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A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion Hardcover – January 18, 2000

71 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0262201254 ISBN-10: 0262201259 Edition: 1st

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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.

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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: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (71 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,621,080 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

142 of 175 people found the following review helpful By LBatik on October 26, 2001
Format: Hardcover
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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107 of 138 people found the following review helpful By Owen Jones, Professor of Law, on April 17, 2000
Format: Hardcover
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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25 of 31 people found the following review helpful By TMac Tom on April 1, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The main strength of this book is its very publication, I think. I suppose to get a more vigorous debate going on about all the causes of rape, someone had to write this book. Thornhill and Palmer did it, and hopefully it will spawn more research, either in support or in opposition. This book is written for a general audience but its main targets are within academia, namely the social sciences. I think T&P wrote it to a mass audience as a way of circumventing what they saw were roadblocks within the academic community to a serious discussion of these concepts. If so, then that's great.
T&P also do well in pointing out some of the (mostly) logical flaws of the current social theory behind rape. The main one for me was that, while social theory stresses that power, hate, and so forth motivate rape (which I'm sure they do), the social theory never really answers for me this question, "Why rape"? There are other ways that misogynist men could express themselves besides this one, which seems to be numero uno on the expression list, according to the prevailing theory. Sex has to be the underlying answer to this question. Men who rape are obviously sexually aroused, and the old mind/body duality a la Descartes doesn't cut it as an answer for this. There's room for both social and biological causes here, and both should be explored more fully.
That brings me to the book's main weakness. "A natural history" this isn't. T&P offer the basic theoretical idea behind rape being a specific adaptation of evolution. But its obvious that the research isn't there (yet) to support it.
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