Evolutionary Psychology Teaches Rape 101

Culturebox was not surprised to learn from the latest issue of The Sciences that evolutionary psychologists have come up with an answer to the question of why men rape. From the beginning, ev psych has portrayed the war between the sexes as both natural and inevitable: Men have to spread their genes around by having sex promiscuously and by whatever means necessary; women lavish their scarce reproductive resources only on partners who’ll stick around to ensure that their children thrive. So there was nothing startling about the arguments of Craig T. Palmer and Randy Thornhill (author of a famous study on beauty arguing that throughout world cultures, men and women prize symmetrical features, which correspond to genetic health): Rape, they say, is either a direct reproductive strategy–what men resort to when all else fails–or the byproduct of other reproductive strategies, “such as a strong male sex drive and the male desire to mate with a variety of women.” What was newsworthy is what the authors suggests we should do to prevent rape.

Now, before Culturebox reveals Thornhill and Palmer’s nifty solution to this age-old problem, she has to digress a bit on the subject of evolutionary psychology. Here’s her beef with it: Evolutionary psychology is not very good on the aspect of the human psyche she’s personally most interested in, which is how humans are different from animals. Ev psych insists, rightly, that we not ignore our similarities to the higher- and lower-order creatures, but it’s weak on subjectivity, self-awareness, self-consciousness, whatever you want to call it–on how we explain our tangled mass of hormonal impulses to ourselves. And yet this ability to reflect on ourselves underlies art, architecture, poetry, government, journalism, and all the other forms of willed culture and communication that animals don’t and can’t have. The new sociobiologists do address complex social institutions–particularly ones that require cooperation–but only in the broadest of terms. They find ways to boil them down into high-end, unconscious reproductive strategies.

Some evolutionary psychologists understand the limitations of their field. They know that it has explanatory power only in general terms, and is useless in the particular case. They know that their account of human motivation is deliberately reductive–designed to make it easy to grasp large patterns of behavior–rather than a rich and accurate description of what and who we are. Thornhill and Palmer, however, are not among these modest evolutionary psychologists. And so they boldly stray into efforts to modify the behaviors of individuals. They propose a course to teach young men about rape:

Completion of such a course might be required, say, before a young man is granted a driver’s license. The program might start by inducing the young men to acknowledge the power of their sexual impulses, and then explaining why human males have evolved in that way. The young man should learn that past Darwinian selection is the reason that a man can get an erection just by looking at a photo of a naked woman, why he may be tempted to demand sex even if he knows that his date truly doesn’t want it, and why he might mistake a woman’s friendly comment or tight blouse as an invitation to sex. Most of all, the program should stress that a man’s evolved sexual desires offer him no excuse whatsoever for raping a woman, and that if he understands and resists those desires, he may be able to prevent their manifestation in sexually coercive behavior. The criminal penalties for rape should also be discussed in detail.

Now, anyone who has read George Orwell or seen A Clockwork Orange can imagine the scene: The strapping teens slump embarrassed in their seats while evolution instructors lay out their state-sanctioned definition of human nature. The first message to be drilled into boys’ heads is: We believe you’re genetically programmed to rape. The second (and inevitably less impressive) message is: Oh, and by the way, we’re not going to let you do it.

Here’s what Thornhill and Palmer propose for women:

Young women should be informed that, during the evolution of human sexuality, the existence of female choice has favored men who are quickly aroused by signals of a female’s willingness to grant sexual access. Furthermore, women need to realize that, because selection favored males who had many mates, men tend to read signals of acceptance into a woman’s actions even when no such signals are intended.In spite of protestations to the contrary, women should also be advised that the way they dress can put them at risk.

In other words, 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. Culturebox can see the criminal lawyers composing their genetic-determinist defenses already: Why, even the state said he couldn’t help himself!

Back in 1994, when journalist Robert Wright popularized the field of evolutionary psychology with his book The Moral Animal, he wrote an article on ev psych and feminism in which he acknowledged that evolutionary psychology would be used to “naturalize” sexist behavior. He thought philandering husbands would be the ones taking advantage of the argument about how cheating was hard to control. He did not foresee the day when evolutionary psychologists would call for the government to sponsor their theories in a way virtually guaranteed to generate the very behaviors they are supposed to prevent. But it was a foregone conclusion that when evolutionary psychology began to focus on genetic predispositions and majoritarian norms to the exclusion of everything else, some literalists would in fact forget everything else. They would forget that we are products not just of evolution, but also of what we imagine ourselves to be. And that if we teach our children to see themselves strictly as beasts, they’re bound to act like them.