A Natural History of Rape

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A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion
A Natural History of Rape.JPG
Cover of the first edition
Authors Randy Thornhill
Craig T. Palmer
Country United States
Language English
Subject Rape
Publisher MIT Press
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 251
ISBN 0-262-20125-9

A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion is a 2000 book by the biologist Randy Thornhill and the anthropologist Craig T. Palmer, in which the authors criticize the idea, popularized by the feminist author Susan Brownmiller in Against Our Will (1975), that rape is an expression of male domination that is not sexually motivated and argue that it should instead be understood through evolutionary psychology. They maintain that the capacity for rape is either an adaptation or a byproduct of adaptive traits such as sexual desire and aggressiveness, defend evolutionary psychology, make proposals for preventing rape, and criticize as the "naturalistic fallacy" the assumption that there is a connection between what is naturally selected and what is morally right or wrong.

The book received extensive media coverage after an extract was published in The Sciences. It became controversial, received many negative reviews, and was denounced by feminists. Thornhill and Palmer were criticized for suggesting that rape is a reproductive adaptation, making questionable comparisons between humans and non-human animals such as insects, their treatment of the naturalistic fallacy, and their proposals for preventing rape. Critics countered their suggestion that rape is reproductive adaptation by pointing out that many rapes, such as those involving young children, the elderly, or persons of the same sex, cannot lead to reproduction. They also described A Natural History of Rape as poorly written and suggested that it was part of a trend to blame social problems on biological causes and had received more attention than it deserved because of its controversial subject matter.

However, some reviewers complimented Thornhill and Palmer for their discussion of evolutionary theory, considered their view that rape has an evolutionary basis at least arguable, or regarded their view that rape is sexually motivated as partially correct, while suggesting that rape might also involve a desire for violence and domination. Defenders of the book, including its authors, argued that much of the criticism it had received was misinformed and misrepresented what it actually argued. Commentators compared the controversy surrounding the book to that provoked by the psychologist Richard Herrnstein and the political scientist Charles Murray's The Bell Curve (1994), and suggested that it was partly a result of larger controversies surrounding evolutionary psychology.


Randy Thornhill

Thornhill and Palmer write that they want to see rape eradicated, and argue that improved understanding of what motivates rape would help achieve this goal, while false assumptions about the motivation of rapists are likely to hinder efforts to prevent rape. They write that rape could be defined as, "copulation resisted to the best of the victim's ability unless such resistance would probably result in death or serious injury to the victim or in death or injury to individuals the victim commonly protects". However, they note that other sexual assaults, including oral or anal penetration of a man or a woman under the same conditions, can also sometimes be called rape. They suggest that theory and research in evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology can help to elucidate the ultimate (evolutionary) causes (as opposed to primarily proximate causes) of rape by males in different species, including humans. They argue that the capacity for rape is either an adaptation, or, a byproduct of adaptative traits such as sexual desire and aggressiveness that have evolved for reasons that have no direct connection with the benefits or costs of rape.[1] They also discuss the "naturalistic fallacy", which they define as the mistaken assumption that there is a connection "between what is biologically or naturally selected and what is morally right or wrong." In their discussion of it, they cite the philosopher George Edward Moore's Principia Ethica (1903).[2]

Thornhill and Palmer identify the anthropologist Donald Symons as the first author to propose, in The Evolution of Human Sexuality (1979), that rape is "a by-product of adaptations designed for attaining sexual access to consenting partners." They note that Symons has falsely been accused of basing his arguments on the assumption that "behavior is genetically determined", even though he explicitly rejects that assumption and criticizes it at length. They criticize explanations of rape put forward by social scientists, and as well as by feminists such as Susan Brownmiller, who in Against Our Will popularized the feminist view that rape is an expression of male domination that is not sexually motivated. Other feminist authors they criticize include Kate Millett, Germaine Greer, Susan Griffin, and Catharine MacKinnon. They criticize arguments that rape is not sexually motivated on several grounds. In their view, concluding that rape must be motivated by the desire to commit acts of violence because it involves force or the threat of force is as illogical as concluding that men who pay prostitutes for sex are motivated by charity. They criticize the argument that rape cannot be sexually motivated because rapists do not prefer sexually attractive victims by citing evidence that a disproportionate number of rape victims are women in their teens and early twenties. They also criticize the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, arguing that his influence led to "the widespread adoption of the myth that women subconsciously desire to be raped."[3]

Publication history[edit]

A Natural History of Rape was published by MIT Press in 2000.[4]


Mainstream media[edit]

