Rape and Evolution

A rather interesting discussion is developing in the comments to “Ask A Question“, but it’s becoming more and more off-topic, and I’m also concerned that it is inappropriate for the discussion to be in that thread with no PTSD trigger warnings, so I’m going to shift all the comments here and delete their text there with a pointer to this thread.

Bear with me while I port them over. (Addendum: done now)

This is how this thread started:

Okay, I’m sorry that this is a bit of necromancy, but I just felt I had to respond to the thread on rape.

I should have pointed it out more quickly, but this illustrates a lack of attention to the first paragraph of the Comments Policy from both Jason and myself (emphasis changed):

On-topic and constructive comments, suggestions and criticism welcome. Because this blog generally addresses ongoing social situations rather than current events, comments are encouraged on older posts: the issues aren’t going away, after all.

So, in future, posters should feel free to add comments to the original post, please. That’s where the discussion will be on topic, or if it does drift off-topic, I can always start a new thread then.

About tigtog

writer, singer, webwrangler, blogger, comedy tragic | about.me/vivsmythe

53 comments on “Rape and Evolution

  1. #Jason Dick, Nov 10, 5:54 PM

    Okay, I’m sorry that this is a bit of necromancy, but I just felt I had to respond to the thread on rape.

    In short, none of the objections to the post that quoted an article proposing that there seemed to be an evolutionary reason for rape was in any way contrary to the claims made in the quoted section of the article.

    For example, there is no reason whatsoever that we should expect, were rape an evolutionary means for reproduction, that this automatically means that rape and the normal sex drive are in any way related. Remember, after all, that the behaviors involved in performing rape and those involved in performing consensual sex are quite different. Thus we should expect that the feelings that one goes through to motivate one to perform each act would also be quite different.

    Furthermore, it is actually quite ludicrous to claim that rape is not a product of evolution, as we ourselves are a product of evolution. This in no way validates rape, of course. Evolution does in no way guarantee that its products are morally pristine. Evolution only care about one thing: reproduction. And rape can lead to reproductive success to those who engage in it.

    The uplifting thing is that humans are finally waking up. We are finally becoming conscious of ourselves and of our surroundings. We are no longer slaves to our base desires and drives. We can choose what we want and what we do not want for ourselves. And the realization that rape is a product of evolution will only better inform us on ways in which rape can be prevented. In the long term, we may even get to the point where we can control our own evolution, and remove the desire to rape entirely from our genome. In the mean time, the best we can do is understand the causes of rape, and work to prevent the situations where rape occurs from appearing. Studying rape in the light of evolution can help us to do that. Failing to do so risks blinding us of potential ways of preventing rape.

  2. #Lorelei | Nov 11, 7:34 AM

    Jason Dick –

    So, if you accept what you are saying, do you believe that you are capable of rape? That your father is? That your best male friend is?

    The problem with evolution isn’t necessarily the science (but I am not a biological/evolutionary science), but it’s the connotation — to say that something is a byproduct of evolution implies to the general public that rape is ‘natural.’ It’s just a biological impulse. People cannot accept that we can fight against ‘biological impulses,’ real or imagined.

    My observation, anyway.

  3. # Jason Dick | Nov 11, 8:09 AM

    I honestly don’t know what I’m capable of. This is sort of the problem: none of us has a full range of experience from which to discover what we are capable of in different situations.

    If I accept that the research shows that rape is an evolutionary mechanism, which seems extremely likely to me, then because I very much do not want to rape any woman (or girl, or boy), then the proper course of action is to learn what sort of situation is likely to lead to rape, and then do my best to avoid being put in that situation in the first place. Because even if I may be able to prevent myself from giving in, I would be a fool to count on that.

    As for how the public perceives this sort of thing, the fact that the public perceives that “natural=good” is something that itself is damaging, and an idea that needs to be strongly opposed. What is natural is, very often, not good in the least. Take the human appendix, for example. This organ, a product of evolution, kills a number of people every year, and has no significant benefits. So I don’t think the right response to the fact that people may perceive the statement “rape=natural” to mean “rape=good” should prevent us from pursuing the truth. What it should do is show that this issue requires a multifaceted approach. After all, why should we allow peoples’ misconceptions about what scientists are saying prevent us from researching better ways to prevent rape? Much better to focus on trying to combat those preconceptions in the first place, through better education.

    Anyway, I think I’m going to check out this book on the subject, A Natural History of Rape. The first chapter is available here:

    It would be interesting to see how accurate the research into the proximate causes of rape that he cites actually is.

  4. # Pai | Nov 11, 9:20 AM

    I’m very suspicious of ‘rape is natural!’ evo-psyche line. It’s convenient that so many male behaviors are called ‘hardwired’ and it’s up to the women, of course, to modulate their lives around that fact rather than expect men to try and exercise some self control. I mean, never mind that we’ve overcome millions of other ‘base instincts’ since we’ve become sentient beings, it’s just silly to expect men to overcome them when it comes to how they treat women. BS.

    I even just saw another study [http://tinyurl.com/2fb6my] even claiming that the way women walk was a rape trigger, and yet another way we’re triggering this ‘male instinct’ by our own fault. Men aren’t mindless beasts. It’s a lazy cop out to even try to say that they’re incapable of controlling themselves. I don’t buy it.

  5. # Jason Dick | Nov 11, 11:10 AM

    That’s just an invalid conclusion from the statement that rape is an evolutionary adaptation, though. You seem to be saying that if rape is an evolutionary adaptation (or a side effect of one), that this therefore means it is unchangeable. This is false.

    And furthermore, it’s a fallacious argument. It’s appeal to consequences: I don’t like the consequences of rape being a product of evolution, therefore it is not a product of evolution. I’m sorry, but reality doesn’t care what we think. Reality simply is. What matters is that rape is something that, almost universally, we humans want to stop. And fully understanding the evolutionary origins of rape can help us to do that.

    After all, it cannot be denied (at least not rationally) that humans are a product of evolution. Therefore the question is not whether or not rape is a product of evolution, but instead whether rape is an adaptation (a specific behavior designed to promote the reproduction of our selfish genes), or a side effect (an emergent behavior that arose from other adaptations that were directly responsible for enhancing reproductive success).

    As for the sexy walk issue, that looked to me like a perfectly valid avenue of research. The conclusion that women are therefore responsible for rape is obviously specious and damaging. But that does not mean that the study was incorrect, or that it could not be useful. To me, this problem all comes down to the concept of blame. Blame made great sense a long time ago, before we formed civilization. Back then, when we formed hunter-gatherer societies, it was necessary to prevent behavior that would damage the group too much, as the survival of the group was necessary to the survival of the individual. So, it made good sense for us to have a strong negative reaction to immoral behavior.

    Today blame is just a liability. It is an evolutionary adaptation, but one that just does not work well in modern society. Remember that the goal, on this topic, is to reduce rape. Stating that anybody is to blame, whether the rapist or the victim, places the issue in an emotional context that prevents us from thinking rationally. And since thinking rationally is necessary for finding the best outcome, thinking in terms of blame is damaging. I, for one, do my best to refuse to think in terms of blame, but instead try to think in terms of what is the best way forward for all involved. This naturally isn’t really possible for personal interactions, but is relatively easy to do with political and social issues.

