By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Jill Stewart
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Ironically, by insisting that all men are, in essence, rapists, Thornhill and Palmer are propagating a view similar to that of feminist extremists like Andrea Dworkin. The authors are aware of the parallel, and it seems to unsettle them, feminists in general being a group they despise. When feminists do make this kind of claim, the public reaction is almost universally negative — Dworkin is routinely portrayed in the media as a half-crazed, man-hating harpy — yet in Thornhill and Palmer’s hands the same proposition magically becomes acceptable. Respectable publications like The New York Timesand The Sciencesare now giving this idea a serious number of column inches.
However, according to Thornhill and Palmer, education about rape prevention must also extend to women. Since evolution has predisposed men to rape, women must understand these innate drives and the conditions that exacerbate them. In particular, they should realize that provocative clothing and flirtatious behavior can have violent biological consequences. Here, of course, A Natural History of Rape departs from the Dworkinian theory of who’s to blame for rape. Thornhill and Palmer strongly imply that the rapist is the one breed of criminal who, if sufficiently inflamed by miniskirts and cleavage, can’t be held entirely responsible for his crime.
Dworkin aside, Thornhill and Palmer rail against feminist views of rape throughout their book. Feminists √£ and other social theorists, say the authors, are misguided, forever driven by ideology. Evolutionary psychologists like themselves, however, are supposedly clear of this “sin.”
With increasing vehemency, evolutionary psychologists and their champions (men such as E.O. Wilson and MIT’s Steven Pinker) have been casting the social sciences as impediments to a “true” understanding of human behavior. In his 1998 book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, Wilson led the charge by declaring that in the coming decades most social-science departments will be made irrelevant as their subjects of inquiry are taken over by evolutionary psychology. Thornhill and Palmer reiterate such sentiments; for them, as for Wilson, there is only one legitimate source of illumination when it comes to human behavior, and that is Darwinian theory.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that in the battle for who gets to define human nature, the proponents of evolutionary psychology take no prisoners. It seems they can’t stop at simply asserting a role for their own science in understanding human behavior — they have to annihilate the competition. And it’s not hard to guess that these attacks are the covert motivation for A Natural History of Rape itself.
According to Thornhill and Palmer, social-science approaches to rape are not simply wrong-headed; by not being based on a “true” understanding of the problem, such strategies “may actually increase it.” We are offered no plausible explanation of why this may be so, but again and again we are told that as long as the “social-sciences view of rape” prevails, the problem will never be solved. Their hearts on their sleeves, the authors write: “In addressing the question of rape, the choice between the politically constructed answers of social science and the evidentiary answers of evolutionary biology is essentially a choice between ideology and knowledge. As scientists who would like to see rape eradicated from human life, we sincerely hope that truth will prevail.”
But what is “truth”? For Thornhill and Palmer, as for most evolutionary psychologists, it is a Platonic reality untainted by social or political force, a reality that only “pure” and “unadulterated” science can discover. But how “pure” can science ever be when it’s dealing with such complex and politically charged issues as rape? And how “scientific” can Thornhill and Palmer’s own assertions be when they’re based on interpretations of data that can’t be subjected to rigorous testing? The history of biology — when the science has been extrapolated to explain human behavior — is riddled with ideology posing as science, as Fausto-Sterling’s Myths of Gender and her current book, Sexing the Body, as well as Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, have shown. Ideology posing as science was also at the heart of the eugenics movement — both here in the U.S. and more devastatingly in Nazi Germany. To paraphrase philosopher of science Donna Haraway, biology is politics by another name.
The ideological proof in Thornhill and Palmer’s pudding is clear from the fact that although they devote several chapters to berating social scientists’ understanding of rape, they give us no serious analysis whatsoever of the actual rape-prevention programs and strategies arising from that understanding. With mantralike frequency, they tell us that current approaches to rape prevention are wrong, but by what criteria?
It only stands to reason that before you dismiss a program as ineffective, you should check its results to make sure that it doesn’t actually work. But despite the cloak of disinterested, objective science Thornhill and Palmer have wrapped around their work, they’re not really interested in the facts or a careful, cautious weighing of all evidence. The powerful irrational emotions underlying A Natural History of Rape and other similarly reductionist theories indicate how close the mania for evolutionary psychology comes to religious fundamentalism. While the Christian fundamentalist takes the Bible as his foundational text, insisting on the most literal interpretation, so these new scientific fundamentalists insist on the most doggedly literal interpretation of their chosen “text.” Here the “words” are not those of the Hebrew scriptures, but the codons of the DNA chain — which take on for them an almost divine status.