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A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion [Hardcover]

by Margo I. Wilson, Randy Thornhill, Craig T. Palmer
2.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (67 customer reviews)

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Book Description

January 18, 2000 0262201259 978-0262201254 1
In this sure-to-be-controversial book, Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer use evolutionary biology to explain the causes of rape and to recommend new approaches to its prevention. According to Thornhill and Palmer, evolved adaptation of some sort gives rise to rape; the main evolutionary question is whether rape is an adaptation itself or a by-product of other adaptations. Regardless of the answer, Thornhill and Palmer note, rape circumvents a central feature of women's reproductive strategy: mate choice. This is a primary reason why rape is devastating to its victims, especially young women. Thornhill and Palmer address, and claim to demolish scientifically, many myths about rape bred by social science theory over the past twenty-five years. The popular contention that rapists are not motivated by sexual desire is, they argue, scientifically inaccurate.

Although they argue that rape is biological, Thornhill and Palmer do not view it as inevitable. Their recommendations for rape prevention include teaching young males not to rape, punishing rape more severely, and studying the effectiveness of "chemical castration." They also recommend that young women consider the biological causes of rape when making decisions about dress, appearance, and social activities. Rape could cease to exist, they argue, only in a society knowledgeable about its evolutionary causes.

The book includes a useful summary of evolutionary theory and a comparison of evolutionary biology's and social science's explanations of human behavior. The authors argue for the greater explanatory power and practical usefulness of evolutionary biology. The book is sure to stir up discussion both on the specific topic of rape and on the larger issues of how we understand and influence human behavior.

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Editorial Reviews Review

Evolutionary psychology often stomps where other branches of science fear to tread. Case in point: A Natural History of Rape. Randy Thornhill, a biologist, and Craig T. Palmer, an anthropologist, have attempted to apply evolutionary principles to one of the most disgusting of human behaviors, and the result is a guaranteed storm of media hype and debate. The book's central argument is that rape is a genetically developed strategy sustained over generations of human life because it is a kind of sexual selection--a successful reproductive strategy. This runs directly counter to the prevailing notion--that rape is predominantly about violent power, and only secondarily about sex.

The authors base their argument partly on statistics showing that in the United States, most rape victims are of childbearing age. But disturbingly large numbers of rapes of children, elderly women, and other men are never adequately explained. And the actual reproductive success of rape is not clear. Thornhill and Palmer's biological interpretation is just that--an interpretation, one that won't withstand tough scientific scrutiny. They further claim that the mental trauma of rape is greater for women of childbearing age (especially married women) than it is for elderly women or children. The data supporting these assertions come from a single psychological study, done by Thornhill in the 1970s, that mixes first-person interviews with caretaker's interpretations of children's reactions.

While Thornhill and Palmer claim that they are trying to look objectively at the root causes of rape, they focus almost entirely on data that support their thesis, forcing them to write an evolutionary "just-so" story. The central problem is evident in this quote, from the chapter "The Pain and Anguish of Rape":

We feel that the woman's perspective on rape can be best understood by considering the negative influences of rape on female reproductive success.... It is also highly possible that selection favored the outward manifestations of psychological pain because it communicated the female's strong negative attitude about the rapist to her husband and/or her relatives.

Women are disturbed by rape mostly because they are worried about what their husbands might think? In statements like this, the authors repeatedly discount the psychological aspects of rape, such as fear, humiliation, loss of autonomy, and powerlessness, and focus solely on personal shame.

A Natural History of Rape will no doubt have people talking about rape and its causes, and perhaps thinking about real ways of preventing it. In fact, the authors suggest that all young men be educated frankly about their (theoretical) genetic desire to rape. And it reopens the debate about the role of sex in rape. But without more and better data supporting their conclusions, Thornhill and Palmer are doing the very thing they criticize feminists and social scientists of doing: just talking. --Therese Littleton

