The Debate Over Rape and Evolution

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The Wire recently highlighted evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering's explanation at Slate of a claim that women have evolved to defend themselves against rape, given the disastrous toll rape pregnancies can take on genetic success. Since then, the piece has generated a host of impassioned responses, a number from fellow Slate writers. The debate delves into the studies Bering cites and raises broader questions about the science of evolutionary psychology.

Bering, if you recall, outlined research indicating that ovulating women gain physical strength when threatened by sexual assault, exaggerate, during ovulation, the probability that strange males are rapists, avoid situations where the risk of rape is high, and become more racist (at least in the case of white American women evaluating black American men), with skin color serving as a "convenient marker of group identity."

Here are some of the ways people are reacting to Bering's piece:

  • Bering Displays Problem With Evolutionary Psychology, states biologist Jerry Coyne. The studies Bering cites appear to be "one-offs" that haven't been replicated by other researchers, Coyne says. In evolutionary psychology, "if you find a result that comports with the idea that a trait is 'adaptive,' it gets published. If you don't, it doesn't. That leads to the literature being filled with positive results, and gives the public a false idea of the strength of scientific data supporting the evolutionary roots of human behavior."
  • Ovulation Hypothesis Is Sensationalist, claims biologist PZ Myers: "Wouldn't it make more sense to have a general hypothesis that people, men and women, who can avoid violence at any time in their life, are more likely to be reproductively successful and thereby pass on their genes to subsequent generations? That's all [the researchers Bering cites are] saying, essentially, and the straining to sex it up by tying globally useful behaviors to reproductive cycles is unconvincing."
  • Why Are Evolutionary Biologists Obsessed With Ovulation? asks Slate's Emily Yoffe: "Many female mammals go into 'heat,' sending out explicit signals that they're fertile. Female humans do not, which for some reason drives evolutionary biologists buggy. They endlessly do studies trying to prove that the behavior of female humans is dictated by our hormonal status."
  • Bering Downplays Rape, argues Amanda Marcotte at Slate: The article "suggests that there's not much to be done about rape and that men are just programmed to do it, and it distracts from the fact that it's a violent act, experienced by both victim and assailant as assault."
  • You're All Getting Too Worked Up, declares Rob Kurzban at Evolutionary Psychology. "Bering is writing for Slate, not the primary literature, and I think a little enthusiasm is quite understandable," Kurzban says. He adds that "the fact that these studies persuaded Bering doesn't speak to the status of [evolutionary psychology] as a science."
  • What Is This Debate Really About? asks Bering, in a response to his critics:

Where were these same outraged critics, I wonder, when I wrote enthusiastically about the evolutionary psychology of humor, blushing, athletics, male body odor, suicide, and cannibalism? Yet whenever the issue at hand relates to female sexuality--whether it's the prevention of rape or the evolution of female orgasm, the field's most outspoken opponents turn up in droves ... Is this a debate over quality control in a particular academic field or a battle over politics and ideology?

(h/t: Christopher Shea at The Wall Street Journal)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.