A Natural History of Rape received mixed reviews from Gregg Sapp in Library Journal and Massing Pigleucci in Skeptic magazine,[5][6] and negative reviews from the primatologist Frans de Waal in The New York Times,[7] the biologist Jerry Coyne in The New Republic,[8] the journalist Natalie Angier in Ms. magazine,[9] the anthropologist Craig Stanford in American Scientist,[10] and in Publishers Weekly.[11] The book was also reviewed by Sue Lees in The Times Literary Supplement,[12] the science writer Kendrick Frazier in Skeptical Inquirer,[13] and Tom Sanbrook in The Times Higher Education Supplement,[14] and discussed by Erica Goode in The New York Times,[15] Judy Quinn in Publishers Weekly,[16] Marianne Meed Ward in Report / Newsmagazine (Alberta Edition),[17] Lyn Cockburn in Herizons,[18] the feminist author Jennifer Pozner in Extra!,[19] and the Christian philosopher Nancy Pearcey in Human Events.[20] Thornhill discussed A Natural History of Rape in an interview with David Concar in New Scientist.[21] Subsequent discussions of the book include those by the journalists Sharon Begley in The Daily Beast and Anil Ananthaswamy in New Scientist.[22][23]

Sapp wrote that even the book's title would be regarded as "inflammatory" by many people. He considered the biological components of its authors' theories arguable, but the "ideological side" of the theory questionable. He criticized Thornhill and Palmer's proposals for rape prevention, writing that they could be considered offensive. He predicted that A Natural History of Rape could generate as much controversy as the psychologist Richard Herrnstein and the political scientist Charles Murray's "infamous" The Bell Curve (1994).[5]

Pigleucci observed that book was controversial partly because evolutionary psychology itself is controversial and partly because of its subject matter. He argued that it could be considered either "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)". He considered its authors' "general argument" reasonable, and rejected the suggestion that their view that rape is either an adaptation or a by-product is trivial. However, he believed that they were mistaken to reject entirely the idea that rape is motivated by a desire for "violence and domination", arguing that it was more likely that "both sexual urges and violence/domination play an important role in rape". He argued that while they pointed out that rape victims "disproportionately include females of reproductive age", there were many that did not fit this description, such as very young or old individuals or persons of the same sex, and that a "social-psychological explanation" better explained such cases. He also argued that critics were correct to point out that the evidence the book was based on was limited, and that its authors ignored the fact that selection was not the only evolutionary force that could potentially influence culture and provided insufficient discussion of rape among non-human animals. However, he considered some reviews unfair.[6]

De Waal described the book as polemical and poorly written. Although he considered its authors honest for acknowledging some potential problems with their arguments and credited them with being careful not to condone or excuse rape, he was unconvinced by their conclusions. He criticized them for providing few "real-life descriptions of rape" and for dismissing "female and feminist voices" as ideological while presenting scientists as objective. He argued that their view that rape is "primarily sexual" was biased, since rape involves both sex and violence. However, he wrote that the opposite position that rape is primarily about power is also dogmatic, and that their work could be considered a corrective to it. Though willing to consider their view that rape is a product of natural selection, he argued that they failed to support it with necessary evidence showing that men who rape differ genetically from men who do not rape and sire more children than they could without committing rape. In his view, they adopted "a storytelling approach in which the usual rules of evidence are suspended", employed questionable comparisons between humans and non-human animals such as insects, attached undue importance to men's ability to detect female vulnerability and to premature ejaculation, and failed to make distinctions between different kinds of rape. He considered their view that rape is "about reproduction" open to objection on many grounds, such as that one-third of rape victims are young children and the elderly, that men rape women with whom they also have consensual sex, and that the majority of men do not rape. He criticized them for spending less time discussing rape than on explaining evolutionary biology and criticizing feminists such as Brownmiller. He accused them of ignoring the fact that even common forms of behavior, such as smoking and masturbation, are not necessarily adaptive. He considered A Natural History of Rape potentially offensive to both women and men, and suggested that its authors made insufficient use of psychology and evidence from primate behavior. He criticized their proposals for rape prevention, writing that they wrongly saw the United States as a typical country rather than one especially rape-prone, and ignored "cross-cultural information".[7]