From Publishers Weekly

Can we get rid of rape? If not, how can we reduce it? Biologist Thornhill (University of New Mexico) and anthropologist Palmer (University of Colorado) contend in this already highly controversial book that prevailing explanations of why men rape and how we can prevent them rely on wrong, dangerous and outmoded dogma. The right explanations for rape, they contend, as for all other human behavior, rely on Darwinian models of natural selection. Rapists want sex, they say. Rape, or the drive to rape, is an adaptation: some of our ancestors increased their reproductive success by mating with unwilling partners, and the brain-wiring that led them to do so got passed on to their male descendants. Women, meanwhile, have evolved adaptations against rape, and against getting pregnant if they are raped. What we call rape happens in most if not all cultures; nonhuman primates rape, too. Among the policy consequences if Thornhill and Palmer are to be believed: teenage boys should be educated to acknowledge and control their lust, and young women should show less skin and be chaperoned more. Using surveys of rapists and victims, and analogies from the animal kingdom, the authors make provocative claims about specific motives for rape, specific reactions to it and ways to test their hypotheses. One study suggests that young women become more risk-averse "in the follicular (fertile) phase of their menstrual cycles"--unless they are taking birth-control pills, in which case menstrual phase and risk-aversion won't correlate. This suggests a real anti-rape adaptation. But Thornhill also claims his own research has shown that rape victims of reproductive age (12-45) feel worse afterward than older and younger victims. One wonders how he measured young girls' or older women's pain. (Apr.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Series: Bradford Books
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press; 1 edition (January 18, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262201259
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262201254
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.3 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 2.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (67 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #770,551 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
130 of 162 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Playing fast and loose with "scientific argument" October 26, 2001
By LBatik
My criticism of this is not that it tries to find a biological basis for distressing behaviour -- my criticism is that it is simply bad science, packaged to sell.
Example: Thornhill claims that a study has shown that reproductive-age women are more traumatized by rape than older or younger women who are not in danger of pregnancy, and he takes this as one of the pillars of his argument that rape is a strategy for reproduction.
Problem: His reference for this study is one of his own articles, dated 1991. When you go find this article, you find that it contains a reference to one of his articles, dated 1990. When you find this, it references the study yet again, but in an article of his dated in the early 1980s. When you find this article, you find another reference, but at least this is to the original research -- a study of 27 women that was done in 1974, and which, in fact, the original researchers (not Thornhill) found to indicate that women of all ages and reproductive status were equally traumatized. It was only after Thornhill ran this study through a series of computerized "filters" to factor out things he felt to be extraneous, was he able to turn this interpretation on its head. And it seems that he and Palmer went to extraordinary lengths to make the original data hard to find, in order to obscure the small size and age of the study as well as the original interpretation. The _accepted_ method for citation is to list the original study "as quoted in" one's own article -- not simply to quote one's own series of articles.
He and Palmer consistently make use of obfuscation to avoid answering criticisms of their arguments, as well. For instance, one of his arguments is that scorpionflies regularly "rape" (i.e.
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62 of 78 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Pros and Cons of TP's Argument March 6, 2000
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Thornhill and Palmer (TP) review tons of evidence on the nature of rape. The plusses of the book are (1) they show that rape is a sexual act directed at obtaining pleasure rather than being an expression of male power; (2) they show that as predicted by evolutionary theory, males are evolutionarily adapted to rape, whereas females are not. These are terribly important facts, and they go against the accepted wisdom in contemporary sociology and some brands of feminism; but the accepted wisdom has no empirical basis whatever, in the authors opinion and mine as well. The minuses of the book will appear trivial to those who believe in the accepted wisdom and are shattered by its demise. But they are important nonetheless. Most important, TP view males as touting up the costs of raping (pleasure, possible reproduction) against the costs (getting caught and punished). If the benefits exceed the costs, the male rapes. This ignores all forms of interpersonal interaction except the brute physical. For instance, the 'cost' of causing harm to an innocent victim, the 'cost' of seeing a victim helpless and miserable because of your actions, the 'cost' of having the self-image as a sexual predator, and the like, are simply not part of their model of human motivation. Yet there is overwhelming evidence that people are not self-interested in the way depicted by TP. Males who use TP's cost/benefit analysis are better described as psychopaths or sociopaths rather than normal humans. This is because in the course of our evolution, humans have picked up fundamental prosocial traits. When these are absent in a person, the person is an abnormal, pathological case. Read more ›
