Review of "Evolution, Gender, and Rape"

By Cheryl Brown Travis (Editor)
MIT Press, 2003
Review by Edrie Sobstyl, Ph.D. on Jun 30th 2004
Evolution, Gender, and Rape

This collection of seventeen essays comprises a thorough and balanced response to Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer's A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion (MIT 2000). Thornhill and Palmer assert that rape or the propensity to rape is a mating strategy created through the evolutionary pressures of natural selection, either directly or as a by-product of other evolved behaviors. The editor of the anthology, Cheryl Brown Travis, reminds readers that when Thornhill and Palmer's work appeared, it drew substantial and predictable media attention. A few contributors to the volume mention this media scrutiny as one motive that inspired them to challenge Thornhill and Palmer. Yet while some writers engage directly with the social and political consequences of Thornhill and Palmer's position, the majority of this anthology criticizes the rape hypothesis on theoretical and especially empirical grounds. The results are generally solid and persuasive: the rape hypothesis is unsupported by any direct evidence, and the indirect evidence is riddled with theoretical and conceptual weaknesses. In this light, Thornhill and Palmer's appeal to what Elisabeth Lloyd calls the "Galileo Defense," (p. 235) that is, their claim that their excellent science has been suppressed for ideological and especially feminist reasons, rings very hollow indeed. It is worth noting that the attention paid to the Thornhill and Palmer book may be a little exaggerated -- their work was not well received within the scientific community and the book is already off the shelves, although still in print. But the tendency of fringe researchers to affirm pernicious gender stereotypes through popular culture is a potent force and deserves to be publicly contested. The Travis anthology merits the widest possible readership, especially among those who may lack the scientific acumen to perceive the flaws in Thornhill and Palmer's work, or to understand the general strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary approaches to explanations of behavior. (Travis includes a short primer on evolutionary theory in the introductory essay, and it is sufficient in outline, but it is no substitute for careful study of the field.) One wonders, then, why the Travis anthology has not aroused the same intense interest from the mainstream media as the book to which it responds.

The anthology is divided into three sections, each focusing on some aspect of evolutionary psychology and its impact on theoretical explanations of rape. Readers familiar with any of the fields where evolutionary theory touches on human origins and behavior will recognize "evolutionary psychology" as a term of relatively recent vintage, created to replace the older label "sociobiology," which has fallen into disrepute. As each section of the book illustrates, however, this linguistic trick has not fooled anyone. Bad evolutionary psychology is just as bad as bad sociobiology, and in pretty much the same way -- offering deterministic just-so stories masquerading as evidence, and relying on widespread familiarity with such myths to do the work that should be done by carefully generated and tested hypotheses. And of course, this view is fully compatible with the belief that evolutionary psychology and sociobiology are often done well and can offer us genuine insight into human origins and behavior, a point on which all the writers collected here insist. The first section of the book takes on the topic of the methodology of evolutionary approaches directly. While all of the essays in Part I are clear, challenging, and well grounded, the chapters by Patricia Adair Gowaty, and A. Leah Vickers and Philip Kitcher, are especially noteworthy.

Gowaty's "Power Asymmetries between the Sexes, Mate Preferences, and Components of Fitness," is significant because it explicitly argues for a claim that much of the book implies: feminism and evolutionary theory are not opposed. It may seem odd that this view needs to be defended, but it does, for two reasons. The first is the wholly false but apparently common conviction that feminists are against science. I have studied and worked in the field of feminist science studies for nearly fifteen years. I have never read or met a single feminist for whom this claim is true, yet I sometimes find my discipline mysteriously lumped in with an imaginary anti-science movement. Gowaty insists, on the contrary, that "hypotheses sparked by feminist consciousness can be both completely consistent with Darwinian explanations of behavior and testable," (p. 62, emphasis added) and proceeds to demonstrate the fruitful alliance between feminism and evolutionary theory. This will be obvious to feminist theorists, but other readers may find it enlightening, especially if their knowledge of feminism is restricted to Thornhill and Palmer's caricature of it. Thornhill and Palmer's animosity toward feminist work on the question of rape is the second reason that an explicitly pro-evolution and pro-feminist argument is a necessary part of this book. I'll return to this point below.

Vickers and Kitcher, on the other hand, are not bothered about which political stances may fit comfortably with which scientific views. Their target, in "Pop Sociobiology Reborn: The Evolutionary Psychology of Sex and Violence," is the methodology and evidence of evolutionary psychologists like Thornhill and Palmer. (They also object to the work of David Buss on what makes members of the opposite sex appealing to their partners.) Kitcher, of course, is already an established figure in philosophy of science with a well-earned reputation for pointing out that the emperors of sociobiology have no clothes. He and Vickers give a concise description of the difference between the past excesses of inadequate (or "pop") sociobiology and its new incarnation: "The principal advance evolutionary psychologists take themselves to have made consists in recognizing that natural selection doesn't shape human behavior directly, but rather shapes the psychological mechanisms underlying behavior." (p. 141) This means that no evolutionary psychologist ought to make bald assertions that men rape because, thanks to natural selection, they can (ironically a claim endorsed by a small number of feminists). Rather, evolutionary psychology will aver one of two possibilities. Either the minds of some men contain a "special-purpose device" or module, selected for and refined through millennia of reproductive and other pressures on the genetic basis for male neurophysiology, which inclines them to rape. Or the minds of all men contain similarly evolved modules for successful mate-seeking behaviors, but sometimes, for reasons to be explored, these devices fail to do their job properly, and rape may be the accidental result.