Coyne attributed the "furor" that followed the book's publication to the popularity of evolutionary psychology, itself partly a result of the decline of Freud's reputation. He wrote that media coverage had led to unproductive and predictable clashes between its authors and feminists, and that while some evolutionary psychologists had responded to it positively, its science had not received unanimous support. He accused its authors of misleading their readers about their arguments. He considered their claim that "rape is at least partially a sexual act" correct but not novel. He found their hypothesis that rape is a byproduct of evolved human traits credible, but their alternative hypothesis that it is an adaptation more controversial. He argued that their byproduct hypothesis could not be falsified and was thus not scientific, and that it could be seen as compatible with both the idea that rape is an "indirect consequence of male sexuality and aggression" and the feminist view that "rape is simply a way for males to dominate and humiliate females." He questioned their attempt to show that rape is an adaptation based on comparisons between humans and non-human animals, and pointed to the difficulty of establishing whether men who rape have more children than men who do not rape. He also accused the book's authors of noting that "current observations about rape may bear little relation to forces acting in our ancestors" while inconsistently arguing for the adaptation hypothesis using contemporary statistics. He argued that the scientific evidence shows that a significant number of rapes involve violence beyond that necessary to force copulation, but did not show that rape increases reproduction, thereby failing to support predictions they made based on the adaptation hypothesis. He added that anecdotal evidence showed that many rapes were gang rapes or involved homosexual acts, neither of which could be explained as attempts to reproduce. He accused the book's authors of misrepresenting scholarly literature, including Thornhill's earlier publications, of being indifferent to scientific standards, of ignoring positive contributions by feminists to legal and cultural change, and of attempting to use evolutionary psychology to control social science and social policy. He considered their proposals for preventing rape obvious in some cases, and foolish, harmful, or unsupported by evidence, in others. He concluded that A Natural History of Rape was "advocacy" rather than science, and compared evolutionary psychology to "Freudianism", arguing that both used manipulation to fit "every possible explanation of human behavior" into their framework.[8]

Stanford considered the book disappointing and "an ideological rant". He believed that it had received more attention than it deserved because of its controversial subject matter. He noted that it had "enraged those who consider rape to be first and foremost a violent act against women", though in his view it had received a "fairly positive reaction" from its authors' colleagues. Though he considered it reasonable to hypothesize that rape might have a biological foundation, he believed that Thornhill and Palmer's argument was based on inadequate evidence. He accused them of making "sweeping species-wide statements about male-female mating preferences", such as that humans are "mildly polygynous", based on superseded sociobiological predictions, of basing their claims on "pop books", and of engaging in "an impassioned and rambling bashing of the social sciences", and of wrongly considering an "any trait that seems well designed" to be an adaptation. He criticized their use of The Evolution of Human Sexuality, describing it as "an early think piece". He maintained that their data actually showed that rape has more reproductive costs than benefits and therefore cannot be a mating adaptation, and concluded that A Natural History of Rape was oversimplified, "the worst that evolutionary psychology has to offer", and damaged "both the cause of rape prevention and that of evolutionary psychology."[10]

Publishers Weekly noted that the book had quickly become "highly controversial" and that its authors' claims were "provocative". It questioned Thornhill's suggestion that rape victims of reproductive age "feel worse afterward than older and younger victims", observing, "One wonders how he measured young girls' or older women's pain."[11]

Ward considered the book part of a larger trend toward blaming "objectionable conduct" on a person's genes.[17] Cockburn accused Thornhill and Palmer of ignoring the fact that "every other creature in the world also does its best to procreate and hardly any of them ever mate without the female's consent." She also argued that the book tended to stereotype and defame men, undermining the idea that they should have positions of responsibility. She concluded that its authors should be ashamed of themselves.[18] Pozner wrote that when an excerpt of the book was published in The Sciences it received extensive mainstream media coverage and the book's authors "became highly sought-after media stars." She accused them of promoting "speculative and untestable science" and criticized reporters for failing to "compare Thornhill and Palmer's claims against the exhaustive research conducted on rape victims and rapists over the past 30 years." She cited criticism of Thornhill and Palmer from several authors, and compared A Natural History of Rape to The Bell Curve (1994).[19] Pearcey noted that the book was controversial and described its authors' claim that rape is an adaptation as "inflammatory".[20] Goode wrote that their view that rape is essentially a sexual act and that it may have an evolutionary basis were not novel given the interest in applying Darwin's ideas to "human sexual affairs", though she noted that their recommendations for rape prevention went beyond such familiar claims, and that their work had provoked anger even before its publication due to the appearance of an extract in The Sciences. According to Goode, while several authors had criticized Thornhill and Palmer, Donald Symons considered their view of male sexuality correct.[15]

According to Quinn, A Natural History of Rape was discussed prior to its publication in prominent stories in The New York Times and USA Today, and the controversy surrounding the book encouraged MIT Press to publish it early. Quinn stated that while MIT Press was aware that it would be controversial, they were surprised by "how much the science media picked up on the early excerpt of the book" published in The Sciences, and had expected instead that it would receive attention following a pre-publication piece in Newsweek.[16] Begley wrote that the book was denounced by feminists, sex-crime prosecutors and social scientists "at rallies, on television and in the press" and that the biologist Joan Roughgarden described it as "the latest 'evolution made me do it' excuse for criminal behavior from evolutionary psychologists." She noted that it received criticism from the anthropologist Kim Hill.[22] Ananthaswamy, writing with Kate Douglas, stated that the book "caused public outrage." He quoted the zoologist Tim Birkhead calling the work "morally irresponsible" and argued against Thornhill and Palmer's suggestion that rape is an evolutionary adaptation, writing that, "While one study found that women are 2.5 times more likely to become pregnant after rape than consensual sex, even when accounting for the use of contraception, the idea doesn't account for the rape of men or children."[23]

