Rape Theory Too Much To Take
September 6, 2000 8:48 AM   Subscribe

Rape Theory Too Much To Take
Is it really hard to understand why Randy(!) Thornhill's theories, about rape of women, its origins and what Mr Thornhill derives from all of that, are offensive and sexist? Or is it really about freedom of speech?
posted by piefke3000 (13 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

Actually it is kind of hard to understand what the furor is about. If you don't think rape comes from an animalistic instinct, then where the hell does it come from? And as much as rape is about power, it is still a sexually-based attack.

I don't think it has anything to do with free speech. I believe his theories seek an explanation for an act that too many people persist in keeping in the dark. We teach children to cry out rape whenever it occurs, but we aren't bothering to find out where rape really comes from. Maybe there has been talk about Thornhill before that I don't know of, but based that article alone, I do not see what is so offensive.
posted by Awol at 9:23 AM on September 6, 2000

There's been an academic furore simmering for some time on this. I believe the New Yorker did an article a year or so ago, before his new book came out.

Thornhill's own summary of his hypotheses is provocative, but you can easily find criticism that questions the outcome, if not precisely academically refuting his findings.

While there are some valid points made -- I, too, believe that saying "rape is not about sex" is an absurdity -- and certainly suggesting that women not go out alone or get themselves into risky situations has practical merit, he may go too far in tipping the balance toward women making conscious choices to trust men and men acting strictly on biological imperatives. Is it any help to anyone to suggest that women avoid rape by restricting their lives? I'm a man, and I've never raped anyone. I don't think it's asking too much of any man to not rape. So there's a deep issue here.

Still, I wouldn't shout him down at a conference.
posted by dhartung at 9:54 AM on September 6, 2000

Interesting thing here is that I think any of these scientists could have drawn parallels to human instinct to murder, and the topic would have been much less controversial.

Other animals practice cannibalism, even of their own young, or violence towards family members, etc. I'm not arguing whether those behaviors are more or less repellent than rape, but I would suggest that making clearer the attempt to draw parallels to other animals might help to defuse some of the (understandable) uproar.

posted by anildash at 9:55 AM on September 6, 2000

here's an article from the daily lobo, unm's student newspaper. there was quite an uproar when he released the book. and now it's being sold in the bookstore for classes.
posted by sugarfish at 10:11 AM on September 6, 2000

If rape is about evolution, how does Thornhill explain prison rape? Men raping other men doesn't contribute to evolution.
posted by wiremommy at 10:52 AM on September 6, 2000

That's a really good point.
posted by Cavatica at 11:45 AM on September 6, 2000

Prison rape is about power management and sexual frustration. And I guess in Thornhill's estimation it springs from the "rape seed" planted in the male ego by evolution.
posted by Awol at 12:08 PM on September 6, 2000

We can quibble about the details, but something like the Thornhill/Palmer theory has to be true. Otherwise its hard to imagine how the instinct to rape would have evolved in the first place (and yes, it is an instinct, along with murderousness, kleptomania, and prevarication, not to mention love, altruism, and solidarity). If anyone has a more biologically plausible theory, let's hear it. But you can't reasonably reject a piece of science just because you don't like what you fallaciously believe to be its "political consequences".

For an thoughtful discussion of this point, see this short essay by Ulro Jr. (For a lengthier discussion, see this interview with Helena Cronin).

Anyway, in their summary (and book), Thornhill & Palmer hand out some "advice" about what people should do, given their findings -- for example, males should be required to take training courses, first dates should happen in public places, etc. This "advice" obviously isn't science, and you can take it or leave it (myself, I would leave it). At any rate, as they are careful to point out, failure to follow their advice doesn't make the victim the least bit blameworthy, nor does it make the perpetrator more sympathetic or less reprehensible.

Be that as it may, this page of "criticism" is just idiotic. Either the people maintaining the site haven't read the book, or they are simply incapable of comprehending its message.

Naturally, there are also intelligent, science-oriented critics of Thornhill's book. It's too bad their voices have been drowned out by the Christian Right and other assorted wackos (many of whom, sadly, identify themselves as "leftists"). At the end of their summary, Thornhill and Palmer write:

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.

