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

Randy Thornhill , Craig T. Palmer , Margo I. Wilson
2.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (63 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Jan. 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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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.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
By one intuitive and relevant definition, rape is copulation resisted to the best of the victim's ability unless such resistance would probably result in death or serious injury to the victim or in death or injury to individuals the victim commonly protects. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A trumpet call to better understand ourselves. March 18 2000
Format:Hardcover
This is the first book on rape to present an objective Darwinian view of a human behavior that is universally and rightly condemned as criminal. That rape is a violent, sexual, reproductive act reflects the all too human evolved capacity to contingently express tremendously selfish and loathsome as well as kind and caring behaviors. The observation that local cultural influences and personal developmental histories will influence the probability of an individual "choosing" any behavior (including callous criminal behaviors) in response to short and long term personal histories, evaluations of present circumstances, and expectations concerning how present behavior will impact their future prospects compared to alternative behaviors exhibited in the present, is central to modern evolutionary psychology. All behaviors are understood by biologists as necessarily being joint products of gene-environment interactions.
Understanding that rape is fundamentally "sexual" (that is, for a biologist, ultimately, albeit perhaps unconsciously, about gene propagation) helps to illuminate the circumstances under which virtually any man's probability of being sexually coercive increases. All creatures choose behaviors that, under current their social and environmental conditions, have expected fitness that exceed expected fitness costs as estimated from the perspective of the ancestral environment in which that animal's nervous system (i.e., it mind) evolved.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The truth lies somewhere in between May 7 2000
Format:Hardcover
If you want to know the truth about rape, read this book and then Brownmillers' Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. If you have already decided you know the truth you will not discover that the truth lies somewhere in between these two books. As often happens, the authors of each of these books know they are right, are proud of it, and they do not want to be encumbered by each others facts. There should be little doubt that rape is about one persons power and control over another persons body (Brownmiller) yet by its very nature rape must at some point involve sexuality (T&P). One does not become sexualy aroused (most often a necessity to complete the act) over visions of power and control. Sex must play some role ie: the chicken or the egg, it doesn't matter which is first, we all must recognize that each plays a role. Sometimes rape is motivated by sex, sometims by power and control, sometimes both.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Giving Rapists a Break They Don't Deserve March 3 2000
Format:Hardcover
The theories suggested in this book are confused, scientifically weak, and naive. The big question we must ask ourselves is, 'is rape nature or are we responsible?' I don't believe it's nature. It's a pathology, a byproduct of agression. The authors claim that men will rape if they can get away with it. As a man, and a professor of evolutionary biology myself, I am offended. If their theory is correct, why are the vast majority of men incapable of rape? It is clear that these men are poorly informed about the topic they address. Perhaps this is a feable attempt to publish (always a pressure for us academic types) and profit by perpetuating a fallacy that is sure to get them a lot of media attention. It's a shame really, and embarassing to boot. Having read their work myself, I suggest anyone interested in really understanding the causes of rape look elsewhere...you won't find it in the covers of this book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Annoying rehash of other, less known bad books March 24 2000
Format:Hardcover
When it comes to rape, do you think society engages in toolittle victim blaming and puts too much emphasis on the moralresponsibility of the perpetrator? Are you open to the possibility that most people are helpless pawns of their genetics? Do you lie awake nights thinking that if only women would quit wearing make-up and looking attractive, we could finally help the poor rapist to overcome those pesky urges? Do you find yourself nodding in agreement when you hear the idea that all men are potential rapists under the right circumstances? Then this is the book for you!
For purposes of this review, I'm torn between attacking specifics and just pointing the reader at the "read an excerpt from this book" hyperlink. Each of the first two paragraphs quoted managed to offend me. They offer an excellent instance of the sort of bias that pervades the entire book, as does the rest of the book quoted there. It also offers an example of the sizzling, highly skilled prose, and the author's "anyone who disagrees with us or thinks we have an agenda is wrong and blinded by their own agenda" debating style. What it doesn't do is fairly capture the indadequacy of the author's research, or their failure to account for the (much greater) body of research that disagrees with them. It gives evidence of, but doesn't fully display, their inability to find flaws in their own logic. It certainly indicates the bias against women in general (unconscious on their part, I believe) and feminists in particular (possibly not so unconscious) that permeates the book.
As a disclaimer, I admit I'm offended as a male by the book's insinuation that I would rape under the right circumstances.
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Most recent customer reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Ugly propaganda
I would give this zero stars if I could. This book is ideology dressed up as science.

Recommend "Rape: Sex, Violence, History by Joanna Bourke
Rape: Sex, Violence,... Read more
Published on July 28 2011 by Karl
2.0 out of 5 stars It does not help understand WHY men rape
Take a good look at the title "A NATURAL History of Rape"; just ask is Rape natural behavior for man or human? Do you need scientific statistics historically (? Read more
Published on Dec 11 2002 by Isis07
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 Nov. 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
1.0 out of 5 stars Playing fast and loose with "scientific argument"
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. Read more
Published on Oct. 26 2001 by LBatik
5.0 out of 5 stars People Just don't want to hear the truth
I am an upstanding man who goes to church, has a good job, and loves his family. I was accused of raping a girl while in my twenties and recently was trying to figure out what it... Read more
Published on July 8 2001
5.0 out of 5 stars If it helps stop one rape its valuable
It is so sad thousands of academics are employed to postulate the theory that rape is a power thing when the most important aspect it is mostly a sexual thing by generally... Read more
Published on June 25 2001 by n.wilson
1.0 out of 5 stars Very sad attempt at biological anthropology
There is little to be said about this book that isn't said inthe basic Amazon review. As a professional anthropologist(Ph.D. Read more
Published on March 3 2001
5.0 out of 5 stars sociology must be science
a rational approach to an important topic. Not perfect
but with good intentions.
Published on July 19 2000
5.0 out of 5 stars MAN HAS EVOLVED OVER 3 TO 5 MILLION YRS
Fundamental logic alone dictates that for probably 99.9% of that evolutionary 5 million year time frame, males generally did not first seek permission from females before sex. Read more
Published on May 19 2000
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