Scientific and academic journals[edit]

A Natural History of Rape received positive reviews from the psychologist Todd K. Shackelford and Gregory J. LeBlanc in the Journal of Sex Research and R. S. Machalek in Reviews in Anthropology,[24][25] a mixed review from Daphne Patai in Gender Issues,[26] and negative reviews from the biologists Jerry Coyne and Andrew Berry in Nature,[27] Lisa Sanchez in Gender Issues,[28] M. Suzanne Zeedyk in Psychology, Evolution & Gender,[29] the sociologist Hilary Rose in The Lancet,[30] Lynne Segal in Psychology, Evolution & Gender,[31] Jason A. Wheeler Vega in Psychology, Evolution & Gender,[32] Diane Wolfthal in the Journal of the History of Sexuality,[33] the philosopher Elisabeth Lloyd in Michigan Law Review,[34] Zuleyma Tang-Martinez and Mindy Mechanic in American Anthropologist,[35] and E. M. Dadlez et al. in the Journal of Social Philosophy.[36]

The book was also reviewed by the sexologist Michael C. Seto in Animal Behaviour,[37] Judith B. Greenberg in Science Books & Films,[38] Owen D. Jones in Cornell Law Review,[39] and the anthropologist Jeffrey H. Schwartz in History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences,[40] and discussed by Todd Melby in Contemporary Sexuality,[41] the psychologist Mary P. Koss in Trauma, Violence, & Abuse,[42] Eric Smith et al. in Trends in Ecology & Evolution,[43] Paula Nicolson in Psychology, Evolution & Gender,[44] David Sloan Wilson et al. in Biology and Philosophy,[45] Mary Nell Trautner in Contemporary Sociology,[46] Richard Hamilton in Theory, Culture & Society,[47] H. G. Cocks in Contemporary British History,[48] Griet Vandermassen in Sex Roles,[49] and Pratiksha Baxi in Annual Review of Anthropology.[50] Thornhill and Palmer discussed the work in Psychology, Evolution & Gender,[51] Evolutionary Psychology,[52] and the Journal of Sex Research.[53]

Shackelford and LeBlanc described the book as an "intellectual masterpiece" that was "courageous, compassionate, and scholarly". They credited its authors with explaining the "basic premises of evolution by natural selection" and exposing misunderstandings of the subject, as well as with providing a clear discussion of the evolution of sex differences, demonstrating that an evolutionary perspective is necessary to understand rape and design effective treatments for its victims and perpetrators, discrediting several hypotheses about the ultimate causes of rape, and providing "a brilliant expose of the power of political and social ideology to obscure, interfere with, and even to halt altogether the scientific search for truth about rape and male sexual coercion." They also credited them with exposing the flaws of the "social science theory of rape", agreeing with them that it involves assumptions about human nature incompatible with modern scientific knowledge, and endorsed their view that the idea that evolutionary psychology excludes "social, cultural, or other environmental influences" is uninformed. They wrote that Thornhill and Palmer's "chapters on treatment, education, prevention, and especially the chapter on psychological pain, reveal a sincere compassion and an urgent sense of care and concern for which Thornhill and Palmer have not been credited in the many misinformed reviews of this book."[24]

Machalek credited Thornhill and Palmer with providing "an excellent introduction to evolutionary theory and its application to human behavior", summarizing data, such as that concerning "the age-distribution of rape victims", that conflicted with explanations of rape derived from the standard social science model, discrediting the idea that biological explanations of human social behavior suffer from the "naturalistic fallacy", and suggesting new policies for preventing rape. Though he wrote that they had a "highly reductionistic account of the nature, causes, and consequences of rape", he still believed that their ideas suggested intriguing and novel hypotheses about rape, and encouraged readers to "reconsider their understanding of this horrific human behavior." He concluded that they "provide reason to hope that we can develop a scientifically based understanding" of rape.[25]

Patai credited the book's authors with challenging the feminist idea that rape is about "violence and power" with "impressive documentation" and with providing "a detailed demonstration of the contradictions and confusions besetting the feminist line on rape", and argued that accusations that they were "blaming the victim" were "hysterical" and ignored what they actually wrote. She believed they discussed MacKinnon's views accurately. However, while she noted that they employed "a large body of evidence of rape in other species and in all human societies", she believed that their work "raises many still unanswered questions", including what motivates rapes of women who are not of reproductive age and rape of men by other men. She considered it unsurprising that their work had received negative reactions characterized by "antagonism and contempt", and suggested that some of them were based in "antagonism toward heterosexuality". She argued that while they might or might not be correct in viewing "reproductive advantage as the ultimate cause of rape ... hostility to their book seems a futile and empty gesture" and that feminists should instead have welcomed a work aimed at preventing rape. She concluded that while they "err in judging rape to be primarily an evolutionary adaptation and not an expression of rage or power, feminists have erred in the opposite direction." However, she also believed that A Natural History of Rape could reinforce "feminist axioms about rape" since Thornhill and Palmer implicitly gave "support to the view that all men are potential rapists."[26]