    In the case of rape, the best way forward is whatever way reduces rape the most while at the same time not sacrificing too much to other moral considerations (e.g. privacy, freedom, maintaining good self esteem). Discovering situations in which men frequently choose to rape would be an excellent educational tool to men and women alike: men so that they can be better informed as to how to choose not to rape, and women so that they can be better informed as to how not to put themselves at risk (akin to choosing not to go into a dark alley at night). And it is exceedingly important that we keep blame out of it, whether you’re a misogynist who wants to justify horrible behavior towards women by blaming the victim, or a feminist who is reluctant to support certain policies that could help women to avoid suffering because you think that those policies imply blame.

    In the end, the important thing in this context is how to reduce rape. Coloring the issue in an emotional manner only prevents us from seeing the best way to do that.

    P.S. I would really love to have a truly lengthly discussion on this topic, preferentially one informed by good research (from the results of my own digging around and others). But I am hesitant to suggest continuing further in this thread, as it has gone a bit off-topic. Perhaps somebody might suggest a better venue?

  6. # tigtog | Nov 11, 8:42 PM

    Jason, thank you for your sensitivity to the topicality of your discussion, fascinating though it is.

    I agree with your points about the emotive fallacy regarding reactions to evolutionary explanations: both rape and murder may be evolved adaptive behaviours that have historically maximised reproductive success in the competition for resources, but that doesn’t mean that they are either the most successful or uncontrollable responses to the current environment.

    It certainly doesn’t mean that the impulse to rape should not be expected to be controlled just as much as we expect people to control the impulse to murder. Ethical cooperation is probably a much better reproductive strategy than violent rivalry in the modern world purely from a pragmatic perspective, let alone a moral imperative.

  7. Jason Dick | Nov 11, 10:40 PM


    I just don’t think we should care what the best reproductive strategy is. There’s a hell of a lot more to life than just reproducing. After all, the best reproductive strategy at any given time for any given person is highly context-dependent, and at times may not be remotely ethical.

    For example, if I lacked morality, the best reproductive strategy might be for me to start a polygyny cult. Sure, it would take quite a lot of time and effort to discover how to manipulate people to the degree required, but the payoff in offspring for my genes would be tremendous. Even if I end up having a run-in with the law, it would only take a few months of successful cult growth to have a large number of offspring. As far as my genes are concerned, there would be no drawbacks as long as I didn’t fail to get it off the ground.

    It would also be morally wrong, so there’s no way I’m going to even attempt it. The thought of the level of manipulation of others that would be required just sickens me. It is for reasons like this that I am very glad that our primary motivation in life is not reproduction.

  8. # tigtog | Nov 12, 4:33 AM

    Jason, you seem to have missed my point about reproductive success and evolution (I shouldn’t have used “strategy”, because strategies don’t matter to evolution, evolution is the filter of random variations in genetic characteristics). Evolution is amoral, humans don’t have to be. “Morality” indeed is an behavioural adaptation, and a very successful one for the reproduction of our species.

    Evolutionary adaptations only occur in species because a genetic variation enhances the odds of reproductive success (i.e.parents with the variation produce more offspring that survive to reproduce in turn). Species can evolve conflicting adaptative behaviours because some behaviours may have been successful in some past environments and other behaviours may have been successful in other environments.

    So, rape, theft and murder are evolved behaviours that in the past of our species have all proved successful strategies in maximising surviving offspring. However, the development of law and order societies has been the most successful behaviour by far in terms of maximising the number of surviving offspring for our species. Rape, theft and murder are simple behaviours, building a functioning society is a collection of complex behaviours, so there is conflict between the behavioural impulses, and this is where ethical analysis of choices comes in as well as weighing the odds of escaping societal retribution.

    My point is that most of these people arguing for rape as an evolutionary adaptation simply don’t understand nearly as much about evolutionary adaptation as they think they do. Evolution favours survival, period. We are all the descendants of survivors, and yes, some of those survivors committed atrocities as their method of survival. But many more survived to raise offspring who also survived through peaceful cooperation. They never acknowledge this.

    (P.S. Head honchos of polygyny cults father far fewer offspring than they suppose, if studies of the parentage of primate troops are any indication. Beta males just can’t be trusted. Also, the evolved human adaptation to conquering a man with “more than his share” of women has until recently always been killing all the children as well as all the warriors, it’s in the Bible and every other holy text I can think of.)

  9. Tigtog,

    First, I’d like to thank you for creating this new thread. I do hope to have an interesting, and hopefully edifying discussion on this hot button topic. And I further hope that I am able to deal with it sensitively enough that I offend as few as possible.

    Now, back to the discussion. It is worth noting that not only do certain adaptations remain after they have outlived their usefulness (the human appendix is an excellent example here), but adaptiveness itself is a useful adaptation. That is to say, when faced with a frequently changing environment, the ability to change one’s behavior (or even biology!) in order to better reproduce in the new environment is of tremendous use. As such, we have a great many adaptations that are highly context dependent.

    But, in the end, it doesn’t matter whether or not the selective pressure for rape is still alive and well (if rape is an adaptation), both because evolution acts so slowly that we wouldn’t notice it much anyway, and also because stopping rape would effectively halt this selective pressure. What does matter is that if rape is an adaptation (or a side effect), understanding the history of how it came about can help us to more fully understand the causes of rape. And more fully understanding the causes can help us to more fully understand how to stop it.

    I would like to end up this post with a request. I have a book on the way that argues for the evolutionary nature of rape (A Natural History of Rape), and in the mean time I was wondering if somebody had some good links on some of the current non-evolutionary claims about rape. Specifically, does anybody have access to a good argument (with evidence) for the rape=power claim? This claim vaguely makes sense to me, but I can’t think of a truly good argument for it, and would like to see what there is available on the subject.

  10. What does matter is that if rape is an adaptation (or a side effect), understanding the history of how it came about can help us to more fully understand the causes of rape. And more fully understanding the causes can help us to more fully understand how to stop it.

    This certainly makes sense.

    Specifically, does anybody have access to a good argument (with evidence) for the rape=power claim?

    I don’t have access to the various journal articles, but the original academic claim arose from an extended series of interviews with convicted rapists about their motivations for rape etc, and also from forensic evidence that many if not most rapists do not climax through forced intercourse and often use implements for penetration rather than their penis. There is also the evidence that far from most rape victims being women at the peak of fertility (early to mid 20s) most victims are from more vulnerable demographics – by far the majority are girls aged 12-17 and if memory serves the second most popular demographic is the frail elderly.

  11. There is also the evidence that far from most rape victims being women at the peak of fertility (early to mid 20s) most victims are from more vulnerable demographics – by far the majority are girls aged 12-17 and if memory serves the second most popular demographic is the frail elderly.

    The “rape is an adaptation; it increases reproductive success” hypothesis also has a whole lot of ‘splaining to do when it comes to oral rape, anal rape, and the rape of children and men and pregnant women.

  12. Hi, I’m an ecologist. Not quite as good as being an evolutionary biologist, but the two are somewhat intertwined, and I can definitely clarify some things with regards to evolution.

    First off, Jason, this is certainly a nitpick, but some reliable science has been done in the past couple months to suggest that the appendix is in fact not useless at all. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071008102334.htm
    It’s a good example of how evolutionary theory (not the basics, but how we see the world) changes. And a good example of how actual science works: you won’t see anything in the article saying “we’ve proved what the appendix is for”; science is based entirely on evidence for and evidence against. Very rarely do we draw definite conclusions, instead we make models and figure out if the data support them or not.