The Vickers and Kitcher essay is significant, then, because Thornhill and Palmer do in fact aver both of these possibilities. As most of the contributors to the volume point out, it is not clear which hypothesis Thornhill and Palmer favor, and they seem to disagree about it themselves. But what Vickers and Kitcher make clear is that whichever hypothesis is pursued, evidence must support it and rule out alternative explanations. Specifically, evidence must show that the modules in question exist, work the way the hypothesis says they do, and are heritable, or there is just no possibility of generating an evolutionary account. Even before we add the complexities introduced by the indirect version of the hypothesis, to say nothing of cultural factors, we are a long way from sufficient understanding of neurology, genetics, and the relationship between the two to collect such evidence, never mind explore alternative accounts. Thornhill and Palmer don't let this stop them, because they think that evidence about the anatomy of scorpion flies and reports of women's reactions to being raped somehow constitute support for the heritability and selection of a rape module and/or a sex module. Like many respondents, Vickers and Kitcher are happy at this juncture to let their opponents hang themselves with their own rope: "Science must always begin from ignorance, so to demand knowledge at the beginning is anti-science," Thornhill said, writing with his then wife Nancy in 1992. Well, really.

The second two sections of the book examine empirical studies of rape and alternative explanations of rape, respectively. Like Part I, these chapters are detailed and predominantly empirical challenges to the errors of Thornhill and Palmer. The alleged logical consequences of the rape hypothesis -- e.g., that rape victims tend to be women of reproductive age, that women of childbearing age suffer less distress following rape, that more violent rape causes less distress, that rapists rarely harm their victims -- are explored in greater detail in these two sections, and ultimately rejected as empirically unfounded. Even though the contributors offer a wealth of counterexamples to the rape hypothesis and its imaginative corollaries, even more counterexamples will occur to the astute reader as the pages turn. As one reads on, one may even experience a sense of amazement and dismay that such a weak piece of work as Natural History of Rape ever made it into print. Elisabeth Lloyd's "Violence against Science: Rape and Evolution," no more accuses Thornhill and Palmer of fraudulent misrepresentation than any of the other contributors, but it probably comes closest. As I suggested above, Thornhill and Palmer do a grave disservice to feminism by creating a straw woman opponent. They accomplish this by condensing the variety of feminist opinions on the subject of rape into one univocal position, and then attributing a distorted, anti-evolutionary version of this position to one writer, Susan Brownmiller. Lloyd does an excellent job of proving that Thornhill and Palmer mischaracterize Brownmiller's specific claims, and attribute to feminists in general a false hostility to evolution in favor of socio-cultural explanations of rape.

Thornhill and Palmer suggest that, instead of rape prevention programs, men should be educated about the evolutionary origins of their sexual impulses, so that they can learn to restrain them. It is awfully hard to figure out how this might help. Knowledge of the evolutionary origins of our preference for fatty foods doesn't do much to restrain the impulse to stick one's fork in a chocolate cake. Thornhill and Palmer also recommend that women be encouraged to dress modestly and limit their social interactions with men. Hmm, no one's ever thought of that before. In the end, empirical and feminist-inspired responses to the claims of Thornhill and Palmer are vital and worth examining, but it is ordinary men who should be most motivated to take issue with the rape hypothesis, for it is men who emerge as hapless victims of their own overpowering sexuality. Michael Kimmel makes this point in "An Unnatural History of Rape." It is the least empirical and most polemical chapter in the book, at least in the sense that he does not emphasize hard data nor include an extensive bibliography, as most of the other chapters do. As Kimmel puts it, if Thornhill and Palmer were right, "then the only sensible solution would be to lock all males up and release them for sporadic, reproductive mating after being chosen by females." (p. 231) Given their inability to generate and consider plausible alternatives in their own work, it should come as no surprise that Thornhill and Palmer didn't hit on Kimmel's suggestion themselves.

© 2004 Edrie Sobstyl

Edrie Sobstyl, Ph.D. was educated in Edmonton, Canada, and teaches philosophy in the History of Ideas program at the University of Texas, Dallas. She is the author of several articles on feminism and science, and has been a research fellow for the Rockefeller Foundation for the Humanities. Her current work is on ethics and regulations for protection of human subjects in research, in conjunction with the Responsible Conduct of Research Education Consortium at the University of California, San Diego.


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