Rape, Sex and the Srsearch of Evolutionary Psychology. (Book Reviews)

By Pigliucci, Massimo | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Rape, Sex and the Srsearch of Evolutionary Psychology. (Book Reviews)


Pigliucci, Massimo, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


A review of A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, by Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2000

I HAVE VERY LITTLE PATIENCE WITH both evolutionary psychology and its detractors. Much of the ev-psych literature consists of grand explanatory schemes based on very little evidence, often little more than armchair biology. Attacks against evolutionary psychology range from vicious anti-intellectualism on one hand, to ideology cloaked as serious scientific criticism on the other. It seems to me much more reasonable to admit both that the idea of explaining (some aspects of) human behavior by Darwinian means is perfectly reasonable, and that to scientifically support such explanations is exceedingly difficult.

Evolutionary psychology--like its predecessor, sociobiology--has been controversial from the beginning. The two major criticisms must be kept distinct, and yet they often get muddled. First, there are those who reject "reductionism," or even scientific explanations of human behavior. The fact that one may or may not like the outcome of scientific research is entirely irrelevant to the quality of the science being done. Furthermore, to assume that a biological basis for a human behavior (and how could any behavior have nothing to do with biology?) implies that the behavior is natural (and therefore acceptable), is to commit the naturalistic fallacy--to go from what is to what ought to be.

The second criticism is that sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are not good science because they are based on "just-so stories" that are difficult, if not impossible, to falsify. As Richard Lewontin noted, probably correctly: "I must say that the best lesson our readers can learn is to give up the childish notion that everything that is interesting about nature can be understood...It might be interesting to know how cognition (whatever that is) arose and spread and changed, but we cannot know. Tough luck."

One annoying aspect of this criticism, however, is that some people seem to hate the sociobiological program and its ethical and social implications so much that they feel compelled to attack its foundations on grounds that they would never use with other scientific endeavors, including their own work as scientists. For example, Stephen Jay Gould disapproves of the tendency to "reify," i.e. to objectify, statistical entities in the research on human intelligence, while he uses exactly the same approach in his own research on evolutionary constraints in snails. It seems to me fair to ask for consistency: if you think a scientific practice is not entirely sound, you should either never follow it, or allow the same benefit of doubt you concede to yourself.

The controversy surrounding the publication of Thornhill and Palmer's (henceforth, T&P) A Natural History of Rape provides a microcosm of this controversy, all the more heightened because of the emotional content intrinsic in any discussion of rape. The book is an example of an interesting trend in scientific publishing. Even though it is peer-reviewed, it is clearly not a technical book since it is written in a style geared to the general public and has a limited number of references to the primary literature. However, it is technically relevant in that it purports to present the synthesis of a large amount of scientific literature and to present novel ideas about a certain field of inquiry. I am not sure whether this kind of book is a blessing (because it democratizes access to cutting-edge ideas) or a curse (because authors can have a tremendous impact while side-stepping peer review), but this is a trend that is certainly making waves.

T&P's general argument is perfectly reasonable. They claim that rape is either an adaptation favored in evolutionary environments either by natural selection (Thornhill's emphasis), or a by-product of other biological characteristics of males, such as aggression and promiscuity (Palmer's preference). …

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