    Secondly, although humans are a product of evolution, not every behavior a human being exhibits can be seen as an evolutionary strategy (exactly the right word, tigtog). It’s popular in the media (and in evopsych) to assume that everything we are or do must come from our prehistoric forbears, which is not actually true at all. Humans now have our own cultures, which influence the way we think about a lot of things. Is thin beautiful on women, or fat, or is it just the waist-to-hip ratio that matters? Are men patriarchal leaders of the clan, or do they stay at home and take care of their sister’s children? These are cultural norms, NOT evolutionary ones– as it turns out, there are really good evolutionary reasons for caring for your sister’s children. There are also really good evolutionary reasons for making sure all the children in the clan are yours and guarding them. There are good reasons for investing care into children, and good reasons for not investing care into children. It’s not nearly as cut-and-dried as pop-science would have you believe. Even our increased height over the past century is not a product of evolution; it’s a side-effect of better nutrition. So really, I don’t know that we can claim “rape is a product of evolution”. I don’t know that we can’t, either, as I haven’t studied this particular issue. It seems to me that if rape was an evolutionary strategy, it would be more common and less censured across cultures, even when (as lauredhel and tigtog pointed out) there is no question or possibility of paternity.

    Pai really hit the nail on the head here; in Evo-Psych, it’s really common to come up with conclusions that just happen to fit everybody’s (western) pre-conceived notions about The Way Things Are. The Sexy Walk study that hit all the feminist blogs yesterday and today is a perfect example– if they had come to the opposite conclusion, they would have cited an evolutionary adaptation to attract men during one’s most fertile period. And don’t get me started on the Girls Prefer Pink No Really We Promise study. It’s just BAD SCIENCE, and it’s designed to appeal to non-scientists who won’t read beyond the newspaper articles.

  13. Well, after a second round of Googling, I finally found some real data on ejaculation during rape:

    The relevant papers cited are available here:

    From this, it appears that semen is detectable in the pubic region approximately 50% of the time within 24 hours, with significant degradation after that. Therefore, there is good reason to suspect that ejaculation is indeed common in cases of rape. Thus, though there is a subset of rapists who rape as a response to their own sexual deficiency, who are often unable to ejaculate, there is reason to believe that it remains plausible for the majority of rape cases to be an adaptation.


    I am aware that the appendix is cited as having some uses. This is nothing new. But, by large, those who have had it removed suffer no noticeable ill effects (aside from the usual complications of surgery). Compared to the extremely common disease of appendicitis, any small benefit the organ may have does not outscore this tremendous drawback. One does not expect, after all, that vestigial organs be completely useless. They are just no longer useful for their prior purpose, as the appendix is not (in our ancestors it was a coccyx, which is a fermenting organ whose purpose is to house bacteria to digest certain plant matter that today just passes through our gut undigested).

    Furthermore, like it or not, we are a product of our ancestry. But that does not mean that every behavior we have is an adaptation. Many things are side effects: adaptations which either just happen to result in some effect (e.g. arterial blood looks red), or that are adaptations once developed for one purpose that, in a different context, do something completely different. For example, today the vast majority of sex is not for procreation: recreational sex is very much a side effect of the pleasure aspect of sex that is a direct adaptation to ensure propagation. Placed in a new environment, the adaptive behavior becomes a side effect.

    As for rape, then, the only two possibilities are whether a specific form of rape is a side effect or an adaptation. Some forms of rape, for instance, may well be side effects of behaviors that were developed for other forms of rape. Or there it may be a side effect of different behavior altogether. But that at least some forms of rape are an adaptation seems quite likely to me, given that it seems that many rapes do result in vaginal ejaculation.

    That rape is not uniform across cultures also in no way indicates that it is not an evolutionary adaptation. Remember that for it to make sense as an adaptation, it must be a context-dependent one. In some cultures, naturally, the context for rape will be more pronounced than in others. By viewing the rape in the light of evolution, for the reason that we ourselves are a product of evolution, we can better understand what this context is, and seek to remove it. This is, on a some level, what feminists are already engaged in, by attempting to combat the culture of male dominance and female objectification that permeates some areas of our society. Studying rape in the light of evolution can do nothing but aid this endeavor.

    Finally, as for the sexy walk thing, I don’t see why you see this as bad science. Obviously if the results had been different the conclusion would have been different. That’s what it means to follow the evidence. But it’s not like they’re actually claiming that they’ve shown that women tend to have a “less sexy” walk during ovulation as a response to rapists. In the paper (available here, requires subscription), they rightly relegate this discussion on the possible reasons for this walk to the discussion section, which is where in scientific papers we relegate speculation that requires further study.

  14. Pai,

    Thank you for the links. Unfortunately, that’s really not the kind of thing I’m looking for. The problem is, I’ve been burned too many times by trusting sources similar to those. A good example is with respect to the information related to male circumcision. A huge portion of the information out there on the web is woefully inaccurate, such as the repeated citing of the completely bogus research that UTI’s are less common in circumcised males, usually without even referencing the source of this claim so that readers can examine it themselves. So we’re in a situation where male newborns are routinely mutilated, permanently and dramatically reducing their sexual sensitivity.

    So I’d really prefer to focus on research, if at all possible, instead of popular websites. And if it must be popular websites, than I would at least prefer to stick to ones that are well-sourced.

  15. Jason: “Discovering situations in which men frequently choose to rape would be an excellent educational tool to men and women alike: men so that they can be better informed as to how to choose not to rape, and women so that they can be better informed as to how not to put themselves at risk (akin to choosing not to go into a dark alley at night). ”

    I think what we need to worry about is not so much situations as psychology. Maybe you mean this, too; it’s not clear.

    Yes, in a gang rape, it’s often true there is a ringleader and then a group of men who probably wouldn’t rape if they weren’t with the ringleader. So don’t hang out with guys who seem predatory.

    But most rape is one-on-one, and it’s the result of a combination of factors that don’t include dark alleys or strangers.

    The most common tool for rape is psychological isolation. You get the victim alone, frightened, away from help, physically compromised. You lie and manipulate to put the victim in this situation. You then make sure she doesn’t think anything she does will result in punishment for you, so she might as well accept it.

    So I guess if you find yourself doing this, stop and ask yourself why you’re doing it. When you go to kiss her, are you standing between her and the door, or are you giving her room to move away? Are you thinking of her enjoyment or only your own? Are you two individuals, or is she a thing?

    And then we go deeper. What allows a person to do something like this?

    It’s isolation, but a very special isolation. The “Othering” of the victim.

    By this I mean placing the victim in a category that one cannot identify with. If you can’t identify with her, you cannot empathize, cannot see what you’re doing as being done to a real human being. I think it’s essential for a human to put the victim in the “other” category to be able to do this inhuman act.

    An easy way to make this Othering possible is to hold the belief that women and men are so different they might as well be different species.

    This often first leads to the trivialization of female emotion, especially pain and fear. Women’s crying is just noise or some kind of attention gambit. Women cry all the time and it means nothing.

    With this belief, men are given a free pass to not care or even try to understand what women are thinking and feeling, just “nod your head and when she’s done, go back to the ball game.” Or even “don’t bother listening and she’ll learn to stop bitching.” This lays the groundwork for ignoring pain and fear later.

    Over time the Othering becomes more entrenched as poor communication continues. Stereotypes replace perception.

    So when raping a woman, her pain and suffering and fear does not matter to you, sometimes to the point that they literally become invisible to you because you’ve been desensitized to it. Or they are amusement because they do not belong to you.

    Another way women and men are supposed to be so different is in their interest in sex. Women aren’t supposed to care about it; they just want LOVE and put up with SEX. Therefore having sex with a woman who doesn’t want sex is not just okay, it’s a kind of norm. They just “do it” to get the man’s money, or to make a baby.

