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

2.7 out of 5 stars 63 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 269 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press; 1 edition (Jan. 18 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262201259
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262201254
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.3 x 22.9 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 567 g
  • Average Customer Review: 2.7 out of 5 stars 63 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #418,545 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description

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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.

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Inside This Book

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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

Top Customer Reviews

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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Format: Hardcover
As a woman, a feminist, and a sociologist by training, I still find nothing offensive in this book. Thornhill and Palmer have tackled one of the most sensitive and inflammatory topics that exist and it is only natural that they will receive a lot of knee-jerk reactions to it. However, this book is well-written, well-researched and thought-provoking. Whether you ultimately believe their theory or not, T and P will make you seriously consider some of your assumptions about rape.
I'm not sure if some of the other reviewers have actually read this book, because nowhere in it do the authors assert that women are to blame for their rapes or that they provoke them through sexy clothing. They do suggest that sexy clothing might be one of many factors that lead men to rape and that women may CHOOSE to use this knowledge when deciding how to dress for certain situations. Why this particular issue is so offensive boggles me. I have had many people suggest that I take a women's self-defense class to help me avoid and/or survive an attack. But that suggestion in no way implies that if I *don't* take a self-defense class I am somehow responsible for causing my own rape. Similarly, women can arm themselves with the knowledge that how they dress may have an effect on how some men behave towards them, without being responsible for that behavior in any way.
I'd advise anyone interested in this topic to read the book carefully and thoroughly. Does the book prove that rape is an evolutionary adaptation? Of course not, but it certainly offers some compelling evidence and an interesting alternative to current theories on rape.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is a breath of fresh air. For more than two decades we have been bullied by feminists abetted by social scientists to believe that rape is a political, not a sexual, crime. Yet everyone, both male and female, knows instinctively that rape is indeed a sexual crime. Does anyone truly believe that rapists risk their lives to intimidate females generally for the benefit of males generally? What altruists rapists would be! The only thing political about rape is the feminists' decision to put it at the core of their political agenda. `There is no question that rape is a fundamental threat to women, which is the reason why feminists put it so high on their agenda. But feminists, like most social scientists, cannot explain why it is such a threat. This book can. The cornerstone of social science is hedonism: the assumption that the aim of human life is to maximize one's pleasure and minimize one's pain. But rape is not a threat simply because it reduces pleasure and increases pain. It is a threat because it violates the most important choice a woman makes in her lifetime: the man who will father her child. This book represents a fundamental departure from hedonism. It assumes, following Darwin, that we are the result of ancestors all of whom have been successful in one activity: leaving descendants. Whatever we acquire from ancestors, therefore, is at least associated with, and has probably promoted, that success. Anything inheritable that helps individuals to leave descendants tends to increase in frequency; anything that does not, tends to die out. A female's choice of her mate has been powerfully selected for because it directly affects a female's chances of leaving descendants.Read more ›
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