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The Boy Can’t Help It 

Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer’s reductionist theory of rape

Wednesday, Mar 22 2000
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Illustration by Alex Munn

It was a figure I kept hearing again and again: 50 percent of South African women can now expect to be raped sometime during their lives. Everywhere I went on a recent visit to the beautiful, troubled city of Cape Town, people were talking about rape. An elderly neighbor of the couple I was staying with — a woman in her 80s — had not long before been brutally raped in her home, then bound and gagged and imprisoned in a closet. Her son found her several days later, and she died soon afterward in the hospital. After hearing several not dissimilar stories and endless accounts of the endemic rape in the squatter camps and black townships, I began to see that the horrific statistic might just be true.

For the past 30 years, rape has been seen as a byproduct of social conditioning and social chaos. According to this line of reasoning, the situation in South Africa must be explained by a complex set of factors including the destruction of traditional tribal cultures, 50 years of apartheid and the aftermath of several centuries of colonial oppression. But in a new book, biologist Randy Thornhill and anthropologist Craig T. Palmer challenge such sociocultural accounts of rape and assert that it is a built-in adaptation that has evolved naturally because it confers a reproductive advantage on the men who do it.

Entitled A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, the book sets out a strictly Darwinian view. Writing recently in The Sciences, the authors state their position bluntly: “We fervently believe that, just as the leopard’s spots and the giraffe’s elongated neck are the results of aeons of past Darwinian selection, so is also rape.” Elsewhere they proclaim, “There is no doubt that rape has evolutionary — and hence genetic — origins.”

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As the latest salvo from the burgeoning “evolutionary psychology” movement, the Thornhill-Palmer thesis is a symptom of an increasingly heated border war — the fight over who controls the intellectual territory of human behavior. Traditionally, the study of what people do and why they do it has been the domain of the social sciences — cultural anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and political scientists — but increasingly, evolutionary biologists are claiming that the key to human behavior lies not in our culture and social structures but in our biological makeup. In the case of A Natural History of Rape, this is more than just a rhetorical battle; our whole approach to rape prevention is potentially at stake.

Ground zero for Thornhill and Palmer is the notion that rape is a strategy for helping males to procreate. Central to their argument is a rather Aristotelian distinction between what they call “ultimate” and “proximate” causes. While they acknowledge there may be social situations that enhance the likelihood of a man raping, according to them these must always be understood as just the immediate or proximate cause of his actions. Underlying all such causes, they say, is the ultimate cause, which is a biologically built-in mechanism. In other words, whatever cultural conditions prevail, the “true” explanation for rape — and in their view the only legitimate explanation — is to be found in a man’s genes.

In support of their evolutionary view, Thornhill and Palmer point out that the majority of rape victims are young women at the peak of their fertility and hence of their child-bearing potential. Why? At great length they explain that Darwinian evolution would have selected for mechanisms in males that would target these young women for rape. Since, in their view, procreation is the “ultimate” goal driving rape, it is only logical that this sexual strategy would focus on women at their reproductive zenith.

To corroborate this view, the authors assert that studies have proved that it is women of child-bearing age who suffer the most psychological trauma in the aftermath of rape. Child rape victims and elderly victims supposedly suffer less, because although they have been physically violated, their reproductive potential has not been compromised. To quote: “The more a woman’s reproductive success would have contributed to the genetic success of her mate or her relatives in evolutionary history, the greater the suffering of those individuals is likely to be after she is raped.” It is married women in particular, they say, who suffer most from mental anguish after rape, because a married woman risks reprisal or even rejection from her husband and his relatives.

Feminist arguments against all this will be thrashed out at length elsewhere — and rightly so — but what astonishes me, as a veteran science writer and someone trained as a physicist, is what mind-bogglingly sloppy science this constitutes. To steal a quip from Anthony Lane, I’ve had bowls of spaghetti that were more tightly structured than this argument.

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