The Evolution of Rape

    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).

Schools Tell Children: You Have No Right to Privacy

    Almost every day I read any number of stories, many of them alarmist but a few genuinely disturbing, about the loss of privacy in the Internet age. The press loves nothing more than to regale readers with horror stories about just how much marketers and businesses know about them, along with the nefarious purposes such information could be used for. Meanwhile, the fact that many U.S. schools are telling children that they should have no privacy and, in fact, should willingly surrender their privacy to the state to increase their safety, goes largely unnoticed or, when it is highlighted, as in a September 5, 2000 USA Today article, such efforts are actually lauded.

    The small item buried on page 10B of the USA Today proclaims that “School bags clear up for safe kids.” This is a small blurb praising manufacturers, retail stores, and public schools for making, selling, and requiring clear, see-through backpacks. According to the USA Today story, “Clear plastic backpacks, gym bags and even notebooks are becoming part of crime prevention by school officials.”

    Some schools across the country are requiring all students to wear clear backpacks. A spokesman for South Houston High School in Texas, for example, told USA Today that it started requiring clear backpacks two years ago because “we felt like requiring transparent backpacks would make it more difficult to bring a weapon on the school grounds.”

    Along with guns and knives, USA Today notes that “school officials hope clear products will also discourage other distractions such as Pokemon cards, computer games, water guns and portable music players.” Gotta catch ’em all!

    Such requirements are an abomination and I would never send my daughter to a school that required her to wear a clear backpack, anymore than I would agree to work for a company that required me to carry a clear briefcase. The schools that do are sending a clear message to students — individual rights must always be subsumed to the goals and demands of the state, and only criminals and evildoers would want to conceal anything from state officials.

    Ann Beeson, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, gets it right on the money when she tells USA Today that “to suspect every student to the extent that each is required to carry a clear backpack, then we’ve created prisons.” In fact public educators often seem to treat their wards as little more than prisoners who have no rights to resist even the most absurd requests (the number of news stories about illegal strip searches in public schools is a good example of this attitude).

    Public schools, of all places, should teach children the most fundamental principle behind American democracy: that the only reason for the existence of the state is to serve individuals and, as such, the powers of the state are limited by an individual’s unalienable rights. Instead, they train children to subsume all of their rights and interests to the needs of the state. That’s one lesson children don’t need.


School bags clear up for safe kids. Lorrie Grant, USA Today, September 5, 2000.

Scott McCloud’s Reinventing Comics on the Web

Not following the comics industry too closely, I had no idea who Scott McCloud was until the publication of his first book, Understanding Comics. Now he has a new book out, Reinventing Comics as well as an awesome personal web site and other web-centric endeavors.

On his personal site, McCloud has some awesome comics. My Obsession With Chess, for example, is fascinating both for its compelling story as well as the graphical layout.

McCloud is also writing a column for ComicReader.Com which showcases his ideas for putting comics on the web. McCloud touches on a wide range of design issues there. The column, I Can’t Stop Thinking, shows how graphic intensive stories should be told on the Internet. This is the sort of thing I read and get a hundred new ideas from each column.

Finally, a new episode of McCloud’s Zot! comic book series is now being put on the web, with one new issue of the series added each week at ComicBookResources.Com.

Swiss to Vote on Animal Rights Measure

    The BBC reported recently that Switzerland will vote on at least one and possibly two animal rights referendums raising the legal status of animals, though the BBC story was a bit confusing on what exactly will be decided.

    According to the BBC, current Swiss law treats animals as a simple form of property like any other. Several animal welfare groups have obtained 100,000 signatures to advance a ballot measure that would recognize animals as “living beings.”

    The BBC reports that another animal welfare group in Switzerland is gathering signatures for a much more reaching measure that would, among other things, “call for the respect of an animal’s dignity, emotions and ability to feel pain, as well as for its own set of rights to be enshrined in the constitution.”

    This latter measure sounds more akin to a true animal rights proposal, with the BBC noting the measure would require judges to take into account animal’s interests in making decisions such as how to dispose of animals as part of an owner’s estate.

    It should be duly noted that although animal activists have been relatively successful in collecting signatures for ballot measures in Switzerland, they have not necessarily had a good track record in passing the more extremists proposals. In 1998, for example, Swiss voters soundly defeated a ballot measure that would have banned the genetic engineering of plants and animals.


Swiss ponder animal rights. Claire Doole, The BBC, September 3, 2000.

Runesword Is Out!

Runesword is finally out after something like four years of development (I have been following it development for the last year or so). And it is free!

What the heck is Runesword and why haven’t you seen it in the big computer game magazines? In one sense Runesword is just a freeware turn-based RPG. Since it has been developed by two guys in their spare time, the graphics are not really comparable to Baldur’s Gate II or Diablo, though they are not that far behind the times either.

On the other hand, the engine behind Runesword rocks. The game was built from the ground up with the aim of making it easy for people to design their own games. Yes, yes, I know what you are thinking — there are a ton of computer RPGs that have come out or are on the horizion, such as Vampire: The Masquerade and Arcanum, that promise to let you make your own adventures. Reality check: if you are a programmer familiar with Java and willing to put in 10-20 hours with the APIs for V:TM and Aracnum, maybe you can turn out something interesting, but there is no way the average person is going to do this (anymore than the average user is going to make a MOD for his or her favorite first person shooter.) Plus most of these have pretty serious limitations on how modifiable the engine is, with Arcanum notably having some pretty severe limitations.

Runesword, by contrast, really does make it easy to make complex RPG adventures — including making fundamental changes like adding or deleting skills, creating new monsters, etc. — with a minimum of dipping into the programming interface (there is a scripting language that Runesword uses, but it is relatively simple and straightforward).

Even better, Runesword was designed to be object-oriented. What does this mean? Suppose somebody else designs a Sword of Reckoning for his adventure or a really cool looking Hill Giant. To bring that into your adventure, just simply cut and paste the Sword of Reckoning or Hill Giant object into your adventure and you can use it immediately. This sort of thing is much more difficult to do in other RPG editors, which means it is easy to quickly build an RPG adventure from scratch with literally no programming skills.

Plus, since the game is freeware you can distribute a complete working copy of your adventure with the game to friends, family, etc.

This game just screams “awesome” on all levels. One of the few games I have seen with absolutely no downsides.

Another Feature All Games Should Have

Another feature all computers games should have is a demo feature. There were some pre-cursors before, but this feature really took off with first person shooters such as Quake. Turn on demo mode in Quake or Unreal Tournament or Tribes and the game records the action onscreen to a file so the users can go back and view the action again. For most games there are editors available so you can go into these files and extract particular parts so you could make a greatest hits demo. There is even a whole subculture of folks who use the demo features to make movies.

I was pleasantly surprised that Age of Empires II also has a demo feature, and I wish more computer game companies would include such a feature.