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Sat, 15 Jan 2000 11:13:01 -0600
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        New York Times
        January 15, 2000

        What Provokes a Rapist to Rape?
        Scientists Debate Notion of an
        Evolutionary Drive

        By ERICA GOODE

        Rape is primarily a crime of violence and power, not
        sex. Or so a generation of social scientists and
        feminist scholars have argued.

        But in a forthcoming book, two
        evolutionary scientists say this
        view is born of ideology, not
        science, and is "based on
        empirically erroneous, even
        mythological, ideas about human
        development, behavior and

        In fact, they assert in "A Natural
        History of Rape: Biological Bases
        of Sexual Coercion," that rape "is
        in its very essence a sexual act"
        and that the practice may have
        evolved because it confers an
        evolutionary advantage.

        All of which, given the current passion for pulling
        Darwin into the domain of human sexual affairs, is not
        particularly new. But the scientists go further: If rape
        prevention programs are to be successful, they
        contend, evolution must be taken into account. They
        recommend, among other things, advising women that
        "the way they dress can put them at risk." They also
        recommend instructing young men, before they are
        granted drivers' licenses, that "Darwinian selection" is
        the reason a man "may be tempted to demand sex
        even if he knows that his date truly doesn't want it" or
        "may mistake a woman's friendly comment or tight
        blouse as an invitation to sex."

        Although the book is not scheduled for publication by
        the M.I.T. Press until April, manuscript galleys are
        circulating. And an excerpt by the authors, Dr. Randy
        Thornhill, Regent's professor at the University of New
        Mexico, and Dr. Craig T. Palmer, an anthropology
        instructor at the University of Colorado, appears in the
        current issue of the journal The Sciences. As a result,
        the book's thesis is already provoking discussion -- and

                          Dr. Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary
                          biologist at the University of
                          Chicago who has read the
                          excerpt in the journal The
                          Sciences, called it "the worst
                          efflorescence of evolutionary
                          psychology that I've ever seen."

                          "It's irresponsible, it's
                          tendentious, it's an advocacy
                          article and the science is sloppy,"
                          he said. "There are some
                          aspects of human behavior that
                          are fairly clearly evolutionary. But
                          that's a long way from saying that
                          rape is adaptive in males."

        Dr. Mary P. Koss, an authority on rape and a professor
        of public health at the University of Arizona, says that
        evolution is a factor in rape.

        She cautioned, however, that "it is not proper to set up
        evolutionary and social causation as opposites,"
        adding, "You have to think about how they work

        Dr. Koss dismissed the notion that young men should
        be educated about the evolutionary origins of rape. Dr.
        Thornhill and Dr. Palmer, she said, "have obviously
        never stood up before a group and given a rape
        prevention talk."

        "If you even imply to a male audience that all men are
        potential rapists, they go berserk," she said.

        And she called the recommendation that women
        consider the risks of dressing attractively "absolutely,
        perfectly unacceptable."

        On the other hand, Dr. Donald Symons, a professor of
        anthropology at the University of California at Santa
        Barbara who studies human sexuality from an
        evolutionary perspective, said it was important for
        researchers to challenge the view that rape had little to
        do with sexuality. Though he quibbled with some points
        in the book, he said, "This is an argument for a
        particular view of male sexuality and it's a view that I
        think is correct."

        The intensity of the debate may have been inevitable,
        given that rape is a volatile political issue. But
        evolutionary psychology, once called "sociobiology," is
        itself a field that as a whole has been subject to
        criticism. Darwinian theory is based on the observation
        that evolution selects for success: animals with traits
        that promote survival or reproduction pass on their
        genes; others die out. Scientists have found an
        evolutionary view of animal behavior to be a powerful
        tool. But evolutionary psychologists are now seeking to
        apply similar principles to all aspects of human
        behavior. In some cases, scientists say, these efforts
        have proven fruitful.

        But critics have argued that in wading into the
        complexities of modern human sexual relationships,
        scientists are on much shakier ground, often ignoring
        the powerful influences of culture. And some critics
        assert that the work of some evolutionary psychologists
        is tinged with a misogynistic bias.

        Susan Brownmiller, whose influential 1975 treatise,
        "Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape," set the
        tone of the feminist argument and serves as a frequent
        punching bag for Dr. Thornhill and Dr. Palmer, said
        that the new book "gives sociobiology a bad name."

        "Feminists never said that rape had nothing to do with
        sex," Ms. Brownmiller said. "Obviously rape involves
        the sex organs, and I'm sure many men who do it think
        it's a supreme macho act of sex. But they're wrong."