    How can men who love animals and children and their wives be vicious rapists? You only have to decide that the woman you’re raping isn’t a good woman for some random reason, and does not deserve your consideration. Othering is very specific in this case.

    Sorry, I have to stop now. I get depressed when I think about this. Hope I’ve helped.

  16. Thus, though there is a subset of rapists who rape as a response to their own sexual deficiency, who are often unable to ejaculate, there is reason to believe that it remains plausible for the majority of rape cases to be an adaptation.

    This seems an over-simplistic view of why a rapist might or might not ejaculate while committing the rape. You seem to be trying to separate “sex” rapes from “power” rapes as if sex can not be an expression of power. As has been memorably said, just because someone hits you over the head with a banjo doesn’t make the blows bluegrass, and just because someone violently assaults a woman with a penis doesn’t make the thrusts about satisfying sexual desire.

    Our society fetishises dominance and celebrates the degradation of others – in business, on the sporting field, in combat, on the internet (PWNED!!1!). Our human dominance hierarchies certainly have their roots in adaptations, so why couldn’t the urge to dominate be the primary adaptation driving rape rather than the urge to reproduce? As well as adaptive behaviour issues, dominance behaviours as an expected expression of masculinity are very heavily socialised and encouraged throughout men’s life, whereas the sexual impulses are wrapped in conflicting messages about promiscuity and self-control, there are very few conflicting messages about male dominance attitudes.

    The dominance explanation certainly better accounts for the rapes of non-fertile women, of boys, of anal-rapes and of rape-murders than does reproductive urges. Dominance motivation better explains the preponderance of premeditated rapes against non-fertile victims, and how the manipulations that lead to isolating the victim are so often drawn out to make it a game of cat and mouse.

    JoAnne hits it on the head with respect to Othering women being the primary contributor to the mindset where men feel entitled to rape because they feel entitled to dominate. That seems to be a far more powerful contributor to rape culture than any evolutionary explanation.

  17. Jason– no, not everything is an adaptation or a side effect. Some things are just random. Some things are culturally-influenced. And no, adapting one’s personal preferences to one’s culture is not the same as an evolutionary adaptation. As I said above, male preference for fat or skinny women is neither an adaptation nor a side effect; it’s just a (mostly) culturally-determined preference. Or take “junk DNA”– doesn’t code for anything, probably never coded for anything. It’s just there. In the same way, rape could very well be an adaptation, or a ‘side-effect’ of an adaptation. But it also could be neither of those things.

    I have read the ‘sexy walk’ study; I work for an evolutionary biologist, I read these things. The problems with the study were many: small sample size, not a subject-blind experiment, no quantitative difference in the gait of fertile vs. non-fertile women, and no significant difference in the ‘attractiveness’ rating for women in their original different ‘phases’. Not to mention the rating was done by 43 men in an intro-psych class for credit. And a lot of other things, but I suspect this isn’t the place to discuss scientific integrity. Just don’t jump to the conclusion that all studies are well-done or that everything is a result of natural selection.

  18. Some countries are “rape cultures” while others are not. It has a lot to do with the respective society’s attitudes about sex/women/dominance/submission. Men don’t rape because they have the biological urge to do so. They do it because it’s an effective method for denigrating and disempowering.

  19. I would be very interested to know, if we have any experts out there, which of the world’s countries have produced the highest and lowest degrees of rape culture. There would be enormous potential for formulating anti-rape strategies from looking at the characteristics of the cultures where rape happens the least.

  20. Responding to Jason Dick, on November 13th, 2007 at 11:20 am, you said:

    From this, it appears that semen is detectable in the pubic region approximately 50% of the time within 24 hours, with significant degradation after that.

    Actually, that’s not what the study which talked about likelihood of retrieving evidence said at all.

    The best chance of recovering seminal evidence is most frequently stated as being less than 50%, with far lower chances after 24 hours.

    There is no indication here whether they are limiting the cases analysed to only those where the victim indicated that the assailant did not wear a condom, for instance, or where the assailant contemptuously ejaculates elsewhere on the body. There was also no indication that any seminal evidence recovered came only from the pubic region, only that they were comparing the likelihood of recovering evidence of seminal fluid with the likelihood of recovering evidence using the pubic combing technique, which is obviously limited to the pubic region in a way that swabbing for seminal fluid need not be.

    The major article you were referencing, which cited these papers, also comes to a diametrically opposite conclusion than Thornhill et al about the adaptationary nature of rape, noting that only 2% of rapes appear to result in a pregnancy, and that Thornhill et al take no account of the fact that women evolve behaviours just as men do, and that the combined response of being more likely to terminate a rape pregnancy and being less careful about nurturing a child of rape make it unlikely to result in children of rape having a high chance of surviving to reproductive age, in which case any genetic adaptation is not perpetuated.

  21. First, I’d like to apologize for my long hiatus. I’ve been rather busy. Anyway, back into the fray.


    Yes, I think your post is probably correct. However, there is something that I don’t think you’ve addressed: that rape can be done in anger. That is, a man may feel he has a right to have sex with a particular woman (either because he sensed some signals that he interprets as meaning she wants sex, or because he is involved in a long-term relationship with her). Remember that it isn’t just failure to identify with the other person that can prevent us from empathizing with them: we can suspend our moral considerations if we believe that person has themselves done wrong.

    But regardless, these are merely possible proximate causes of rape. They are not ultimate (evolutionary) causes. And it is only in fully understanding the ultimate causes of rape that we can fully understand the proximate causes.


    You’re right. I over spoke slightly: some human attributes can be a product of random drift or of memetic instead of genetic evolution. However, rape has too high a cost to be a result of drift: rape is a specific behavior that is almost solely performed in situations where the benefits (to our genes) outweigh the risks. If it were merely a result of drift, then it would be consistently selected out of the population, would be independent of social status, would only occur in less than 1% of males, and rape attempts would occur about as frequently in males as in females. Rape is, in short, wholly inconsistent with it being a purely random chance mutation.

    As for memetic evolution being responsible for rape, that also makes no sense whatsoever. If this were the case, then why do women have specific adaptations in response to rape? For example, why is it that women experience less psychological pain from rape if there is visible evidence of injury from the rape? Rape has clearly been around far longer than memetic evolution has (which has only really been possible since civilization began ~10,000 years ago).

    Note that I use the more specific “memetic evolution” instead of culture deliberately: culture is a mistaken concept. Culture is how large groups of humans behave. It is not an entity in and of itself, but rather a function of a complex social interaction between humans. To claim that culture is not a product of human evolution would be about the same as claiming that hair is not a product of human evolution.


    The evidence does not support this claim. If rape were merely an expression of male dominance over women, then why is it that men who grew up with fathers are vastly less likely to rape than those without? This explanation of rape, in addition to being incorrect, is far more likely to increase rape than decrease it.


    You’re right, I made a mistake there. However, even a small chance of reproductive success is better than no chance (also bear in mind that with the 2% that result in successful pregnancy, there are many more that are aborted: it is likely that in the past the rate was vastly higher). This is why rape is not the most common form of sexual intercourse: rape just isn’t nearly as productive as consensual sex. But if a male is in a position where he is unlikely to reproduce through consensual sex in his lifetime, then it makes good evolutionary (though certainly not moral) sense for him to rape. Therefore it makes sense that signals of lack of social status may influence a man to rape (which is a large factor in sexual attractiveness for women). This is why it makes perfect sense in an evolutionary explanation for men who grow up without fathers to be more likely to engage in rape.

