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Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.2 (2001) 343-346

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Book Review

A Natural History of Rape:
Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion

A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion. By Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000. Pp. 251. $28.95 (cloth).

On page 105 of their book, A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer assert, without documentation, that there is a conspiracy to exclude their ideas on rape from scholarly journals and academic conferences and to prevent those who share their views from gaining employment at the university level. If this book is any indication, the cause of their problems is not a conspiracy, but the fact that their ideas have little merit.

The authors' thesis is that only evolutionary biology can illuminate the ultimate causes of rape. According to Thornhill and Palmer, rape has only a biological basis; it has evolved through natural selection as an alternative [End Page 343] behavior. In their view, rape arose in response to environments that existed thousands of years ago. While reproductive interests continue to motivate both genders, men and women behave in different ways: men compete to gain sex, whereas women seek to secure the best possible parent for their offspring. The authors contend that opponents of their approach--and among these they list social scientists, feminists, Stephen Jay Gould, Freudians, and adherents of postmodernism--cannot recognize the truth because they are blinded by ideology.

The authors' thesis is unconvincing. First, while dismissing others as ideological, Thornhill and Palmer fail to recognize their own ideology. They believe that science, unlike other disciplines, is objective and truthful, though the history of science has shown that biologists and evolutionists are not free of sexism and racism. Second, in asserting that "rape is entirely based on biology" (p. 154), Thornhill and Palmer seem to believe that nothing can be learned from scholars in the social sciences or the humanities, except perhaps from Camille Paglia. Although they argue that our behavior today is shaped by events that occurred long ago, they fail to examine what historians know about that time. For example, they claim that contemporary Western civilization is more rape-prone than earlier societies and that in the past women married younger, when they were most fertile; but they fail to supply data to support either of these assertions. In fact, they seem unfamiliar with any publications on the history of rape. Their footnote for Talmudic rape law reads: "According to John Hartung, an expert on the Bible and related documents, the Codes of Maimonides are the foundation of all Western legal systems (personal communication)" (p. 207 n. 2). In other words, the authors do not refer to any other law codes, including those from classical antiquity, medieval Europe, or non-Western cultures. Even in the case of the Talmud, they do not cite any book on the history of law, but rather rely on a personal communication! Rape law is complex, and the avoidance of complexity is typical of this book.

Thornhill and Palmer frequently state that evolutionary theory will prove something but that scientists cannot declare the answer before the evidence is in. Yet they assert: "We know of no studies of social knowledge that males and females differ in these ways, but we predict that such studies would reveal that such knowledge exists" (pp. 159-60); and, similarly, "[T]he evolutionary approach to the study of rape victims' psychological pain holds great promise of discovering the detailed nature of the cues that activate the pain" (p. 97), but no studies are cited. In fact, the authors fail to reference many assertions. The statement that "people everywhere understand sex to be something that women have and that men want" (p. 160) is typical of their approach.

Thornhill and Palmer often misread statements outside their area of expertise. For example, first they cite Susan Brownmiller (1976, back cover): [End Page 344]

It is not a crime of lust but of violence...


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