Evolution's No Excuse for Rape

Feb 16, 2000 |Roberto Rivera y Carlo

You have to wonder about a worldview that justifies violence against women.

It seems that no matter what you do, there's an excuse available to get you off the hook. Caught in an embarrassing affair? No problem. Just do like baseball immortal Wade Boggs and claim that your problem is sexual addiction. Fly off the handle and murder the mayor of San Francisco and a city supervisor? Like Dan White, you can put the blame on psychosis caused by eating too much junk food. If these don't fit the bill, you can always blame your parents, your entire family of origin, our oppressive society or even God Himself.

Just when you think that we've exhausted every possible excuse, along comes a new and almost limitless source of new excuses: evolution.

The past few decades have seen the emergence of a new discipline. It goes by various names: evolutionary psychology or sociobiology, among others. Whatever it is called, its goal is the same: to explain human behavior in Darwinian terms. That is, to ascertain what in our ancestors' struggle for survival best explains why people think and act as they do. Sociobiology has proffered explanations for behavior as complex and different from one another as jealousy, altruism and infanticide.

That's right. Infanticide. In a now-famous — or infamous — article in the New York Times magazine, MIT professor of psychology Steven Pinker argued that society should not treat mothers who kill their newborn children the same way it treats those who kill older children and adults. That's because, in Pinker's estimation, a new mother, thanks to millions of years of evolutionary conditioning, "will first coolly assess the infant and her situation and only in the next few days begin to see it [the infant] as a unique and wonderful individual...." This prompted Michael Kelly, editor of the National Journal, to respond "Yes, that was my wife all over: cool as a cucumber as she assessed whether to keep her first-born child or toss him out the window."

It shouldn't come as a surprise that if sociobiology can put a positive spin on infanticide, it can help improve the image of another heinous act: rape. In their new book, A Natural History of Rape, biologists Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer characterize rape as an "adaptive reproductive strategy." That is, it's what males resort to when all other efforts to attract a female fail. The authors reject the view — best represented by Susan Brownmiller's 1975 book Against Our Will — that rape is "an act of aggression, designed to intimidate women." Instead, they contend that rape is a sexual act which has its origins in what could be called the "Darwinist imperative," to reproduce and pass on one's genes.

As evidence of the "naturalness" of rape, Thornhill and Palmer point to the incidence of rape throughout the animal kingdom. As they put it, "the common thread that binds nearly all animal species seems to be that males are willing to abandon all sense and decorum, even to risk their lives, in the frantic quest for sex." (And you thought feminists were tough on men!) Some species, most notably the scorpion fly, have developed organs whose only purpose seems to be restraining the reluctant female. Moving beyond the world of bugs, the authors point to the fact that most human rape victims are of child-bearing age. They conclude that rape must be motivated, however unconsciously, by the desire to impregnate.

Now Thornhill and Palmer understand that simply because something is "natural" doesn't make it right. So, they include some advice on how to cope with the ticking bomb that evolution has planted within the DNA of every male. The advice succeeds only in demonstrating why academics should stick to their specific fields.

Thornhill and Palmer, you see, propose classes that would teach young men about rape. To insure maximum participation, Thornhill and Palmer suggests making the classes a requirement for getting a driver's license. (I wish I were making this up.) The course would encourage young men to "acknowledge the power of their sexual impulses." (Yeah, right. As if they weren't already aware of it.) Young men would be taught that evolution is the reason that they get aroused and why they push for sex even after the girl has said "no." In fact, evolution is the reason that they sometimes mistake a smile or a tight blouse as a come-on.

Speaking of tight blouses, the authors also have some advice for young women. They advise women that evolution, acting through what they call "female choice [of a mate]," "[favors] men who are quickly aroused by signals of female's willingness to grant sexual access." In other words, evolution looks kindly on guys who respond to the slightest invitation, real or perceived. Given the way that young men have been supposedly hard-wired by evolution, the authors suggest that young women should take care not to dress or behave in a way that will encourage young men to press for sex. Judith Shulevitz, writing in Slate magazine, sums up this advice nicely: "Thornhill and Palmer are asking the state to say that it believes that men are born rapists and that women are under an obligation not to dress or act provocatively." Shulevitz goes one step further and envisions a defense lawyer one day arguing that "why, even the state said he couldn't help himself."