    Anyway, I’ve finished reading A Natural History of Rape, and while I disagree rather strongly with the authors on some points, they did raise some really compelling arguments that the idea that rape is not about sex, but rather about power, is not an idea based in reality, but one rather based on strategy. That is, people who hold the position that rape is about power don’t do so for any empirical reason, but rather because they believe that framing rape in this way will make men less likely to rape.

    But this doesn’t make any sense: if men are convinced that rape is about power, instead of about sex, then to them, clearly if they sexually desire a woman then they cannot be engaged in rape! Far from decreasing rape, this belief is likely to increase it, because it does not appear to be a belief that is grounded in reality. I think that we will always be doomed to failure whenever we form our view on reality based upon what we believe is useful, rather than letting reality speak for itself. It is only when we truly understand ourselves and the world around us that we can affect positive change.

  22. Oh, I guess I misread your post, Tigtog, so I’d like to elaborate a bit further:

    That rape pregnancies are likely to be aborted in no way affects how rape evolved, because abortions are vastly too recent to have had any significant effect on evolution. Though it stands to reason that over the span of tens of thousands of years, abortion of pregnancies that result from rape will likely reduce our natural tendency to rape, this doesn’t really help us reduce rape now.

  23. Jason,

    I’ll leave your longer comment for the moment, but abortions have been around for thousands of years using herbal concoctions, and infanticide has certainly been around for much longer than we have been civilised beings. I know that thousands of years is not all that long for evolutionary adaptations, but it’s not nothing either.

  24. Sure. But how common was it? Besides, as I said, some reproductive success is still better than none (as far as our genes are concerned).

  25. Jason, do you have a source for the claim that men who grew up with fathers are vastly less likely to rape than those without?
    Even if that is true, doesn’t that weaken your argument re: evolution? It suggests that environmental factors influence men’s decision to rape.

  26. Jason, you only have to read any ancient mythology to understand how common the infanticide of unwanted children was (“exposed on the hillside” and its equivalents abound). Who is more unwanted by a community than the child of the shame of rape? Family members in these myths expose the child before it has the chance to suckle.

    In societies that had herbal abortifacents to hand, and a tradition of exposing unwanted/unhealthy infants anyway, it would be logical to try the herbs first in cases of rape and not risk harm to women through unnecessary pregnancy/birth complications. So I have no doubt that herbal abortions happened wherever they were known, because ancient people were just as clever and pragmatic as people today.

  27. Jason– again, not everything is genetic. Not everything is adaptive. It sounds like you went straight to the EvPsych and missed Ecology&Evolution 101. I’d like to recommend the book “Biology” by Solomon&Solomon, followed by “Evolution” by Futuyma. A genetics textbook might not hurt, either. Then reread “A Natural History of Rape” and see if it still makes sense.

  28. SarahMC,

    That there is an evolutionary (and therefore genetic) explanation for rape does not discount the existence of environmental factors. Quite to the contrary, the only possible way that a rape-specific adaptation could be beneficial (for our genes) would be if it were only made use of in specific circumstances. That is, one would expect to see specific environmental cues that make it more likely for men to become rapists. These cues might be developmental (e.g. indicators early in life that the person in question is of low socioeconomic status), or they might be immediate (e.g. perceived vulnerability of the woman in question).

    The thing is, it is only in the light of evolution that we can answer the question as to why certain environmental cues can make a person likely to behave in a particular way, and this can further give us insight into what sorts of environmental cues are likely to exist, and which are more likely to be mere coincidences. That is, there are many proximate causes of rape. Proximate causes are the specific environmental factors that influence a person to rape. An ultimate (evolutionary) cause of rape is the reason why those proximate causes are causes of the behavior in the first place (of course, we don’t know what the ultimate causes are yet…)

    For the source of the claim that rapes are more common among those without fathers, see:
    The study indicates that depending upon the type of rapist (rapists were placed into four categories), the percentage who came from families without fathers varied between 40% and 80% (most for the “displaced anger” subtype, least for the “compensatory” subtype). One would naturally have to check this against the statistics of the general population at large, but it seems that an approximate number for the fatherless children out there is ~20%, which would make such children ~2-4 times more likely to be rapists, predominantly of the “displaced anger” type.

    Note that I’m not trying to argue that this demonstrates that the lack of a father is a proximate cause of rape. Correlation does not, after all, imply causation. Such a proximate cause does make sense from an evolutionary perspective, but the primary thing to gather from this is that it shows that the claim that rape is about male dominance over women makes no sense, as there is a negative correlation between an intact family and rape.


    Yes, but you cannot deny that herbal abortifactants would be vastly less effective than surgical abortion, as well as more dangerous to the woman (though whether those abortifactants were more or less dangerous at the time than carrying a pregnancy to term, I do not know). In any case, it is clear that some rapes result in reproduction. That is enough if the rapist in question would be otherwise unable to copulate with this woman, and if the rape in question does not otherwise adversely affect his ability to reproduce.

    But what’s more, this is only particularly interesting if rape is an adaptation, which it very well may not be. If rape is a by-product of other adaptations, then a lack of reproductive success actually makes more sense. In any case, though, knowledge of what the ultimate causes of rape are can help to more fully understand the proximate causes, and thus can be used to better prevent it.


    No, not everything is adaptive. But everything about biology is a result of the interrelationship between genes and the environment. Evolution explains why certain environmental changes result in certain phenotypic changes, because the genes control the biological response to different environments. Presumably you are claiming that some things are “environmental” in cause. But this is a misnomer: everything about biology is a combination of environment and genetics. DNA is, after all, just a molecule. And like all molecules, it behaves in a specific way in response to a specific environment, based on its chemistry. To state that something is “environmental” in cause does not say that that thing does not also have a genetic cause.

    Of course, a complex behavior like rape may well be a by-product, and may not have actually been positively selected for in the past. I guess I’ve just focused on the adaptation issue because I understand it better.

    P.S. Yes, the above is slightly simplistic: DNA isn’t everything. But it’s where most of the reproductive information is stored.

    And one can add to this memetic evolution, which adds its own ultimate causes to certain aspects of human behavior. This is, however, not separate from behavior having causes in biological evolution. The results of memetic evolution are simply another environmental factor: just as our brains are the environment for memes to evolve, memes are part of our environment, and determine, in part, which sorts of phenotypes are expressed. Since it does not make any sense for rape to be a direct product of memetic evolution (not that it can’t be or hasn’t, but in the main it clearly isn’t), we can ignore memetic evolution when searching for the causes of rape.

  29. i still don’t see the part where rape, as a behavior, helps a species thrive or survive in its environment.

    as i understand the whole schtick, a trait will continue if it is able to benefit the species as a whole.

    when there are so many better reproduction strategies, why would rape keep surviving? this is the part that makes me feel like this is a bunch of bullshit.

    mind also that women are part of the human species, and rape is not benefitting them in a physical way, either. so SERIOUSLY, how does this work, then?

  30. Small update:
    I made a math error in my previous post. The correct number for 80% of a certain type of rapist coming from 20% of the population indicates that that 20% of the population indicates that that 20% is 16x more likely to commit that particular form of rape, not 4x (This is because you have to take into account both the higher representation of the minority, and the lower representation of the majority). The correct number for the 40% of a certain type coming from the same 20% group indicates a 2.67x over-representation. This should demonstrate that relatively small changes in these percentages can lead to large changes in how much more likely rape is, and therefore we should probably take a conservative estimate and state that a man from a broken family is at least 2-8 times more likely to rape, depending upon the type of rape.


