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Origin of the Specious

The apes of wrath: Michelle Sauther wonders why the authors of A Natural History of Rape ignored primate studies.

Feminists say men rape to assert dominance over women.

But a new book co-authored by a University of Colorado instructor suggests that while the immediate motivation for rape may be anything from the need to impress other males to rage over a breakup, the deep-seated and essential spur is man's Darwinian desire to sow his seed.

In other words, rape is a natural part of a man's biological baggage.

Given this premise, it's no surprise that response to A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion has been immediate -- and as heated as a bachelor party waiting for the stripper. Although the book, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is only now showing up in bookstores, a recent piece in The Sciences by co-authors Randy Thornhill, a biology professor at the University of New Mexico, and anthropologist Craig Palmer, an instructor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, was dissected in numerous TV and radio interviews. Last month the New York Times ran a lengthy piece on A Natural History of Rape that aired contrasting scientific views; in Time, Barbara Ehrenreich mocked what she called (inaccurately) the authors' "insistence that the rapist isn't a psychopath, just an ordinary fellow who's in touch with his inner caveman." Reader reviews on Amazon.com have veered between contemptuous dismissal and ecstatic agreement, according the book either one star or five, with nothing in between.

Although Palmer expected the book to be controversial, the timing -- and intensity -- caught him by surprise. The criticisms were "nearly 100 percent uninformed," he says, his voice pleasant and even. "All the response occurred before the book was read, and that opened the door for misunderstandings."

There's a lot to misunderstand.

Start with the authors' basic premise that women have a greater biological investment in their children than do men. Because of this, the book suggests, women tend to be intensely choosy about mates, looking for partners who not only will provide good genes, but will stick around to help with child care. Men, on the other hand, are biologically motivated to impregnate as many females as possible. So rape is one way of hijacking the female's ability to choose.

"That is such an old idea," counters Michelle Sauther, a primatologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "We've become so much more sophisticated in looking at that. We know now that non-human female primates love sex. When they first become remotely interested, they go up to males. They will mate with many males unless they live in a monogamous society, and those are extremely rare among animals in general. Now we're finding out that female gibbons, for example -- who are supposedly the most monogamous -- they're looking for guys on the side as well," she laughs.

Thornhill's research focuses on scorpionflies rather than primates, however, and he discovered an organ in the male scorpionfly that appears to be designed solely and specifically for forced copulation. Since human males have no analogous physical feature (their larger size and greater strength may aid in rape but are not specifically designed for the act), the authors looked to the male psyche for proof of their theory, asking such questions as whether men tend to rape fertile women, whether rapists evaluate a potential victim's vulnerability, whether men are turned on by a woman's struggles or by depictions of rape.

The narrow Darwinian lens these authors turned on human behavior led to a series of startling assertions. In a chapter titled "The Pain and Anguish of Rape," they say that fertile women suffer most after being raped -- more, that is to say, than boys, girls or old women do. If the fertile woman is married or mated, her suffering is greater still.

But the more violent the rape, they say, the less a woman's suffering afterward. Why? Because her injuries prove to her jealous partner that the sex was not consensual.

Suffering is part of a woman's natural defense against rape, the authors argue, along with an inbred caution about going into dark, dangerous, young-male-infested places. Fertile women are more alert to these dangers than non-fertile -- including women on the Pill. The authors even theorize that small-waisted women -- shaped to breed, so to speak -- will be the most cautious of all.

The purpose of human grief, the authors contend, is to concentrate the mind so it can deal with impediments to childbearing. And the death of a fertile relative inspires more grief than that of a non-fertile one.

Men may ejaculate faster during rapes. The authors note that some research suggests that premature ejaculation is the by-product of an evolutionary strategy that allows young, unpartnered males -- who must copulate rapidly and furtively -- to breed. (The authors offer no explanation for wet dreams.)

Many of the book's observations seem misogynistic, and some of them are downright dangerous. For example:

Women are biologically inclined to prefer rich men to poor (the choosiness thing again).

Male jealousy is about sex; female jealousy is about the "risk of losing economic and material resources to a female competitor."

While men are straightforward, women get what they want through subterfuge, rumor, gossip and indirection.

To demonstrate her choosiness, a woman sometimes appears reluctant to have sex, even with an attractive man. This "may increase the man's perception of her value in terms of paternity reliability," the authors write -- that is, the man knows if he mates with her, the children she bears will be his -- "and thus may result in her eventually getting more material benefits...If a woman's display of reluctance is truly effective, a man who achieves copulation with her will perceive that he achieved it by force."

At one point, the authors quote a pair of biologists who speculate that a woman's struggles with her rapist may have some evolutionary benefit, allowing only the fittest rapists to actually complete the act. "As in the case of the dung fly," they muse, "it is conceivable that in the past, women who filtered potential rapists by resisting them bore sons who turned out to be adept at raping and thus may have had more grandchildren than passive females." After a full page of discussion, however, they concede that this is unlikely.

