Darwin’s dirty secret

Review of A Natural History of Rape by Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer

You always knew that evolutionists had ambitions of being more than scientists — of being prophets of a total evolutionary worldview. The latest evidence of such intellectual imperialism comes from a new book, A Natural History of Rape, which claims that natural selection explains all human behavior — even the crime of rape. Authors Randy Thornhill of the University of New Mexico and Craig Palmer of the University of Colorado advance the startling thesis that rape is not a pathology but an evolutionary adaptation — a strategy for maximizing reproductive success.

The book has ignited a firestorm of protest on talk shows and op-ed pages. But the authors say they are merely applying “evolutionary psychology” (a new moniker for sociobiology), which claims that natural selection produced not only the human body but also human behavior. Any behavior that survives must have been preserved by natural selection because it conferred some evolutionary advantage.

Even rape? Yes, say the authors. Men rape when they lose out in the competition for mates. If flowers and candy fail to do the trick, they resort to coercion to fulfill the reproductive imperative. Rape is “a natural, biological phenomenon that is a product of the human evolutionary heritage,” just like “the leopard’s spots and the giraffe’s elongated neck.” Statement. The authors are not saying that rape is morally right. “There’s no connection between what biology says is true of the world and what is right or wrong,” Mr. Thornhill said on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. Yet to say that rape confers a reproductive advantage sounds perilously close to saying that it is useful or beneficial. Small wonder so many are protesting the thesis.

Even most evolutionary biologists reject it. In Nature, Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago and Andrew Berry of Harvard show that the studies cited in the book fail to support its claims. For example, the book makes much of the “fact” that most rape victims are of reproductive age, suggesting that perpetrators are driven by an urge to reproduce. But the study cited actually shows that, among victims, girls under 11 are vastly overrepresented. Other critics point out that victims include older women past childbearing age, and even men (e.g., prison rape). The entire theory rests, as Mr. Coyne and Mr. Berry say, on “statistical sleight of hand.”

Yet what critics overlook is that the facts are irrelevant. The book’s thesis has all the force of simple logic. When pressed by critics on NPR, Mr. Thornhill insisted with exasperation that since evolution is true, it must also be true that “Every feature of every living thing, including human beings, has an underlying evolutionary background. That’s not a debatable matter.” Accept evolution, and the reasoning is axiomatic.

This explains why other proponents of evolutionary psychology have “discovered” an evolutionary advantage in jealousy, depression, and even infanticide. (In last November’s New York Times, Stephen Pinker of MIT claimed that “the emotional circuitry of mothers has evolved” by natural selection to let some babies die.) No matter how morally atrocious the act, evolutionists who want to be consistent must find some benefit in it.

The rise of evolutionary psychology is forcing people to grapple with Darwinism’s profoundly nihilistic moral implications. In the words of sociobiology’s founder, E.O. Wilson, “the basis of ethics does not lie in God’s will”; instead, ethics “is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes” because of its survival value. Those who accept Darwinian evolution, yet raise moral objections to A Natural History of Rape, are being inconsistent to their own foundational assumptions.

“A transcendent fulcrum for morality is possible only if there is a transcendent Designer,” Jeffrey Schloss, biologist at Westmont College, told WORLD. This explains why, when feminist leader Susan Brownmiller objected to Mr. Thornhill’s theory, he accused her of sounding like “the extreme religious right.” In short, Darwinism and its unpalatable moral implications are a package deal; protest, and you invite a return to the theistic worldview.

It’s an agonizing dilemma for evolutionists: Either they can be logically consistent to their starting assumptions, but end up with an inhumane worldview–or they can be true to their God-given sense of morality, at the cost of being inconsistent.

The only way out of the dilemma is a change in assumptions, a return to the view that life was designed and that morality really does rest “on God’s will.”

-Nancy Pearcey is senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and managing editor of the journal Origins and Design.