    Of course it doesn’t help the species to thrive. It helps the individual to reproduce. While evolution may describe changes in species over time, selection can only act upon individual members of the population. Therefore, if a trait leads to greater reproductive success for an individual, then that trait is likely to be passed on and spread throughout the population.

    Remember, after all, that it is not only humans that do this, but many other animals engage in forced copulation. One example is the damselfly. In this species, the typical method of copulation is for the male to present a nuptual gift to the female (the gift is basically food). If she deems the gift satisfactory, she allows him to copulate with her. If, on the other hand, he is unable to procure a gift, then he will pursue the female and attempt to force copulation. In this case, there is only about a 50% chance of copulation, as she tries rather hard to throw him off, and one might infer an even lower chance of reproductive success due to having fewer nutrients due to the lack of a nuptual gift. But it’s still better than not mating at all, and so the damselfly male has adapted to copulate consensually when possible, rape when necessary. This doesn’t help the species propagate: it merely helps individual damselflies reproduce better.

  31. I see a possible confounding factor, Jason, in that generally, and particularly in the US, socioeconomic class greatly affects the likelihood of being found guilty of any crime, particularly in the case of rape. Young men from single parent families are much likelier to be poor and worse educated than men from two-parent families, and are much more likely to be convicted by a jury than a middle-class young man from a two-parent family.

    I can’t see any way that the study you cite has controlled for that confounding factor.

  32. ok, so explain to me how ~*understanding the evolutionary impulse to rape*~ is going to teach women how to not get raped. most of us have been raped by our boyfriends, fathers, best friends, acquaintances, dates — people that we know. i know this because you used the fallacy of alleyways and strangers upthread.

    if men have this urge to rape people, then should women just stop associating with men, period? i don’t see where else this could possibly lead. because we don’t know who can resist their evolutionary urge and who can’t, or if all men have it or only some men, or what.

    and i have yet to see how this is going to be so much more helpful than trying to make a society that legitimately respects women and actually discourages men from raping people (which it does not, at the moment).

    of course, you’re going to accuse me of being hyperbolic. but you haven’t made any suggestions in this regard, as far as i’ve read, so i don’t know what else you would like anyone to think.

  33. “Remember, after all, that it is not only humans that do this, but many other animals engage in forced copulation. One example is the damselfly…”

    Human behaviour is way, way more complex than insect behaviour. I’d note here that human children are born srsly immature compared even to chimps, and that you’re talking a twelve-to-twenty-year time investment in bringing up a child, in which – ideally – both parents are heavily involved, plus (historically) their extended families.

    Sticking around to care for your kids significantly increases their chances of surviving to adulthood. This is not something rapists tend to do.

    And, yes, I suppose a man could have a family and just rape in his spare time (thus getting the benefit of a vastly more successful strategy plus the what-is-it-2%-chance? of having a child resulting from rape survive), but if he gets caught? Most societies in Ye Olden Days were pretty small-town – a majority urban population is a /very/ recent development, and I’m talking about historical times, not bands of hunter-gatherers. Getting caught is a high probability. And getting caught as a rapist not only decreases your desirability as a non-coercive reproductive partner, it can get you pretty severely punished – we’re talking ostracism from the group at the least (a big deal when it means no-one’s willing to share food with you), up to execution at the more severe end of the scale.

    Getting executed is not a good reproductive strategy, but it’s been a pretty common sentence for rape, historically speaking.

  34. Good points, random browser!

    I mentioned way upthread that murder and theft are also arguably adaptative behaviours, but I don’t think I made my point clearly enough, because Jason just went back to arguing that we have to understand the evolutionary reasons for rape in order to combat it.

    Do any of the people advocating understanding evolutionary explanations of the urge to rape as a trump card in prevention argue the same as the prime method of preventing murder and theft?

    If not, why not?

  35. “I can’t see any way that the study you cite has controlled for that confounding factor.”

    And what of the far higher percentage of rapes that are not reported? Does this study address the men are not caught/convictedin the first place?

  36. […] a while now I’ve been trying to figure out a response to a thread on Feminism 101 about rape and evolution. The problem is that I don’t follow closely what is going on in psychology, I tend to read […]

  37. I’ve been following this discussion for several weeks now, feeling rather daunted by all the links and statistics quoted.

    Because I am not a psychologist, I can’t offer an incisive critique of evo-psych, although I would really love to. It’s not my field, yet the little I’ve read (several articles but no handbooks) angers me greatly. It’s like a regression of the discipline. Is it trying to dismantle itself?

    Because relegating everything to evolution makes people seem like puppets at the mercy of the ever-undefined “human nature.” Even if we welcome a more complex view of evolution and evolutionary strategies, placing rape within that contexts still means condoning it. After all, it’s men’s “overpowering nature” that drives rape, no?

    No. As many commenters above pointed out, rape is not so great as a survival strategy after all. In that respect, it’s more hit and miss — even without going into statistics concerning ejaculation, etc.

    Rape is a great strategy of enforcingsubmission, though. It helps to build power structures and does wonders for acculturating people into fear. Greer wrote about it, so did Dworkin and many others.

    Rather than write fables about the mystical “human nature” that excuse rape, we should focus on untangling the mechanisms that pass on the fear through generations.

    I refuse to take the explanation of rape as an evolutionary strategy. Period.

    What about culture?

  38. januaries, you have created several misrepresentations of the discussion.

    No where in the thread do I see anyone “relegating everything to evolution.” What I’ve read is that there is more than one factor is involved in understanding, and the ultimate elimination of rape.

    You go on to say, “Even if we welcome a more complex view” (how generous of you!) …”placing rape within that contexts still means condoning it.” Again, no one is condoning rape. If I wanted to condone rape, I would start with Andrea Dworkin’s famous quote from Intercourse, both ridiculous and unhelpful to feminists and women in general, “All heterosexual intercourse is rape.”

    By your own admission you are daunted by statistics and clearly you are unhappy where some of them lead you so you call them “fables.”

    What is your plan to put an end to rape? I’ve never heard any specifics. We should “Educate society.” Or, “Change the culture.” Don’t forget “Untangle the mechanisms of fear.” Go ahead. Let’s see the exact path you have in mind. Frankly, starting with a non-prejudicial study of evolution makes more sense than the mush of wishing away the problem.

  39. How interesting that you’ve put the phrase attributed to Andrea Dworkin in quotes, as if it is a direct quote from her writings. I presume in that case you can give me a page number from a particular edition?

    If you can’t provide a proper cite for that quote, why don’t you concede that she never actually said that? [link]

  40. Glig — no need for all this venom in your reply. But I see that I could have spared the tentative tone.

    I don’t think I’ve “created misrepresentations,” I only gave my opinion. Anyone who wants to have a “representation” of the discussion, should read through it.

    What do you mean by the ironic “generous”? What I meant to say that even if we take a more complex view of evolution, putting it forward as an explanation for rape sounds like an excuse.

    About being daunted by statistics — yes, I am daunted by numbers thrown about as arguments, because there is no way I — or anyone else — can respond to them. Show me your sample, show me how you compiled it, then we can talk and consider their validity.

    “Change the culture”? Hell, yeah. If you wanted an answer from me, that’s my answer.

    Furthermore, I do not believe that all intercourse is rape. You must admit that the evo-psych take kind of suggests that — it places rape on a par with sex, which i find unacceptable. And, as Tigtog let you know, Andrea Dworkin wouldn’t hold with that either.