Coyne and Berry wrote that Thornhill and Palmer's analysis of rape formed the basis for an advocacy of evolutionary psychology. They also described the book as "an inflammatory analysis of a sensitive topic, and a manifesto outlining evolutionary biology's future conquest of the social sciences." They noted that the book had been followed by a controversy in which the scientific evidence for Thornhill and Palmer's views had been largely ignored.[27] Smith, Mulde, and Hill noted that Thornhill and Palmer's work was surrounded by controversy and had received "sensationalized press coverage". Distancing themselves from such reactions, they wrote that the primary scientific weaknesses of the work were its authors' "lack of explicit models or fitness measures" and "appeal to hypothetical domain-specific evolved psychological mechanisms." They added that effective evaluation of their hypothesis required "specification of an evolutionary model, and estimates of the fitness costs and benefits of rape." Employing a fitness cost/benefit mathematical model based on studies of the Aché people in Paraguay, they argued that the costs of tribal rape significantly outweighed its benefits, making it unlikely that rape was an adaptation.[43]

Sanchez compared the book to Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories (1902), questioning whether it was consistent with "tenets and methods of the natural sciences". She considered the work poorly written, described its authors' views as "reductionist" and their arguments as "convoluted" and illogical, and accused them of relying on "scant references to obscure data". She argued that it cannot be known that rape existed in the past and questioned Thornhill and Palmer's use of "studies that supposedly show that men rape women that they believe to be fertile". She also argued that they misused data to show that reproductive-age rape victims suffer greater psychological trauma than non-reproductive-age rape victims, that their view that rape is a reproductive adaptation is contradicted by the fact that many rapes do not involve vaginal penetration or ejaculation into the vagina, or are perpetrated on children, elderly women, or men, or involve greater violence than that needed to force copulation, that their "near exclusive focus on copulation in males is inconsistent with evolutionary theory, which suggests that it is advantageous for men to support their children long enough for them to reproduce", and that it was doubtful that rape "could be governed by a discrete set of pre-programmed psychological mechanisms specific" to it or understood through comparisons to the behavior of non-human animals, which involved the risk of anthropomorphism. She accused Thornhill and Palmer of lacking "intellectual sophistication" and of being dogmatic in their views, criticized their attitude to feminists, social scientists, rape victims and women in general, and their proposals for preventing rape, and called their "evolutionary vision" a "psychoanalytic nightmare." She concluded that despite the fact that the attention Thornhill and Palmer's book had received had brought them "a position of minor fame", it was "vacuous, irrational, and dangerous".[28]

Zeedyk observed that the book had received much academic and media attention and been endorsed by evolutionary psychologists such as Steven Pinker and David C. Geary. She agreed with its goal of eradicating rape, but rejected its authors' views about how to accomplish it. She argued that their claims about women's psychological response to being raped were "discordant with women's subjective experience" and were gathered through methodologically unsound methods. She rejected their argument that rape is sexually motivated, arguing that it was based on an "androcentric" perspective and that from the perspective of a raped woman, there is no distinction between the tactic employed in rape, violence, and the motivation for rape. She also criticized their distinction between "instrumental force and excessive force", arguing that it ignored the victim's perspective and reflected "traditional approaches to rape" that had an unacceptable "masculine character". She also argued that they ignored evidence that substantiated the social science account of rape, writing that the feminist view of rape as "violence and power" had gained academic support because of "thirty years and more of painstaking effort to document evidence about the diverse forms of violence that women suffer at the hands of men". She criticized them for ignoring forms of violence against women other than rape, and argued that their conception of science was mistaken and that their proposal for preventing rape by informing young men about its legal penalties ignored the fact that "recorded rapes typically fail to come to prosecution" and was more likely to encourage than discourage rape. Nevertheless, she considered A Natural History of Rape important because it was "a good example of contemporary evolutionary psychology". She suggested that an alternative evolutionary approach to rape might focus on men's "innate drive for power" rather than their "innate drive for sex".[29]

Rose wrote that the book would inevitably receive attention because of its subject matter. However, she argued that it suffered from conceptual confusion, and that its authors presented inconsistent definitions of rape, one of which, "copulation resisted to the best of the victim's ability unless such resistance would probably result in death or serious injury to the individuals the victim commonly protects", would exclude anal, oral, and same-sex rape. In her view, they failed to explain why some men rape and others do not. She wrote that their "notion that all men are potential rapists only restrained by their self-centred cost-benefit analyses" was "insulting to non-rapist men", and that they, failed "to consider the power of the social and cultural context and the ambiguous messages that it gives about rape", were "male-centred", and showed "little sign of being able to listen to women who have been raped." She criticized their proposals to reduce rape as a form of victim-blaming, accused them of engaging in "grandiose speculation" and "crude generalisations" as well as failing to "understand either the social sciences or modern evolutionary theory", and concluded that A Natural History of Rape was "scientific pornography."[30]