Behavior is notoriously difficult to quantify, and inclinations even more so. Thornhill and Palmer present data in support of some of their assertions; others are simply quoted as generally accepted; still others are defined as intuitions requiring further research. Taken together, this cascade of fact, near-fact and hunch presents a worldview oddly reminiscent of the one that prevailed in the United States through the first five or six decades of the century, when men were seen as utterly at the mercy of physical urges, women as materialistic, teasing and coy, and rape as more amusing than criminal.


Craig Palmer is adamant that his book does not justify rape. "Because we say rape is part of the natural world, people think we're saying it's good," he comments. "Say we find there's a genetic influence on a terrible disease? Does that imply that the disease is not as bad as we say it is?

"There's also the idea we're saying rape is genetically determined. We go to great lengths in saying all behaviors in living things are the result of genes interacting with the environment. We can prevent rape by changing things in the environment."

Some of the criticism of A Natural History of Rape (including Barbara Ehrenreich's in Time) does distort the authors' premise. For example, Palmer and Thornhill don't say that "ordinary fellows" are most inclined to rape; instead, it's the losers and outsiders unable to attract women. Nor do they suggest rape is an efficient mechanism. It's dangerous for the male, devastating for the female, and seldom produces children. But natural selection advances the interests of the individual, not the group, they claim (this, too, is disputed by some biologists and anthropologists). So, while still being harmful to society at large, rape may benefit the individual rapist by increasing his chance of siring children from zero to some small percent.

Because rape is so non-specific -- although most victims are women of childbearing age, presumably not all of them are ovulating; rapists also attack children, boys, men, older women and the occasional chicken or sheep -- the authors disagree as to whether rape is actually selected for in Darwinian terms or is just a by-product of men's biologically determined promiscuity.

"There's abundant evidence that many males are not overly discriminating when it comes to what things in the environment they'll use for sexual stimulation," Palmer notes.

But Sauther disagrees. "I get so tired of hearing that males are these sex machines, looking to copulate with just about anything," she says. "Males make choices as well. You look at non-human primates: Males don't mate with just every female, and they certainly don't show much interest in females that are not interested in them. Baboons -- if a female acts like she doesn't want to mate with him, he's not going to bother with her. He'll find somebody who's interested in him. He ensures multiple copulations that way, a better chance of siring an infant."

The ramifications of the theories espoused in A Natural History of Rape go far beyond academia. Palmer believes that most rape-prevention programs fail because they are shaped by feminist ideology rather than scientific truth. Feminists stress that rape is a crime of violence, not sex. And some, he says, suggest that it is a learned, rather than natural, behavior.

"I would like people to really ask themselves whether they think the evidence shows that sex is never a part of rape," Palmer says. "The view that it's not has some implications I'm not very comfortable with. Picture a young man and woman on a date; the young man is aroused and keeps making physical advances. If she resists, maybe the thought runs through his mind: 'I'm on the verge of forcing this woman.' But then he remembers rape-prevention training and thinks, 'Oh, that can't be so, because I'm aroused. Therefore, even if I force her, I'm not committing rape.'"

Janine D'Anniballe, director of the Boulder Rape Crisis Team, says her organization's goal is to educate the public about the myths surrounding rape and about gender-role stereotypes that encourage male violence. One of those myths is that "rape is always about sex," she says. In actuality, "rape is an act of power and control, and sex is the means used." She agrees, though, that "the hardcore argument that sex has nothing to do with rape isn't completely true."

Thornhill and Palmer have their own suggestions for rape prevention. They say that young men should be educated about their inherent propensity to rape; rapists should be severely punished and chemical castration considered. (Some rape researchers feel this is ineffective, since men given these drugs have been known to still attack women.) They mull the effectiveness of chaperones, protective courtship rituals and the physical separation of boys and girls -- summer camps at opposite ends of the lake, for example. And, perhaps most controversial, they suggest that women should be warned about where they go and the dangers of dressing attractively.

Some critics charge that this last suggestion smacks of blaming the victim. "But just as often," Palmer says, "the reaction is, 'Duh, of course. You're stating the obvious.' Everyone seems to know this is true, but when you say it, you get condemned. Here's a typical reaction: 'I hate to think I have to worry about how my daughter's dressed because it might increase the chances she's raped.' But hating to think something is true doesn't mean it's not true. If we do live in that world, then probably the worst way to change it is to deny that the world is that way.

"Rape survivors often say, 'When I was raped, I was in a locked house and dressed conservatively.' We're not saying you'll only be raped if you go into dangerous situations. We're saying that things like where you go, who you're with, how you're dressed, how you behave might increase or decrease the chances. We don't actually say in the book that women should not dress a certain way. We say they should be informed about the possible consequences of their behavior. Then it's up to them."

Critics have also suggested that the book's theories about man's proclivity toward rape could be used in court to help rapists escape justice. But Palmer dismisses that possibility, citing Owen D. Jones, an Arizona State University law professor, who believes "an evolutionary defense is not a plausibility," he says.

"We state quite clearly that when a rape occurs, only one person should be punished, and that is the rapist," Palmer continues. "Regardless of the circumstances. Regardless of the relationship between the people and regardless of who's wearing what clothing and behaving in what way. We emphasize that punishment should be as severe and effective as possible."