In my view this statement is more or less correct (if a bit simplistic and melodramatic). The trouble is, within the so-called "academic left", there is an allergy not only to Darwinism but to science in general. I think this is a tragedy -- and a perversion of what the left should be about. I've always thought that the enemies of the left were unjust concentrations of power and other obstacles to human (and animal) flourishing. If this is right, then science is a friend, not an enemy. Without science, there would be nothing to contrast propaganda with, and no way to objectively document egregious abuses of corporate and state power -- racism, sexism, and other violations of civil rights; environmental destruction; economic fascism, and so on.

For more on this point, see Alan Sokal, Peter Singer, and Noam Chomsky.

Anyway, getting back to the details of the Thornhill/Palmer theory, there are several valid questions that they need to answer. For example, Wiremommy asks:

If rape is about evolution, how does Thornhill explain prison rape? Men raping other men doesn't contribute to evolution.

Good point. As I understand their theory, Thornhill & Palmer do not claim that rape itelf is an adaptation rather than simply a byproduct of an existing adaptation. In effect, you can ask the same thing about any complex human behavior. For example: if the instinct for consensual male-female sex were about enhancing reproductive success, then how do you explain the fact that people sometimes use birth control? Answer: the instinct to copulate is not precise enough to tell the difference (and that's because there was no birth control on the savana, hence no corresponding selection pressure). Likewise in the case of rape. The idea is, there just wasn't enough selection pressure to make the instinct any more sophisticated or precise than it is. I'm not saying this answer is correct, but in any case that's what T&P seem to be saying.

Again, this could all turn out to be a "just-so story" -- but that's a scientific not a political question.
posted by johnb at 3:05 PM on September 6, 2000

and also, i'd just like to say, as a student at the university of new mexico (where thornhill teaches), the irony is not lost on me that there have been three rapes on campus in the last month. theorizing from thornhill or not, i still won't walk across campus at night without a companion or a big ass can of mace.
posted by sugarfish at 4:08 PM on September 6, 2000

I would argue that rape cannot be an evolutionary addaption because a tribal group that rapes is inevitably inferior to a group that doesn't. Admitedly I'm just some guy, but it does seem a rather obvious argument.
I would also suggest that being offended is a sign of intellectual weekness.
posted by davidgentle at 8:43 PM on September 6, 2000

I haven't read the book, still I have a question from my sketchy understanding: Why is rape considered an adaptation? If there were an evolutionary advantage in rape, then wouldn't the majority of men do so?

I thought that rape was an abberation. A sickness. There are plenty of mental illnesses in the world, and most of them have no survival benefits. They're just diseases.
posted by frykitty at 9:45 PM on September 6, 2000

Why is rape considered an adaptation? If there were an evolutionary advantage in rape, then wouldn't the majority of men do so?

No, they wouldn't. Why? Because a human being amounts to more than just one instinct -- or even the sum of his or her basic instincts. There is also the higher order capacity for moral reasoning and reflection. Civilized people consider the relevant moral consequences before they act, and are able to exercise self-restraint. Rapists and serial killers, on the other hand, lack one or both of these qualities (because of a bad upbringing or a genetic defect or whatever).

Consider a less controversial example: the urge to procreate. This urge is a product of natural selection, having clearly conferred a selective advantage throughout human evolution. And yet, some people chose not to have children. How is this possible? Answer: because there are many, many other considerations that enter into human decision making -- for example, one's beliefs about the sustainability of population growth, attitudes towards one's career, financial considerations, etc.

In other words, people aren't slaves to their basic instincts.

I thought that rape was an abberation. A sickness. There are plenty of mental illnesses in the world, and most of them have no survival benefits. They're just diseases.

Yes, of course rape is a moral aberration, a sickness. But it is not true to say sicknesses mostly lack survival or reproductive benefits. In fact, plausibly the opposite is true. According to the thesis of Why We Get Sick, illnesses -- physical and mental -- are quite often themselves adaptations. (BTW, "adaptation" is a technical term that relates to the propensity to spread genes; it has no moral connotations whatsoever.)
posted by johnb at 11:40 PM on September 6, 2000

Good answers--thanks.

It's a shame this author decided to make "suggestions" as apparently it was this that got him in hot water and negated the seriousness with which the rest of the work could have been taken.

I also got the impression that, because he designates an evolutionary reason for rape, people thought he was somehow excusing it, when in fact he was not.

Of course, the true value of a controversial work lies in the controversy. This study has elicited enough outrage to fund a lot of studies.
posted by frykitty at 9:17 AM on September 7, 2000

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