    If you want a quote from Dworkin, here are some thoughts from her speech “I Want a Twenty-Four-Hour Truce During Which There Is No Rape,” addressed to men:

    I came here today because I don’t believe that rape is inevitable or natural. If I did, I would have no reason to be here. (…) Have you ever wondered why we are not just in armed combat against you? It’s not because there’s a shortage of kitchen knives in this country. It is because we believe in your humanity, against all the evidence.

    If you have a conception of freedom that includes the existence of rape, you are wrong.

    Now what are your “specifics,” what’s your plan to end rape.
    I would be ready to buy the evo-psych hypothesis if only it promised an end to rape.

  41. What is your plan to put an end to rape? … Frankly, starting with a non-prejudicial study of evolution makes more sense than the mush of wishing away the problem.

    You’ve got who’s being mushy and who’s being practical exactly reversed.

    Rape rates in (to pick the example I’m most familiar with) the United States have declined dramatically in the last four decades — all crime is down since the sixties, but rape has fallen faster and farther than just about anything else.

    Why is this? I’d argue (and I have argued elsewhere, and I’ll post links if I can find them) that feminism has a great deal to do with it. Feminism has made it much harder to rape with impunity, and much harder to rape without admitting to yourself that you’ve done it. Rape is far less normative culturally than it was four decades ago, and there’s far less stigma attached to an admission that you’ve been raped.

    Feminism, in short, has been working hard to eliminate rape over the last four decades. It’s been remarkably successful in winning legal and social victories in that fight, and there’s been a concomitant dramatic decline in rape rates. Correlation doesn’t prove causation, of course, and it’d be possible to argue that the decline in rape has nothing to do with the rise of feminism, but the facts on the ground are stark and — to my mind — compelling.

    How do we stop rape? Do what we’ve been doing, and do more of it. I think the relevant “what we’ve been doing” is mostly feminist analysis and organizing, but even if you disagree with me on that, you’ve got to admit that we as a society are doing something right. Whatever we’ve been doing is working.

    What’s the practical, empirical case for the argument that a “non-prejudicial study of evolution” would be more effective than the strategies that are currently being followed? Seems to me that you’re the one peddling mush.

  42. Brooklynite, I agree with you completely!

  43. As far as rape as a reproductive/evolutionary strategy goes, I think it’s worth pointing out that what we consider rape today has been a viable way for men (and women of course, willing or not) to reproduce for most of recorded human history and probably much of pre-history as well.

    Perhaps this was missed on this thread because the thread is so evo-biology oriented & not historically focused.

    For most of recorded human history, warfare usually involved taking conquered people as slaves. Conquered men would usually be killed, women would be raped and taken as concubines. This wouldn’t be frowned on by the conquering society – it would be approved of & there would be no need to hide it. So the children produced by these unions would often be cared for & raised to adulthood (in some cases as full members of the conquering society, in other cases as slaves or second class members of the society).

    Here’s a link to a recent archeological find that shows this behavior didn’t arise with civilization – it predates it:

    It’s highly likely that all of us today are descended at least partly from women who were raped by soldiers of conquering armies – and from the soldiers who raped these women.

    These are our ancestors.

    What do I take away from this?

    Well, in addition to working for continued social change, it’s worth recognizing that a certain minimal level of civilization is necessary for women’s rights.

    If our social structure collapses due to environmental destruction, unbridled warfare, economic catastrophe, or for some combination of these and/or other reasons, people are likely to revert to these kinds of behaviors pretty quickly.

    So it’s worthwhile to pay attention to other issues (environment, economics, peace) that create the foundation feminism can be built on.

    For men like Jason D, concerned that there may be situations in which their evolutionary heritage makes them more likely to rape, my first advice would be this: avoid warfare.

  44. Rael

    Your interpretation of rape in ancient societies – as well as that of the scientists in the article you linked to – assumes that prehistoric people were deficient of any sense of moral or emotional complexity.

    People who lived 7000 years ago were perfectly capable of viewing rape as a crime of deliberate brutality, every bit as much as we are today. They were fully capable of recognizing its destructive effect, both on the woman herself and everyone associated with her.

    The assumption that men of those times simply resorted to raping women as a means of reproduction whenever women were scarce would have been just as simplistic to them as it is to us.

    Men who raped women in war 7000 years ago did it for the same reasons that men rape women in war today. War rape was and is a confirmation of victory by the men of the conquering population over the men and women of the defeated population. Men raped the women of a defeated population for much the same reason that they burned villages, stole animals, destroyed crops and plundered treasures – i.e. to assert power, demoralise the enemy and spread fear.

    Certainly, the absence of women in the prehistoric remains referred to in your article link was almost certainly because the victors separated them from their men and children and took them elsewhere to rape them – just as happened in Nanking in 1937, eastern Germany in 1945 and Bosnia in 1999.

    However, it’s unlikely these victors had any interest in creating offspring. If they did, it was to inflict ongoing humiliation on the conquered population – certainly not any desire to become fathers.

  45. Rael,
    just a few points:

    “As far as rape as a reproductive/evolutionary strategy goes, I think it’s worth pointing out that what we consider rape today has been a viable way for men (and women of course, willing or not) to reproduce for most of recorded human history and probably much of pre-history as well.”

    Actually, what we are witnessing today, looks nothing like how our ancestor’s behaved. I’m not aware of a large-scale trend in areas of conflict (e.g., Sudan, DRC, Bosnia, etc,) where male rapists had planned on taking their victims as concubines or wives. Someone correct me if I’m wrong here.

    Furthermore, many of these women are raped so brutally (in some cases becoming infertile as a result). Clearly this has motives beyond a reproductive strategy.

    Even in the cases of rape as a means of ethnic cleansing (potential reproductive strategy), the rapists are not sticking around the marry the women and care for offspring. To my understanding the vast majority of women are left to fend for themselves if they survive the ordeal.

    Furthermore, because of pervasive cultural bias, often the women are considered un-marriageable and a dishonor to the family. These women may be shunned from their communities with very little access to resources that they would need to care for a child.

    These details seem differ markedly from ancestral warfare or at least what can be gathered from the pre-historic data.

    In communities not under the pressure of conflict or environmental stress, we see that stranger rapes, date rapes, incest, same-sex rape and rape of children really don’t seem to fit nicely into a concrete reproduction strategy either.

  46. I agree the the genocide/ethnic cleansing campaigns we’re seeing today in places like Sudan are indeed very different from historical forms of warfare – probably due to the fact that the planet is nearing it’s carrying capacity for people.

    It’s undeniable, though, that systematic rape/slavery/forced concubine status have been the way war was practiced for most of recorded human history.

    The Roman Empire, for example, ran largely on slave labor which it got thru military conquest.

  47. Marian

    Your interpretation of rape in ancient societies – as well as that of the scientists in the article you linked to – assumes that prehistoric people were deficient of any sense of moral or emotional complexity.

    I think their situation and culture was very different, and their morality was very different than ours. Your comment suggests a kind of moral ethnocentric absolutism that does not stand up to the historical record.

    In the historical record we have cases where armies did indeed engage in rape & pillage as a kind of hit-and-run victory dance you describe (Huns, Vikings, Mongols).

    We also have cases of whole populations taken into slavery with the women becoming concubines in slavery if desired by the victors (Greek city-states, Roman Empire, ancient Egypt).