Segal noted that the book had received media attention and wrote that it was part of a trend to blame social problems on biological factors. She dismissed the work as pseudoscience and described its authors' assertion that rape is about sex rather than violence as a half-truth. She criticized them for suggesting that "human males will rape when their capacity to reproduce successfully is thwarted", basing claims about human behavior on the study of non-human animals such as insects, falsely characterizing their critics as "anti-evolution", holding that certain aspects of "human sexual conduct" are "universally dimorphic" between the sexes, and favoring biological rather than social explanations of the differences that existed. She wrote that, "Talk of ‘natural selection’ in the arena of sexual activity is nothing more than empty speculation without evidence of the evolutionary history of any particular attribute." She criticized Thornhill and Palmer for maintaining that infertile women suffer "less psychological pain" from rape, writing that it ignored what was known about the destructive effects of child sexual abuse. She criticized their proposals for preventing rape and concluded that A Natural History of Rape should be treated with derision.[31]

Wheeler Vega wrote that the book had "exacerbated hostile relations between evolutionists and feminists." Though he supported its authors' goal of eradicating rape, he faulted them for their criticism of social science, postmodernism, and feminist explanations of rape. He found their "attempted defence of the value of science" to be "unnecessary and overblown" and argued that their discussion of issues such as mind–body dualism showed that they had an "unsophisticated metaphysics" and sought to attribute crude mistakes to authors they criticized. He also criticized their treatment of the "naturalistic fallacy", suggesting that they oversimplified the issue and had misappropriated the term from Moore, who used it to refer to "the error of using some single property as a definition of ‘good’", with naturalness being only one possible example of such a property.[32]

Wolfthal accused the book's authors of claiming that there was a conspiracy to exclude their views from scholarly journals and academic conferences. She dismissed their work, writing that they wrongly considered it free from ideological bias, and made many claims, such as that "contemporary Western civilization is more rape-prone than earlier societies and that in the past women married younger, when they were most fertile", without evidence. She accused them of misunderstanding the views of Brownmiller and Griffin, and criticized them for denying that "violence plays any role in motivating rapists", for their "idiosyncratic" definition of rape, for making simplistic assumptions such as that "men and women are heterosexual and constructed as binary opposites" and that men are more aggressive and eager to copulate than women, for overstating the role of competition as a driving force, and for failing to consider how changes in modern society, such as the feminist movement, might affect the "dynamics of rape." She rejected their proposals for preventing rape, arguing that women living in western societies would not find them acceptable, and concluded that their work contributed nothing to the understanding of rape.[33]

Tang-Martinez and Mechanic wrote that aspects of the book's authors chapters on evolutionary theory and sexual selection were "excellent" and helped to "clarify common misconceptions about evolution and natural selection." However, they criticized them for refusing to consider alternatives to their views and for dismissing scientists who disagreed with them as politically motivated and for presenting numerous questionable views, such as that all human experiences are the result of natural selection, that behavioral differences between men and women are the result of sexual selection, and that there is a biological basis to men's tendency toward sexual promiscuity, as though they were "undisputed science". They also argued that they held a "reified" understanding of rape that presented it as "a human universal and a characteristic of many animal species", and failed to "acknowledge the rigorous tests needed to demonstrate that traits are adaptations." They also charged them with maintaining inconsistent views on the issue of whether rape remains an adaptive reproductive strategy and with failing to demonstrate the existence of "human traits specialized for rape." They noted that while they argued that the Oedipus complex is an evolutionary impossibility because of the effects of inbreeding depression, they failed to explain or even mention "incestuous rapes by fathers and other relatives that could also result in inbreeding depression." They also found their statements about victims and perpetrators of rape "problematic", writing that their argument that "women who suffer more violent rapes are less traumatized because their injuries are evidence to spouse and kin that they resisted" was contradicted by evidence from rape trauma specialists. They criticized them for arguing against the idea that rapes of prepubertal girls contradict their hypotheses by underestimating the frequency of such rapes, for failing to accept that rapes committed by men of high social status contradicted their view that men who have no access to resources and were unable to attract women are most likely to rape, for ignoring rapes that involved anal or oral sex, homosexual acts, or the murder of the victim, or that for other reasons could not lead to "enhanced reproductive success", and for caricaturing the views of social scientists by portraying them as political ideologues who were ignorant of, or hostile to, science. In general, they found their views simplistic and extreme.[35]