Palmer, who is 42 years old and married with one child, became interested in the controversial field of sociobiology, which applies evolutionary theory to human behavior, while working on his doctorate in 1984. He decided to devote his dissertation to rape when a friend of a friend was raped and murdered. "In this case, I saw that the social-science explanation that rape was not sexually motivated was interfering with the prosecution of the rapist," he says, "and might even allow him to avoid punishment." He declines to give further specifics of the case.

Randy Thornhill, who had been working with scorpionflies for over two decades, and Palmer teamed up in 1996 to begin work on A Natural History of Rape.

Despite the storm of protest surrounding the book, Palmer says he has experienced nothing but support from students and fellow faculty at UCCS. "I spent half an hour having a wonderful discussion with a student who disagreed with the book and wanted to write a term paper on it," he adds.


Ever since Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson published his book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in 1975, there's been a rush to apply biological principles to all human behavior using biology and the social sciences. Proponents celebrate sociobiology as a rich and fertile new field; critics say it has resulted in an oversimplified view of human beings and has largely ignored the role of culture in shaping who we are.

The Darwin Wars are perhaps the most bitterly fought of all current academic disputes, raging in both England and America and enrolling in their ranks such heavyweight popularizers as Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), Robert Wright (The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are) and Stephen Pinker (How the Mind Works). Most prominent on the other side is Stephen Jay Gould (Wonderful Life), whose view of Darwinism differs from that of the sociobiologists and who has lately come under vicious public and personal attack for it.

Elisabeth Lloyd, who teaches philosophy of science at the University of Indiana, questions the science in A Natural History of Rape. "These authors' claims vacillate between the trivial and the unconfirmable," she says. Their work "fails to meet nearly every requirement for a serious claim to evolutionary science."

Lloyd is particularly puzzled by what she calls a "tension" between two of the authors' statements: one that men possess rape genes because their raping ancestors were successful in reproducing, the second that women evolved to experience deep psychological pain as a defense against rape so that they will act efficiently to prevent future rapes. These women, too, must have been reproductively successful, she suggests.

"So how could male rape genes have evolved?" asks Lloyd. "Were they so successful against women's wariness? This seems unlikely given that one rape might possibly produce one infant, whose long-term chances of survival are limited, while a female may produce two to six children on average during her life, few or none of which were fathered by rapists."

Michelle Sauther has more questions. Although A Natural History of Rape cites the fact that rape occurs in most species -- and all human cultures -- to bolster its thesis, it also contains a paragraph asserting that the behavior of other primates does not provide relevant information about human nature. (The behavior of scorpionflies apparently does.)

According to Sauther, non-human primate studies don't bear out the authors' thesis regarding humans. In fact, she says, rape is rare in animals and far from ubiquitous in human societies. Most primate males live their entire lives without siring offspring, she points out, "so why don't we see more rape among non-human primates?

"The only two species where there is sexual coercion are orangutans and common chimpanzees," Sauther continues. "And then you have bonobos, which are closely related to chimpanzees, and there's nothing like that at all. They have more egalitarian relationships. In the chimps of Gombe, there's sexual coercion. But on another site called Tai, the female chimpanzees are more bonded to one another and there seems to be far less of it. So even among our closest relatives, there's a lot of variability. It makes me think that sexual coercion has a lot to do with the society. It's not just a simple biological switch that males have.

"I think what Palmer and Thornhill are trying to say is, if you strip culture completely away, you can finally see a light -- you can see the biological basis of everything," she adds. "This is not a new idea. Back when sociobiology first came to the forefront, people were going through their checklists: Okay, there's incest. Let's talk about the biological advantage to that. Or infanticide. It was like little kids with toys.

"I saw Thornhill on television in the mid-'80s, and it was almost like they were going to clarify everything for everybody. He said with a straight face that science is unemotional: 'We don't get bogged down in whether a scientific fact is moral or immoral. Sorry to be the purveyor of bad news, but it's science.' But that's crazy, because they themselves were talking about how the feminists were preventing people from understanding the real biological basis of things. So they were taking it from a sociopolitical perspective."

Asked if the book's characterizations of women aren't social myths, Palmer responds: "Calling them myths implies you've looked at them as scientific hypotheses and disproved them. They should be evaluated. If they're found to be wrong, then knowledge is advanced."

But even now, the book's unproved theories are filtering into society, and that worries Sauther. "I think there's a vast ignorance about just how genetics works, and it's been simplified to the point where people think, for example, that there are genes for gayness or genes for alcoholism, which is ludicrous," she says. "And sociobiologists would be the first to say that.

"But it's the same stuff that keeps coming around. Back at the turn of the century, people were saying immigrants had low IQs and we shouldn't let them into the United States. They should be put in prisons and not allowed to mate, because it's all genetically based. It's a sad statement that a lot of this stuff is being rehashed.

"It's irresponsible to make some of the statements Palmer and Thornhill are making. It reminds me of why people are suspicious of scientists. This makes us look bad and makes science look bad."