these arguments, if you’ve ever dealt with any type of sexual jealousy, Sex at Dawn is an enlightening and thought-provoking read, and one I would recommend for sufferers of retroactive jealousy.
Also check out Dr. Ryan’s TED talk on the question of whether or not we are biologically programmed to be “sexual omnivores:”