Palmer and Thornhill, writing in Evolutionary Psychology, responded to criticism of their work from Michael Kimmel.[52] Writing in the Journal of Sex Research, they argued that much of the criticism their work had received consisted of straw man arguments that were "inherently contradictory and illogical" or which misunderstood or misrepresented their views. According to them, these false claims included the suggestion that their work was "an example of facile enthusiasm for adaptationist explanations of evolutionary phenomena" and that they forced their data to support their conclusions. In reply to these critics they pointed out that the hypothesis that rape is an adaptive strategy was only one of two possible explanations for rape they considered in their work, the other being that rape is "a by-product of differences in male and female sexualities." They wrote that they themselves made some of the same points that their critics used to try to discredit their work, such as de Waal's point that masturbation helps to show that many common behaviors are simply by-products of the adaptations governing male sexual desires rather than being adaptations themselves. They questioned Smith et al.′s claim that ethnographic evidence demonstrates that the overall reproductive costs of rape are higher than its benefits and wrote that Smith et al.′s argument "actually implies a lower standard for identifying adaptation than the one we used in our book" and "implies that rape could be considered an adaptation if its current reproductive benefits outweigh its cost to reproductive success." They also noted that several authors had supported their views, and responded to criticism of their work from Angier.[53]

Wilson et al. argued that Thornhill and Palmer use the "naturalistic fallacy" inappropriately to forestall legitimate discussion about the ethical implications of their theory. According to Thornhill and Palmer, a naturalistic fallacy is to infer ethical conclusions from statements of fact. Wilson et al. point out that combining a factual statement with an ethical statement to derive an ethical conclusion is standard ethical reasoning, not a naturalistic fallacy, because the moral judgment is not deduced exclusively from the factual statement. They further argued that if one combines Thornhill and Palmer's factual premise that rape increases the fitness of a woman's offspring with the ethical premise that it is right to increase the fitness of offspring, the resulting deductively valid conclusion is that rape also has positive effects and that its ethical status is ambiguous. Wilson et al. stated that Thornhill and Palmer dismiss all ethical objections with the phrase 'naturalistic fallacy' although "it is Thornhill and Palmer who are thinking fallaciously by using the naturalistic fallacy in this way."[45]

Hamilton criticized Thornhill and Palmer's definition of rape as the coerced vaginal penetration of women of reproductive age, suggesting that the exclusion of male rape, rape of women outside the reproductive age range, murderous rape, and non-vaginal forms of rape virtually guaranteed the confirmation of their hypothesis that rape is an evolved reproductive strategy and not a crime of violence.[47]

Evaluations in books[edit]

The psychologist Margo Wilson, writing in the foreword to A Natural History of Rape, credited its authors with being aware of women's feelings about rape and with wanting to benefit women. She believed that they offered "many novel and nonintuitive insights about why rape occurs and why women are so devastated by the victimization."[54] The sociologist Hilary Rose and the biologist Steven Rose, writing in their anthology Alas, Poor Darwin (2000), called A Natural History of Rape, "perhaps the nadir of evolutionary psychology's speculative fantasies", writing that its authors described forced sex among animals as rape despite the fact that leading journals of animal behavior had rejected that characterization as a form of anthropomorphism as long ago as the 1980s and failed to address evidence showing that while forced sex among animals always takes place with fertile females, human rape victims are often either too young or too old to be fertile. The Roses also accused them of insulting rape victims by suggesting that they might have invited sex by wearing revealing clothing, and criticized them for preferring ultimate to proximate explanations, considering the latter to be more explanatory. The Roses suggested that they underestimated the incidence of rape, and wrote that their ideas were "offensive both to women and also to the project of building a culture which rejects rape."[55]

Richard Morris, writing in The Evolutionists (2001), stated that A Natural History of Rape caused "a great deal of controversy" and that some critics objected "quite violently" to its authors' ideas. Morris considered it unfortunate that the controversy obscured the fact that their work was not only about rape, but was also a defense of evolutionary psychology.[56]

Pinker, writing in The Blank Slate (2002), described A Natural History of Rape as among the most "incendiary" books of recent years and compared it to Herrnstein and Murray's The Bell Curve (1994) and the psychologist Judith Rich Harris's The Nurture Assumption (1998). He credited its authors with bringing attention to scientific research on rape and its connection with human nature, but observed that they also "brought down more condemnation on evolutionary psychology than any issue had in years". According to Pinker, they had been "picketed", "shouted down", subjected to "searing invective in the press" and demonstrations and disruptions of lectures, and attacked by both the political left and the political right, for acknowledging biological influences on human behavior. He observed that attacks on them included a Feminist Majority Foundation spokesperson calling A Natural History of Rape "scary" and "regressive" and a spokesperson for the creationist Discovery Institute testifying at a U. S. congressional hearing that it was a threat to morality. Pinker endorsed their view that rape is sexually motivated. However, he criticized them for establishing a dichotomy between the suggestion that rape is an adaptation and the suggestion that rape is a byproduct of the human willingness to use violence, writing that this diverted attention from the more basic claim that rape is related to sex. He criticized Thornhill and Palmer's proposals for preventing rape, writing that they were untested and questionable, but added that critics reacted to the proposals with unjustified outrage.[57]