    Have you read Homer’s Illiad? Do you know what starts the fight between Achilles & Agamemnon that keeps Achilles from the battlefield? Do you know who Briseis was?

    from Wikipedia:

    In Greek mythology, Brisēís (Greek Βρισηίς) was a Trojan widow (from Lyrnessus). She was captured during the Trojan War when Achilles led the assault on Lyrnessus. Her three brothers and her husband, possibly King Mynes of Lyrnessus, died during the attack, the latter at Achilles’ hands. She is given to Achilles as a prize. After an oracle forced Agamemnon to give up his woman, Chryseis, he ordered his heralds, Talthybius and Eurybates, to take Briseis from Achilles as compensation. Achilles was offended by this seizure and, as a result, withdrew from the fighting. Despite Agamemnon’s grand offers of treasure and women, he did not return to the fray until the death of Patroclus.

    What does this say about the ancient Greek morality wrt the rape of a women taken in war by the man who killed her husband? The “offence” in the drama here is that another higher ranking man comes and takes her without offering compensation …

    It’s likely that ancients didn’t consider forcing a female slave to become a concubine to be rape at all – but certainly we consider it so today – don’t we?

    In any case, the argument that we do not have a significant amount of rape in our ancestral record is flatly contradicted by history.

  48. Rael

    ‘It’s likely that ancients didn’t consider forcing a female slave to become a concubine to be rape at all – but certainly we consider it so today – don’t we?’

    This concubine scenario is about slavery, not rape. And slavery is about dominance. Its closest equivalent in today’s society would probably be the world sex-trafficking trade. While sex trafficking is illegal in Western countries, it’s condoned in many countries around the world and a large portion of its clients live in the West.

    As with slavery, rape has been around for a long time. However, this does not give it evolutionary justification. After all, pedophilia has been around a long time, too.

    I’m no expert on evolution, but I don’t think it should be confused with history. As I understand it, evolution is about overall survival of a species (not survival of the fittest, which was actually a misinterpretation of Darwin’s theory by the ultra right-wing philosopher, Herbert Spencer).

    Evolutionary survival actually works in cycles as human environments change – not on a linear progression from a primitive to an advanced state.

    I believe that humans are basically ‘wired’ to live in caring, compassionate social environments, but have a fallback mechanism to dominator behaviour whenever an individual or group comes under stress or attack.

    As societies became more complex, needing more and more resources in order to function, the dominator mechanism started to become more the norm in our recent history (the last 4,000-7,000 years) rather than the fallback mechanism – as societies clashed for greater access to resources.

    This theory is at odds with your premise that civilization protects women from rape. Sometimes it does, but sometimes it creates the very dominator conditions that give rise to rape.

    In fact, history has often shown that women’s status declined as societies ‘advanced’. For example, women in pre-Roman Celtic Europe had far higher social status than women in the Greco-Roman world.

    Rape is more a symptom of the dominator social systems that develop out of human chaos. It is not necessary to human evolution or reproduction.

  49. Excellent post, Marian. Thank you.

    OK, I think that this topic has had as much play as it needs for at least a month or so. Further comments will not be published on this thread until after the 21st of July.

  50. Jason, evolution is no excuse. Poor ol’ Evolution is being misunderstood and blamed unfairly.

    1. Rape is inherently wrong. I don’t want to be raped. There is no circumstance where rape is desirable. I find myself instinctively willing to do anti-social things to avoid/prevent/stop it. Even if it confers a higher probability of reproducing. Surely this is obvious.

    2. It does involve sex, but we only call it rape if it exceeds consent. Even if the perpetrator does not know why he does it, for the victim, rape IS about power. I don’t care how much Thornhill and Palmer protest.

    3. Different communities recognise different behaviours as ‘sexy’, even within my suburb. Dress, occupation and language affect this. It is not accurate nor acceptable to assume someone is available for reproductive sex, based on appearance. On the pill, breast-feeding, shoes, trans… there are so many reasons why a sexy walk might not be matched with reproductive capacity. Desire is linked to a socially-constructed perception in the beholder, not a biological fact of the victim.

    4. To the extent that a genetic disposition to rape is proven, the biological drive must not be tolerated, as it would lead to reproduction of that undesirable trait in the next generation. On the other hand, if the genetic disposition is not compelling, the behaviour must not be excused as biologically determined. Biological drive is not a good enough reason to tolerate antisocial behaviour. Individual biological advantage bows to community stability in many species. For example, homosexuality does not directly confer a reproductive advantage, but is important in some animal communities.

    5. Rape is not necessary for reproduction of the species. Rape is not even necessary for reproduction by an individual, unless that individual is socially disenfranchised. I think legal methods of assisting reproduction are likely to be less costly to society, although I cannot prove it; they are certainly more just than rape.

    6. Evolutionary selection is an population-level outcome or EFFECT, not in itself a cause of behaviour of individuals. For the causes of individual action, we have to look at individual experience. There is a long step between seeing a woman and getting physically intimate.

    7. Thanks to communication technologies ranging from speech to video games, beliefs, attitudes and skills are transmitted and reinforced or extinguished thousands of times faster than genes, AND can be more powerful than urgent biological imperatives (pain, hunger, death). Celibate monastic orders have persisted for centuries.

    8. Evolution (like gravity) has no strategy or purpose. On the other hand, through law, custom and discourse we can collectively select behaviours which will be rewarded or sanctioned in the next generation. That is, we can drive the evolution of our society. We train individual members of dangerous breeds of predators to be trustworthy pets. We define human rights intentionally.

    9. Blame is still a useful construct in the collective enterprise of shaping our society. Law and entertainment (including books, blogs and bollywood) are some of our tools for that task. Blame, if well handled, personalises our understanding of adverse experiences and enables to use our capacity for projection (empathy) to negotiate our social divisions and build beneficial alliances.

    The sexy walks research is bad science for several reasons, as has already been explained.

    However, is this whole thread based on a flawed, masculinised idea of Science? It seems like the subjective nature of experience, over-determination, and social constructions of meaning – all very evident, but qualitative, narrative and personal – are being set aside in favour of aggregate modelling of crude, binary events conjectured to ensue from tenuous quantitative data.

    In practice, Jason, expect me to be outraged if you talk to me about ‘Natural History’ when I raise an issue of intensely personal experience.

  51. Thornhill & Palmer’s “Natural History of Rape” has been thoroughly discredited, on a scientific basis, by numerous scientists. I reference many of these in my article on the book, “They Blinded Me With Science” in “Fundamental Differences: Feminists Talk Back to Social Conservatives” ed. Cynthia Burack & Jyl Josephson 2003. In that article I also discuss why, even if if you take T & P’s pseudo-science at face value, it doesn’t lead to any proposed solutions that are unique or new. The purpose of that book is to explain why feminism is bad and why doing away with the patriarchy would actually, in their view, harm women by supposedly making rape more prevalent.

    It is not actually necessary to know the ultimate cause of problems in order to devise effective solutions to them. Which is a good thing, since there are few things for which we know the ultimate causes, and yet we run around devising effective solutions all the time. For example, as I note in my essay: We could lock all men up, let them out only under guard of heavily armed women to do some useful work, and harvest their sperm periodically as needed to propagate the species. That would solve the ol’ rape problem right there, baby! Ultimate causes – who needs ’em! Or, as T & P propose, women could curtail their liberty and dress, and endeavor to be chaperoned when they meet with men. The point is that there are many potentially effective courses of action; which one we find socially acceptable, which one we find desirable as a society, is a question science cannot answer for us.

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