Jerry Coyne on A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion

From: John E. Rylander (
Date: Tue Apr 04 2000 - 07:41:16 EDT

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    Interesting and somewhat critical ;^> article in The New Republic, a leading
    center-left, neoliberal political-intellectual journal.

    The fairy tales of evolutionary psychology.
    Of Vice and Men

    Issue date: 04.03.00
    Post date: 03.26.00

    A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion
    by Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer
    MIT Press, 272pp.

    Minor excerpts:


    In science's pecking order, evolutionary biology lurks somewhere near the
    bottom, far closer to phrenology than to physics. For evolutionary biology
    is a historical science, laden with history's inevitable imponderables. We
    evolutionary biologists cannot generate a Cretaceous Park to observe exactly
    what killed the dinosaurs; and, unlike "harder" scientists, we usually
    cannot resolve issues with a simple experiment, such as adding tube A to
    tube B and noting the color of the mixture.

    The latest deadweight dragging us closer to phrenology is "evolutionary
    psychology," or the science formerly known as sociobiology, which studies
    the evolutionary roots of human behavior. There is nothing inherently wrong
    with this enterprise, and it has proposed some intriguing theories,
    particularly about the evolution of language. The problem is that
    evolutionary psychology suffers from the scientific equivalent of
    megalomania. Most of its adherents are convinced that virtually every human
    action or feeling, including depression, homosexuality, religion, and
    consciousness, was put directly into our brains by natural selection. In
    this view, evolution becomes the key--the only key--that can unlock our

    Unfortunately, evolutionary psychologists routinely confuse theory and
    speculation. Unlike bones, behavior does not fossilize, and understanding
    its evolution often involves concocting stories that sound plausible but are
    hard to test. Depression, for example, is seen as a trait favored by natural
    selection to enable us to solve our problems by withdrawing, reflecting, and
    hence enhancing our future reproduction. Plausible? Maybe. Scientifically
    testable? Absolutely not. If evolutionary biology is a soft science, then
    evolutionary psychology is its flabby underbelly.

    But the public can be forgiven for thinking that evolutionary biology is
    equivalent to evolutionary psychology. Books by Daniel Dennett, E.O. Wilson,
    and Steven Pinker have sold briskly, and evolutionary psychology dominates
    the media coverage of the science of evolution.


    Thornhill and Palmer's attempts to gain control of rape counseling, laws,
    and punishments, despite the weakness of their science, reveal their larger
    goal: the engulfment of social science and social policy by the great whale
    of evolutionary psychology. This attempted takeover is not new. It was first
    suggested in 1978 in E.O. Wilson's On Human Nature, and more recently in his
    Consilience, Wilson extended the program to nearly every area of human
    thought, including aesthetics and ethics. We are witnessing a new campaign
    for the Darwinization of Everything. Thornhill's and Palmer's theory of rape
    is just the most recent attempt at the annexation of all human experience to
    evolutionary psychology.

    After all, if one can give a believable evolutionary explanation for the
    difficult problem of rape, then no human behavior is immune to such
    analysis, and the cause is significantly advanced. The apocalyptic tone that
    pervades Thornhill and Palmer's book reveals the party to which they belong:
    "The biophobia that has led to the rejection of Darwinian analyses of human
    behavior is an intellectual disaster." And "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."

    Let us be clear. It is not "biophobia" to reject the reduction of all human
    feelings and actions to evolution. Quite the contrary. It is biophilia; or
    at least a proper respect for science. The "choice between ideology and
    knowledge" is a real choice; but it is Thornhill and Palmer and the
    doctrinaire evolutionary psychologists who choose ideology over knowledge.
    They enjoy the advantage that people seem to like scientific explanations
    for their behavior, and the certainty that such explanations provide. It is
    reassuring to impute our traumas and our misdeeds to our savanna-dwelling
    ancestors. It lessens the moral pressure on our lives. And so the
    disciplinary hubris of evolutionary psychology and the longing for certainty
    of ordinary men and women have combined to create a kind of scientistic
    cargo cult, with everyone waiting in vain for evolutionary psychology to
    deliver the goods that it doesn't have.

    Amid this debacle--for A Natural History of Rape is truly an embarrassment
    to the field--I am somewhat consoled by the parallels between Freudianism
    and evolutionary psychology. Freud's views lost credibility when people
    realized that they were not at all based on science, but were really an
    ideological edifice, a myth about human life, that was utterly resistant to
    scientific refutation. By judicious manipulation, every possible observation
    of human behavior could be (and was) fitted into the Freudian framework. The
    same trick is now being perpetrated by the evolutionary psychologists. They,
    too, deal in their own dogmas, and not in propositions of science.
    Evolutionary psychology may have its day in the sun, but versions of the
    faith such as Thornhill and Palmer's will disappear when people realize that
    they are useless and unscientific.

    JERRY A. COYNE teaches in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the
    University of Chicago.

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