The sociologist Michael Kimmel, writing in the anthology Evolution, Gender, and Rape (2003), criticized Thornhill and Palmer's argument that female rape victims tend to be sexually attractive young women, rather than children or older women, contrary to what would be expected if rapists selected victims based on inability to resist. He argued that younger women are the least likely to be married and the most likely to be out on dates with men, and therefore are the most likely to be raped because of opportunity arising from social exposure and marital status.[58] The bioethicist Alice Dreger, writing in Galileo's Middle Finger (2015), credited Palmer with showing her that most of the criticisms directed against A Natural History of Rape attributed "ignorant and obnoxious" views to its authors that they had never expressed, such as that rape is normal and that men cannot help raping.[59]

Other responses[edit]

Thornhill debated his and Palmer's conclusions about rape with Brownmiller on American public radio.[60]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Thornhill & Palmer 2000, pp. xii, 1, 4, 12.
  2. ^ Thornhill & Palmer 2000, pp. 5–6, 107.
  3. ^ Thornhill & Palmer 2000, pp. 61, 110, 111, 122, 124, 126–127, 132–141, 183.
  4. ^ Thornhill & Palmer 2000, p. 4.
  5. ^ a b Sapp 2000, p. 122.
  6. ^ a b Pigleucci 2002, pp. 96–98.
  7. ^ a b Waal 2000.
  8. ^ a b Coyne 2000, pp. 27–34.
  9. ^ Angier 2000, pp. 80–82.
  10. ^ a b Stanford 2000, pp. 360–362.
  11. ^ a b Publishers Weekly 2000, p. 73.
  12. ^ Lees 2000, p. 12.
  13. ^ Frazier 2000, p. 54.
  14. ^ Sanbrook 2000, pp. 22–23.
  15. ^ a b Goode 2000, p. B9.
  16. ^ a b Quinn 2000, p. 23.
  17. ^ a b Ward 2000, pp. 42–43.
  18. ^ a b Cockburn 2000, p. 45.
  19. ^ a b Pozner 2000, pp. 8–10.
  20. ^ a b Pearcey 2000, p. 16.
  21. ^ Concar 2000, p. 44.
  22. ^ a b Begley 2009.
  23. ^ a b Ananthaswamy & Douglas 2018, p. 36.
  24. ^ a b Shackelford & LeBlanc 2001, pp. 81–83.
  25. ^ a b Machalek 2004, pp. 193–207.
  26. ^ a b Patai 2000, pp. 74–82.
  27. ^ a b Coyne & Berry 2000, pp. 121–122.
  28. ^ a b Sanchez 2000, pp. 83–103.
  29. ^ a b Zeedyk 2000, pp. 325–336.
  30. ^ a b Rose 2001, pp. 727–728.
  31. ^ a b Segal 2001, pp. 87–93.
  32. ^ a b Wheeler Vega 2001, pp. 47–85.
  33. ^ a b Wolfthal 2001, pp. 343–346.
  34. ^ Lloyd 2001, pp. 1536–1559.
  35. ^ a b Tang-Martinez & Mechanic 2001, pp. 1222–1223.
  36. ^ Dadlez et al. 2009, pp. 75–96.
  37. ^ Seto 2000, pp. 705–707.
  38. ^ Greenberg 2001, p. 15.
  39. ^ Jones 2001, pp. 1386–1422.
  40. ^ Schwartz 2001, pp. 505–516.
  41. ^ Melby 2000, p. 5.
  42. ^ Koss 2000, pp. 182–190.
  43. ^ a b Smith, Mulde & Hill 2001, pp. 128–135.
  44. ^ Nicolson 2002, pp. 241–242.
  45. ^ a b Wilson, Dietrich & Clark 2003, pp. 669–681.
  46. ^ Trautner 2004, pp. 498–499.
  47. ^ a b Hamilton 2008, pp. 105–125.
  48. ^ Cocks 2010, pp. 109–129.
  49. ^ Vandermassen 2011, pp. 732–747.
  50. ^ Baxi 2014, pp. 139–154.
  51. ^ Thornhill & Palmer 2002, pp. 283–296.
  52. ^ a b Palmer & Thornhill 2003, pp. 10–27.
  53. ^ a b Palmer & Thornhill 2003, pp. 249–255.
  54. ^ Wilson 2000, p. ix.
  55. ^ Rose & Rose 2000, pp. 2–3.
  56. ^ Morris 2001, pp. 178–179.
  57. ^ Pinker 2003, pp. viii, 161, 359, 362, 366, 367, 369.
  58. ^ Kimmel 2003, pp. 221–233.
  59. ^ Dreger 2016, pp. 118–119.
  60. ^ Times Higher Education 2000.


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Online articles

External links[edit]