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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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Page 3 of 4

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.

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 Times and The Sciences are now giving this idea a serious number of column inches.

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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 ã 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.

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