        In an interview, Dr. Thornhill, an eminent evolutionary
        biologist who moved from work on insects to studies of
        human sexual behavior, said he and his co-author
        expected that their book would provoke debate. "The
        problem is basically a very limited understanding of
        how evolutionary biology applies to people," he said. "It
        takes people a long time to pull back from what is
        politically correct and do an analysis on it."

        The subject of rape and evolution has been so touchy,
        Dr. Thornhill and Dr. Palmer write in "A Natural History
        of Rape," that lectures on the topic have been
        picketed, scientific articles have been rejected by
        scholarly journals, and researchers who view rape
        through an evolutionary lens have been denied jobs at

        At the core of the debate are assertions that are
        touchstones for evolutionary psychologists: that
        evolution favored promiscuity in men but choosiness in
        women and that the male of the species evolved to
        prefer young women because they are more likely to
        bear children.

        Sexual coercion, Dr. Thornhill and Dr. Palmer argue,
        may have evolved as an alternative reproductive
        strategy for males who, for whatever reason, were not
        lucky enough to persuade a female to copulate
        voluntarily. Or it may have developed as simply a
        byproduct of other adaptive traits, for example, a
        greater desire to engage multiple sex partners.

        Rape is inexcusable, they argue, but it must be viewed
        as a "natural biological phenomenon," as much a part
        of nature as other undesirable happenings like
        thunderstorms, epidemics and tornadoes. Dr. Thornhill
        and Dr. Palmer marshall an assortment of evidence.
        They note that young women at the peak of their
        childbearing years are greatly overrepresented among
        rape victims and that rape leads to murder in only
        one-hundredth of 1 percent of the cases, a figure
        confirmed by other rape researchers.

                              They also note that sexual
                              coercion of females by
                              males occurs in many other
                              animals, including the
                              scorpion fly, an insect Dr.
                              Thornhill has studied
        extensively. It is equipped with an appendage called a
        notal organ that appears specifically intended for rape.
        Sexual coercion has also been observed among fish,
        birds and nonhuman primates, notably the orangutan.

        Critics, however, some of whom have followed the
        researchers' writings on rape over the years and others
        who read the excerpt in The Sciences, said they do not
        find these arguments convincing.

        "The possibilities of bias in such work is enormous,"
        said Dr. Patricia Adair Gowaty, an evolutionary
        biologist at the University of Georgia. "And as
        sociobiologists we have become enamored of some
        ideas in the absence of credible and critical data."

        "These theories are intuitively attractive, and they fit
        many of the experiences we have," she said. "But it is
        when something is intuitive that you need to be most
        careful to have adequate scientific controls."

        Dr. Koss pointed out that although it is true that most
        rape victims are young women, most rapists are 18 to
        25, and it is more than likely that they will find victims in
        their own age group. She and other experts noted that
        a surprisingly large number of rape victims are young

        She said that other work by evolutionary scientists
        supported the notion that male violence toward women
        may have evolved partly as a strategy for controlling
        access to reproductive partners, an interpretation
        consistent with Ms. Brownmiller's observations. "But
        there are also roles for many other influences at the
        societal level, the institutional level, the family level, the
        peer level and within the two individual people," Dr.
        Koss said.

        And some critics objected to the authors' use of
        nonhuman examples to buttress their case. "We can't
        ask a female fish whether she appears to resist
        because she doesn't want to copulate or because she
        is testing males for their fitness," Dr. Coyne said. "But
        we can ask a human female who has been raped if she
        participated willingly."

        Equally contentious are the authors' ideas about how
        women react to rape. On the basis of a study in the
        1970's by Dr. Thornhill and his wife, Dr. Nancy W.
        Thornhill, they contend that young women suffer more
        distress after being raped than do children or older
        women past their reproductive years. This "makes
        evolutionary sense," they say, because it is young
        women who risk being impregnated by an undesirable

        But Dr. Koss said that other studies indicated that the
        impact of rape was far worse for elderly women than
        for younger women. "They develop a much more
        pervasive fear of going out of their home," she said.

        Still, some scientists applaud the efforts of Dr. Thornhill
        and Dr. Palmer to refocus attention on rape as a sexual
        crime and to link it to other evolutionary work on male
        and female sexual behavior.

        Understood within the context of evolutionary theory,
        said Dr. Neil Malamuth, professor of psychology at the
        University of California at Los Angeles, the scientists'
        thesis "is not as preposterous as it might seem."

        While feminists like Ms. Brownmiller perform an
        important service by focusing on the violence and
        power components of rape, he said, "there are aspects
        of rape that really do have to do with sex."

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