Wired is running an interesting article (Rape Theory Too Much To Take) on the most recent chapter in evolutionary biologist Randy Thornhill’s controversial claim that impulse to rape has a biological basis. Thornhill details his argument in his book, “A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion,” in which he argues that there is a “human rape adaptation” that is present in all or most men that biologically predisposes them to rape.
Wired reports that several men in the audience tried to shout Thornhill down, and his book received very negative reactions when it was first published, from feminists, from those who reject sociobiological principals, and others.
I haven’t read Thornhill’s book, but have read enough excerpts and criticism and defense of it to be very wary of his specific claims. On the other hand the broader issue that Thornhill raises, and the reaction to it, especially by feminists, is worth pondering further — are there biological roots to violence?
As Richard Pipes notes in “Property and Freedom” even many hard core defenders of evolutionary biology end up in weird contortions in order to assert that violence is almost environmental. Pipes writes that many the same folks who would cringe at the idea that human beings are a unique or special species have no problem insisting that unlike every other species human beings have no innate predispositions to behaviors such as violence. In fact on the radical feminist spectrum there are not a few theorists who claim that a) human beings have no innate abilities or impulses at all — everything is environment, and b) Darwinian evolution is simply wrong to the extent that it implies otherwise.
Unfortunately, science often gets in the way of political fantasies, and the evidence for a wide range of innate behaviors is pretty overwhelming at this point, with language acquisition being the real lynch pin. It is very difficult to look at the available evidence and conclude that language is acquired in any way accept through innate structures in the brain/mind. Given that violent acts appear to be an integral part of lives of many mammalian species, especially those living species closest to our own, it would be astounding if there weren’t some biological predisposition to violence in our own species.
People seem to want to avoid reaching this conclusion for two separate but closely related reasons.
First, they want to avoid simple biological determinism, which is understandable. Just because I might be predisposed to act violently in certain situations thanks to my evolutionary heritage does not meant that I inevitably must act violently. In fact Freud was hardly the first person to suppose that the main project of civilization was the tempering of such innate behaviors. While evolutionary biology might explain a certain level of violence across human beings as a species, it doesn’t necessarily explain individual acts of violence nor does it mean that I lack the power to choose whether or not to commit violent acts (in fact the vast majority of human beings are, judging by how they live, fully capable of interacting peacefully with other people).
The second objection is a bit harder to comprehend. As conference organizer Gerfried Stocker tried to explain the controversy, “Some of the people got the idea that he thinks rape is natural or good.” It is interesting that Stocker chose to equate “natural” with “good” since that is exactly the heart of the problem — just because something is natural does not in any way mean that it is good. This should be self-evident given the numerous example of natural things that are definitely not good. One wonders, for example, if Thornhill published a book entitled, “The Natural History of Small Pox,” if protesters would show up to silence him with shouts of “You’re saying small pox is good!”
Radical feminists have contributed to this ridiculous view that natural=good with their glorification of nature which is set in opposition to “patriarchal” science’s “reductive” view of the world. Many radical feminists, especially in academe, like to contrast women’s inherent, deep connect with an idyllic nature with that of a harsh, cold view of men and accomplishments such as science (ignoring, of course, the important contribution made by female scientists, or denigrating that contribution as self-loathing). If women are good, as represented by their special connection with nature, then certainly the millions of years of brutal killing that is evolution and natural selection certainly creates problems.
The bottom line is that violence almost certainly has some sort of biological imperative behind it, which is entirely natural, and definitely not good when it goes beyond merely defending oneself and into striking out against other people. To reject such ideas simply because they don’t comport well with how we wish the world worked is to reject rationality itself (which, again, not a few radical feminists are more than happy to do).