Many people were upset in 2000 when Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer published a book entitled The Natural History of Rape, because it seemed to rationalize violent behavior as an evolutionary adaptation of the human male psyche, rather than a moral evil. P.C. Chan, a biological anthropologist at Cambridge, expresses his views on that episode in the
Chan agrees that Thornhill and Palmer deserved to be criticized, but more on the basis that their work was bad science, not so much that it is improper to analyze human behaviors in terms of evolution. In his book review of a new book edited by Cheryl Brown Travis, Evolution, Gender and Rape (MIT Press, 2003), which takes a decidedly dim view of Thornhill and Palmer’s book, Chan feels the opposition goes overboard and throws out the baby with the bathwater (emphasis added in all quotes):
The failure of Evolution, Gender, and Rape does not lie in its wholly justified critiques of A Natural History of Rape, many of which are thoughtful, excellent, and well written. Rather, having found a legitimate sociobiological target for attack, too many contributors suggest that all efforts to understand any potential for evolved propensities or tendencies in human behavior can now be dismissed--tarred with the “you support rapists” brush. Politics are applied to damn all behavioral biology, even when issues such as power and mate choice can potentially be usefully explored in a biological context. But then, as many of the contributors claim, the biological context does not exist--at least not for humans, though fruit flies are (barely) given the benefit of the doubt. Evolutionary biology sensu Thornhill and Palmer (and probably that of some of the rest of us who work with the evolution of behavior) can be cast off as merely the rewriting of the political and gendered context within which we theorize. This may indeed be valid when it comes to arguments about the “natural history” of rape, but to dismiss all such attempts as belonging to the same class of thinking does a disservice to evolutionary biology in general.
Females do choose. They choose “nice” mates; parental mates; healthy, vigorous, mentally alert mates--be they fruit flies, blackbirds, zebra finches, elephants, or humans. That female choice would exacerbate the violent, unpredictable, political, and thuggish tendencies of the human rapist seems unlikely at best. Female choice is thus central to many of the arguments, both biological and sociological, here. It is a pity that the book does not explore this concept for its feminist contributions.
P.C. Chan’s book review is entitled, “EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY: Reason, Rape, and Angst in Behavioral Studies.”
Female choice? What female choice? A female does not choose to be raped.
Chan is doing quick and vigorous spot-remover work. He wants evolutionary sociobiology to look spotless, free from any stains of sexism, racism, just-so storytelling, and political incorrectness. It’s interesting that Thornhill and Palmer’s book appears to have caused a reaction not just among evangelical Christians and feminists, but scientists who seem to be thinking, “This has gone too far!” A strong current of evolutionists question whether evolutionary sociobiology is valid at all.
Thus Politically Correct Chan, an evolutionary biological anthropologist, needs to work damage control, pronto. Human evolutionary sociobiology is not this dreadful, male-chauvinist, evil thing: why look, we study motherhood and apple pie. (One of his positive-spin examples is “John Bowlby’s ‘environment of adaptedness,’ a description of the dynamic process of interaction that establishes the relationship between mother and infant.”) We’re all for female choice, he says, and for “nice” mates. Don’t tar-and-feather all of us just because a few bad apples do bad work and write a bad book.
Yet the faults of evolutionary sociobiology are not spots to be removed, but the core beliefs comprising its essential fabric. If human behavior is no different in essence than that of fruit flies, blackbirds and elephants, and if we have all evolved from the same slime, two consequences ensue: (1) There is no ground for moral judgments that any behavior is wrong or evil; it is only adaptive or non-adaptive. Theoretically, therefore, rape could be an adaptive behavior for humans in some contexts. (2) There is no basis for knowing anything, because human intellectual analysis is no different in principle from chimpanzee or honeybee sensory stimulus and response. So neither Thornhill, Palmer or Chan can say that their theories about sociobiology are true. A corollary of this is that evolutionary descriptions of behavior are mere just-so storytelling.**
Notably, Chan does not dismiss rape as evil, but only as inconsequential in most populations because of the power of female choice and societal pressure. Then why be sensitive about charges of being tarred with the “you support rapists” brush? The reaction bespeaks an inner voice that says, we all know rape is evil.
The Natural History of Rape should have been a wake-up call to everybody that Darwinian thinking, at least as applied to humans, is dangerous. Thornhill and Palmer may have been culpable for poor scientific analysis and technique, but their core assumptions are no different than those of Chan, E. O. Wilson, and the contributors to Evolution, Gender, and Rape. Without a God on the throne saying Thou shalt not commit adultery and Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, or anything that is thy neighbor’s, anything goes. By granting pseudo-scientific rationalization for breaking the Ten Commandments, Darwin* becomes the class, gender, and societal enemy of not just the female people, but all the people.
*Darwin, in the sense of what his evolutionary theory has become, not the man himself.
**There they go again: Science Now just reported that a book on male transsexuals has created a firestorm between evolutionary psychologists, who praise J. Michael Bailey’s The Man Who Would Be Queen, and transsexuals, who say it does not portray them accurately as “women trapped in men’s bodies.” Does anybody deny that the world has gone mad?