Shulevitz isn't alone in her criticisms. Brownmiller told the Washington Post that the authors "give sociobiology a bad name." She asks "what about the men who don't drive?" in response to the idea of linking classes on rape to getting driver's licenses. Lionel Tiger, a Rutgers anthropologist and the author of The Decline of Males, adds that "given the experience most of us have had at the motor vehicles bureau, this would be a disaster...."

Barbara Ehrenreich, a noted feminist author, also takes exception to the pair's hypothesis. Like Brownmiller and other feminist critics, she rejects the idea that rape is primarily a sexual act. As she points out in a recent issue of Time, if the goal of rape is reproduction, it's a pretty poor strategy. For one thing, the mother is often injured, sometimes physically, nearly always psychologically. What's more, while rape may result in pregnancy, it does nothing to insure the survival of the offspring and the passing on of genetic material. After all, the guy isn't going to stick around take care of his offspring.

You'll notice that, like the other critics I've quoted here, Ehrenreich doesn't dispute the idea that Darwinism can explain human behavior. On the contrary, she compares those who don't believe in evolution to children who write letters to Santa Claus. She simply believes that Darwinism can't explain rape. Like Brownmiller, she thinks that Thornhill and Palmer are guilty merely of bad sociobiology. And that's the problem. You can't stipulate, on the one hand, that human beings are animals, products of impersonal forces that didn't have us in mind, and, on the other, object that, as Shulevitz puts it, "[Thornhill's and Palmer's proposals] teach our children to see themselves as beasts ..."

While sociobiology can offer plausible explanations, rooted in Darwinism, for why we behave like beasts, sociobiology falls on its face when it tries to explain "the better angels of our nature." It's easy to attribute nastiness such as violence, selfishness and aggression against the helpless to "survival of the fittest." But "survival of the fittest" can't begin to adequately explain attributes such as mercy, pity and altruism.

Think about it. If my overriding goal is to spread my genetic material before you spread yours, how does my being kind to you — especially if you're a male — further that goal? Likewise, in times of scarcity, sharing what little we have with others is, from a Darwinist point of view, the last thing we ought to be doing. But people do it all the time. They are kind to each other, they share with those in need and they show mercy to those who are vulnerable.

And since people are capable of both great good and great evil, sociobiology fails a crucial test: describing people as they really are. It is the latest example of the reductionism that has plagued the human race over the past century. Ideologies such as Marxism and Darwinism can't cope with the complicated creature that is Homo Sapiens. So they try to reduce humans to an essence they can deal with. In the case of Marxism, it's economic man, shaped and molded by economic forces. In Darwinism, we're animals, shaped by the twin goals of survival and propagation.

Not only do these ideologies reduce us to a fraction of what we are, they also limit what can rightly be expected of us. Given the logic of Darwinist determinism, there's no reason to expect anyone to restrain his urges and respect the rights and feelings of others. But the author's critics do, and so do I. The difference is that one of us is being consistent. One of us has an understanding of the origin and purpose of man that accounts for both the evil we do and the possibility of rising above our baser instincts.

The Christian tradition teaches that humans are created in the image of God. While Christians can and do differ about the exact process by which we were created, Chrisitans all agree that our creation was part of a divine plan. Christians also agree that somewhere along the way, we fell from our original state of innocence. We chose to embrace chaos and darkness. This bit of cosmic history explains why we are the way we are. Being made in the image of God, we are capable of acts such as kindness and mercy, which reflect the nature of God. Being fallen, we are also capable of great brutality, such as rape.

Since our culture has rejected the Christian account of the origin and purpose of man — an account shared, in large measure, by Judaism — it finds itself at a loss for explanations. While our culture wants no part of the tradition it rejected, it isn't ready to live with the implications of the replacement it embraced. Being a nice guy, I'd like to oblige it on this score. After all, who doesn't hate rape?

But the best way to prevent brutality like rape isn't by first paying obeisance to pseudo-explanations like sociobiology and then hope against all odds that, having been taught that they're animals, young men won't proceed to act like them. That's folly. The only way we can hope and expect that people will behave in accordance with the better angels of their nature is to teach them, as the Psalmist put it, that we were created "a little less than angels," rather than a little more than animals.

Copyright © 2000 Roberto Rivera y Carlo. All rights reserved.

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