By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
As the author of a cross-cultural study on rape in 95 different tribal societies, Sanday stresses that its incidence varies wildly from culture to culture, and there are many societies in which rape is rare. Far from being the norm, she says, America is one of the most rape-prone of all contemporary cultures. If the biological imperative to rape is as powerful, and as universal, as Thornhill and Palmer insist, why does its frequency vary so much from culture to culture?
Mary Cameron, an anthropologist at Auburn University, points to another flaw in Thornhill and Palmer’s thesis: “It doesn’t begin to account for male-male rape, or incest,” neither of which confers any evolutionary advantage. If, according to the previously cited statistic, almost one-third of rapes are inflicted on children under 11, it is hard to see how reproductive imperatives could be responsible.
Anne Fausto-Sterling, a research biologist at Brown University, questions the very foundation of Thornhill and Palmer’s thesis: “If rape is about reproduction,” she says, “then how many rapes end in pregnancy?” According to the authors’ estimate, the figure is only about 2 percent, a very unimpressive statistic, especially given that not all pregnancies result in live births. And there could well be other explanations for the fact that the majority of rape victims are young women of peak child-bearing age. After all, most rapists are themselves young men, and they may simply be raping within their peer group.
Particularly woolly is the authors’ claim that women of child-bearing age suffer from more psychological trauma than children or elderly rape victims. Thornhill and Palmer try to convince us that this is a proven fact, but I must say I find their “evidence” entirely underwhelming. (In fact, the only study they cite as support was one done by Thornhill and his wife.) Children who have been raped can suffer a lifetime of psychological scarring (in addition to serious physical harm), and an informal poll of my female friends suggests that for many women there are few more traumatic prospects than being raped in the heightened physical vulnerability of our old age.
Trying to quantify a human being’s anguish and measure it against the suffering of another is the sort of notion that ought to make any sensible scientist run screaming from the room. It’s not just that it’s repugnant to say that a raped 7-year-old feels less pain than a raped 21-year-old — it’s also simply daft to insist that any such “objective” comparison can be made. The whole exercise is reminiscent of medieval attempts to quantify sin. Furthermore, while Thornhill and Palmer are right in saying that married rape victims may indeed fear reprisal from their husbands or relatives, the very fact that the consequences of rape are so much worse in some societies than they are in others indicates that we’re talking about cultural forces here. For example, religious women in Muslim communities probably fear this more than secular women in America; it’s the difference between a fundamentalist and a liberal value system — not biology. Do Thornhill and Palmer have any clear understanding of the distinction? They might just as well assert that black men in the Bronx feel nervous around the NYPD because they’re hard-wired to dread authority figures.
All of which raises the question of scientific standards. To quote Fausto-Sterling: “When you make a hypothesis you really need to be able to back that up with data.” Yet data is just what is missing from this book. As with so many other neo-Darwinian accounts of human behavior now being offered by proponents of the new “evolutionary psychology” movement, Thornhill and Palmer’s analysis of rape relies not on hard evidence, as they would have us believe, but on speculative flights of fancy. Stephen Jay Gould has dubbed such theories “just-so stories,” after Kipling’s fanciful tales of how the leopard got its spots and the tiger its stripes.
For most of its century-and-a-half-long history, evolutionary biology has relied on careful fieldwork, but now, says Fausto-Sterling, “what you have is this new group of ‘evolutionary psychologists’ who have very different standards of proof.” Thornhill and Palmer are part of this movement, which is in effect E.O. Wilson’s old “sociobiology” under a new name. Although still in its infancy, the movement is rapidly gaining adherents, to the consternation of many scientists — most notably Gould, who has written at length on the patent inadequacies of much of this work.
The social agenda behind A Natural History of Rape comes into clearer focus as Thornhill and Palmer claim that not only is evolutionary theory the only way to understand why men rape, but the only way to understand how to combat this heinous crime. Having offered their explanation for the former, they end their book with a suggested program for the latter. Since, according to them, all men — by their very nature — are potential rapists, they advocate that young men be required to attend rape-education courses before being granted a driver’s license. By stressing the evolutionary basis of rape, these courses would teach men where such urges come from and thus empower them to resist those urges.
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