A Note on Sex and Early Societies

Issue: 141

Phil Webster

Terry Sullivan has written an excellent online article (“Pre-Class Sexuality: Free, Warm and Wild”), in which he shows what is in effect the dialectical interaction between the biological and the social aspects of sexual behaviour.1

I would like to make one additional point in support of Terry (and therefore also in support of the earlier contributions by John Molyneux2 and Sheila McGregor3). But then I will also just make one point of criticism on the only thing that I disagree with Terry about.

Firstly, Stephen Jay Gould, in his life-long battle against genetic determinism, made an important point in addition to the one that Terry mentions, a point which also backs up Terry’s general argument. Gould shows that some features of organisms can end up being used for purposes different from the functions that these features evolved for in the first place. For example, feathers first evolved for insulation (and possibly display), and were later co-opted and adapted for flight.

More importantly for this debate, Gould shows that the large and complex human brain evolved because it gave humans the advantage of flexible, learned behaviour. But our brains have ended up giving humans the ability to do things, such as reading books, designing computers or writing music, that they clearly did not evolve “for” in the first place.

It seems to me that Gould’s point can also be applied to sex. Sex first evolved as a successful reproductive strategy, and sexual pleasure must have evolved as nature’s way of getting organisms, including us, to reproduce. But once it had evolved sex came to be used for purposes other than reproduction, such as for bonding or just for fun. Thus, as Terry shows, non-reproductive sexual activity is common in many other species as well as in humans.

Secondly, there is the point on which I disagree with Terry. In opposing Sheila McGregor’s view that humans have a tendency to form couples, Terry cites the fact that many societies have polygamous forms of marriage. But most of these are not hunter-gatherer societies; they are societies where class divisions and the oppression of women have already developed.

So polygyny (one man, several wives) usually involves only some men (the rich and powerful ones) having lots of wives, with the women not having much say in the matter. For example, in early class societies war often involved the men in a defeated community being killed and the women being taken prisoner as concubines. This also explains why polygyny is more common that polyandry (one woman, several husbands).

Examples of polyandry often seem to involve societies that are very poor and also where women have a low status. This can lead to female infanticide, because male babies are more highly valued. The result is a shortage of women compared to men, and hence polyandry.

Research on egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies on the other hand seems to suggest that loose pair bonds were their most common sexual arrangement. “Divorce” was easy and there was some “infidelity”, but people tended to pair off (Incidentally, even in many animal species that appear to be “monogamous”, scientists have discovered that what they call “extra-pair copulations” are common).

So, not surprisingly if we look around us, it seems that humans have evolved to be potentially both monogamous and promiscuous. We also evolved the potential for a sexuality which goes way beyond the reproductive origins of sex.


1: Sullivan, 2013.

2: Molyneux, 2013a and 2013b, see also Colin Wilson’s response, Wilson, 2013.

3: McGregor, 2013.


McGregor, Sheila, 2013, “Marxism and Women’s Oppression Today”, International Socialism 138 (spring), www.isj.org.uk/?id=885

Molyneux, John, 2013a, “History Without Nature? A Response to Nancy Lindisfarne, Jonathan Neale and Colin Wilson”, International Socialism 140 (autumn), www.isj.org.uk/?id=920

Molyneux, John, 2013b, “Sexuality and Social Constructionism: A Reply to Colin Wilson”, International Socialism 140 (online only), www.isj.org.uk/?id=935

Sullivan, Terry, 2013, “Pre-Class Sexuality: Free, Warm and Wild”, International Socialism 140 (online only), www.isj.org.uk/?id=936

Wilson, Colin, 2013, “A Response to John Molyneux on Sexuality”, International Socialism 140 (online only), www.isj.org.uk/?id=934