Rape is an evolutionary adaptation. More than that, it now appears that anti-rape strategies are evolutionary too, which for women means increased strength at certain stages of the menstrual cycle, increased general distrust of men and hatred of black men in particular. Taking Darwin in vain, this is the argument put together by Jesse Bering at Slate.
We should probably start by getting our definitional house in order. In an admirable example of rigging the answer by misspecifiying the question Bering names rape as “the use of force, or threat of force, to achieve penile-vaginal penetration of a woman without her consent“. So men are biologically incapable of being raped, women incapable of raping, and the sexual-reproductive organs the only legible site for sexualised aggression (no anal here please!).
Hardly surprising, given this terminological firing gun, that rape emerges as a phenomena only comprehensible in procreational terms. This is a narrower agenda even than saying that it is somehow ‘evolutionary’, itself already less than saying it has something to do with ‘biology’ (the possibility of rape being about ‘sex’, socially understood, or ‘power’ stands at yet further removes).
The quality of proof offered doesn’t fare much better. Take the study on racist attitudes and menstrual cycles, results we’re at risk of ignoring with our rampant ‘political correctness’ (*yawn*). Turns out women from this sample (77 white undergraduates) scored higher on fear-of-rape metrics of black men when they were most vulnerable biologically to impregnation. Bering takes this as supporting an evolutionary adaptation against ‘out-groups’, although he concedes that ‘cultural transmission’ may play a role.
The study itself suggests something rather less conclusive. It found that implicit race bias (non-conscious stereotyped associations of the form ‘black-physical’) was much more strongly correlated with rising fertility than explicit bias. Its metrics for race bias were all clearly consistent with a sociological or interpretive account of race (which is to say that race is a social, not a biological category, and that its meaning is historically and politically determined, not the outcome of adaptive ancestral behaviour). The data is also somewhat partial, as its relation to some wider questions. There is no comment on the fact that, for example, race bias remains fairly pronounced even where there is no ‘conception risk’, nor any significant attempt to cite work on general levels of race bias in general populations as a comparator or to examine variation among degree of bias in the women studied and the possible sources for those differences.
But the study itself is not at fault. The authors themselves think the results are inconclusive and point out that the evolutionary bit merely concerns the fear heuristic and not the content of the bias. The study does not test on evolutionary-vs-social sources of racism at all. In other words, yeah, maybe nature has primed women to be more fearful at certain stages of their menstrual cycles. But what they’re scared of is not determined by the battles our ancestors fought with swarthy foreigners, but by predominant social attitudes in the present. Despite all this, it is easily recruited to an evolutionary narrative and moreover included as an example of the ‘rigorous’ ‘evolutionary approach to studying complex social behavior‘.
Since Bering is dealing with ‘rape’ only in a minimal sense, and rather contorting the impervious results of science to fit a distinct narrative, we might just stop there. But he does pre-empt criticism with a defence. Our discomfort with the evolutionary perspective, he explains, is founded on two fallacies of reasoning. First, biological determinism. Just because we might have evolved to rape (and fight rape) doesn’t mean we have to. Second, the naturalistic fallacy. Just because something is natural doesn’t make it right. Think of rape as an appendix. If you want to get rid of it, you first have to recognise it as part of your biological self.
These are fair points. But they butt up against at least two valid objections. The first is historical. Talking about rape and its causes has a heritage. It may be a fallacy to make a jump from scientific considerations to accounts of ethical action, but this is precisely what we have been doing for centuries. Many of the most persistent rape myths bear this kind of mark. It is biologically impossible for women to be taken against their will (their thigh muscles are too strong). Men can’t help themselves (rape is about making babies). Rape allegations are evidence of psychological immaturity (the result of scientifically-observable childhood fantasies). That doesn’t mean research into evolutionary traces and determinants is illegitimate. But it should force caution in the design and interpretation of this kind of work. Observing a correlation in the present and extrapolating a narrative connecting it to the primal soup without even looking at explanations closer to home is lazy. This is not politically correct. Its politically and historically literate.
The second objection is explanatory. The question of what an evolutionary explanation is and does is rather complicated. And setting complex social phenomena as amenable to either evolutionary or sociological explanations is itself pretty unhelpful. They don’t even really exist on the same level of analysis. More importantly, there is a subtler naturalistic trap than the one Bering identifies. An evolutionary explanation of rape may not justify actions, but it does shape and pre-determine what our response to it should be. That, after all, is part of the case for this kind of perspective: that it will help us end rape in the same way as it might help us end cancer.
Framing rape as a male-on-female procreational strategy (and self-defence as a female-on-male baby-protection strategy) is politically and socially consequential. It makes a significant proportion (if not majority) of actually-existing rape invisible to us. It takes our attention away from social gender orders and ‘cultural transmission’. It conveys rape in the language of ‘mate selection’ and ‘genetic success’, not to mention the impoverished analytical language of ‘astounding truths’. It suggests that men rape because they are ugly. At the level of racism, it most certainly does do justificatory work, since if there is a hard kernel of genetic determinism in white-on-black hate, it can never be eradicated without gene therapy. It says that our interventions should take a particular form, and that our conceptions of what it is to be male and female should follow suit (at least in being realistic about what we are at some causal level). This is not nothing, and should unsettle easy resort to our putatively natural histories.