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100 of 128 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Definitely Worth Reading April 17, 2000
Be very skeptical of what you may already have heard about this book. Read it yourself, and you will find that the authors make a far more compelling case for biology's effects on patterns of sexual aggression than the book's often alarmist critics would have you believe. The authors' argument, put simply, is that if we want to be more effective at preventing rape, then the more we understand about its multiple causes the better. The authors convincingly argue that causation of human behavior is a scientific, empirical issue that biology can help to illuminate. And the book provides a highly readable exploration of biological approaches to understanding sexual coercion in the many species (including humans) in which it appears.
Some critics of the book have attempted to make much of the theoretical possibility that the book may afford rapists a defense at trial. I am a law professor specializing in potential legal implications of human behavioral biology. And as I explain in a recent law review article (Sex, Culture, and the Biology of Rape: Toward Explanation and Prevention, California Law Review 87:827 -- July 1999) I do not think the biological theories presented in this book can or will support successful genetic defenses to rapists. Nonetheless, there are still non-trivial, non-trial, legal implications that may help the system handle and deter rape more effectively. This makes reading the book an essential step in understanding and reducing female victimization.
Disclosures: I Co-Directed a conference on Law, Biology, and Sexual Aggression, at which both Thornhill and Palmer were invited speakers, and I helped to review the Thornhill/Palmer manuscript in a pre-publication phase.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars HIGHLY misunderstood
Many, if not a majority, of the reviewers who give this book poor reviews are women, and most negative reviews are written by folks that seem to think this book attempts to justify... Read more
Published 16 months ago by M. Stewart
1.0 out of 5 stars Largely dismissive & insufficient as critique.
My PhD dissertation is on the subject of rape and how it's understood in social, medical, legal, and governmental contexts. Read more
Published 20 months ago by RhetoricPhD
5.0 out of 5 stars A Marvelous Authoritative Guide
This is one of the best books I've ever read. It thoroughly debunks the grotesque lies of feminism regarding rank-and-file males. Read more
Published on April 27, 2011 by Bernard Chapin
1.0 out of 5 stars Hate propaganda
The authors use bad science to promote violence. I feel sorry for the wives, mothers, daughters and female colleagues of Thornhill and Palmer. Read more
Published on May 24, 2010 by Karl
1.0 out of 5 stars If everything in this book is true
If this book is true, and that rape is caused by biology, then wouldn't the only way to make this world a safer place be keeping a sperm bank and emancipate all men? Read more
Published on March 11, 2010 by K. Chu
1.0 out of 5 stars Weakly based theory
I have been a student of Dr. Palmer's at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and while I admire his ecoanthropology teachings, this book is beyond his scope as an... Read more
Published on November 22, 2006 by MarcyF
2.0 out of 5 stars Close But No Cigar
This book has some interesting hypotheses but I don't believe it makes the case for the "Rape is the Last-Resort Reproductive Strategy" hypothesis as well as the Ghiglieri book... Read more
Published on January 22, 2006 by Benjamin Hardisty
5.0 out of 5 stars Darwin's Male Privilege - Because he Can
The license to take what men want regardless of circumstances is the heredity of Darwin and the recognition that social bonding of males will support that privilege. Read more
Published on January 14, 2006 by Patricia B. Ross
4.0 out of 5 stars technical
A technical book intended for those conversant with modern ideas in biology (sexual selection, evoltionarily stable strategies, genetic linkage, etc). Read more
Published on November 18, 2002 by Ken Braithwaite
2.0 out of 5 stars I'm not convinced.
According to the authors, rape is a tactic that men use to short-circuit women's ability to choose their mates. Read more
Published on July 29, 2002
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Topic From this Discussion
female perpetrators and male survivors?
You are making a common error. The genetic reason for a behavior is not the conscious reason for a behavior.

Let's take consensual sex as an example. Occasionally people do it to make a child, but much more often they do it even though they are trying hard not to make a child. They do it because... Read more
Oct 23, 2007 by Mike Garrison |  See all 2 posts
big problem with many of the reviewers Be the first to reply
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