The following is a copy of an important article on evolutionary psychology which appears not to be webbed anywhere else, Coyne, J.A., "The fairy tales of evolutionary psychology." Review of "A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion," by Randy Thornhill & Craig T. Palmer, MIT Press, 2000. The New Republic, March 4, 2000.
The New Republic The fairy tales of evolutionary psychology. Of Vice and Men By JERRY A. COYNE Issue date: 04.03.00 Post date: 03.26.00 A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion by Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer MIT Press, 272pp. [...] I. In science's pecking order, evolutionary biology lurks somewhere near the bottom, far closer to phrenology than to physics. For evolutionary biology is a historical science, laden with history's inevitable imponderables. We evolutionary biologists cannot generate a Cretaceous Park to observe exactly what killed the dinosaurs; and, unlike "harder" scientists, we usually cannot resolve issues with a simple experiment, such as adding tube A to tube B and noting the color of the mixture. The latest deadweight dragging us closer to phrenology is "evolutionary psychology," or the science formerly known as sociobiology, which studies the evolutionary roots of human behavior. There is nothing inherently wrong with this enterprise, and it has proposed some intriguing theories, particularly about the evolution of language. The problem is that evolutionary psychology suffers from the scientific equivalent of megalomania. Most of its adherents are convinced that virtually every human action or feeling, including depression, homosexuality, religion, and consciousness, was put directly into our brains by natural selection. In this view, evolution becomes the key--the only key--that can unlock our humanity. Unfortunately, evolutionary psychologists routinely confuse theory and speculation. Unlike bones, behavior does not fossilize, and understanding its evolution often involves concocting stories that sound plausible but are hard to test. Depression, for example, is seen as a trait favored by natural selection to enable us to solve our problems by withdrawing, reflecting, and hence enhancing our future reproduction. Plausible? Maybe. Scientifically testable? Absolutely not. If evolutionary biology is a soft science, then evolutionary psychology is its flabby underbelly. But the public can be forgiven for thinking that evolutionary biology is equivalent to evolutionary psychology. Books by Daniel Dennett, E.O. Wilson, and Steven Pinker have sold briskly, and evolutionary psychology dominates the media coverage of the science of evolution. (It has figured also in the media's treatment of politics, as when the lustful activity of Bill Clinton was explained--or explained away--by various evolutionary psychologists as the behavior of an "alpha male view of the scientific shakiness of much of the work, its popularity must rest partly on some desire for a comprehensive "scientific" explanation of human behavior. Evolutionary psychology satisfies the post-ideological hunger for a totalistic explanation of human life, for a theory of inevitability that will remove many of the ambiguities and the uncertainties of emotional and moral life. Freud is no longer the preferred behavioral paradigm. Now Darwin is ascendant. Blame your genes, not your mother. Hence the excitement--and the furor--that has greeted the publication of Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer's book. Determined to show that human rape is a "natural, biological phenomenon that is a product of the human evolutionary heritage," Thornhill and Palmer take issue with social scientists and feminists (viewed as permanently conjoined Siamese twins) for whom rape represents men's deliberate attempt to subjugate and to humiliate women. In their account, by contrast, the motive for rape is not just sexual; it is also reproductive. Rape, they argue, was favored by natural selection to give sexually dispossessed males the chance to have children, or males with mates the chance to have extra children. There are several mechanisms by which such a [sexual] strategy could function. For example, men might resort to rape when they are socially disenfranchised, and thus unable to gain access to women, through looks, wealth or status. Alternatively, men could have evolved to practice rape when the costs seem low-- when, for instance, a woman is alone and unprotected (and thus retaliation seems unlikely), or when they have physical control over a woman (and so cannot be injured by her). They further claim that attempts to root out rape will not succeed until one accepts its evolutionary origin and uses this precious knowledge as a basis for social policy. Not only does an evolutionary approach generate new knowledge that could be used to decrease the incidence of rape; some of the proposals put forth by individuals uninformed by evolutionary theory may actually increase it. The coverage of A Natural History of Rape in the media has been critical, but largely devoted to pitting Thornhill and Palmer against feminists, who see the book as a misogynistic attempt to justify rape and to unravel the progress of recent decades. The results were predictable and largely unproductive: a lot of sound bites and shouting in television studios. Meanwhile the book has been warmly embraced by some evolutionary psychologists, notably by Pinker, who has praised it as a "courageous, intelligent and eye- opening book with a noble goal." Nearly all of these public debates have been fuelled by ideology. (Again, evolutionary psychology functions very much like an ideology.) What has been missing is a discussion of the science that lies behind, or does not lie behind, Thornhill and Palmer's assertions. After all, the book is only as good as their evidence. Thornhill and Palmer have frequently invoked the authority of science in defense of their evolutionary conception of rape. They insist that their detractors are ideologically motivated, whereas they are dispassionate scientists whose only priority is objective truth. In their media appearances, they have implied that their science is incontrovertible, and that any dissenter from their conclusions must be philosophically or politically blinkered. This is a grotesque misrepresentation of the book's science, which has by no means drawn unanimous approbation from the scientific community. Far from it: to a scientist, the scientific errors in this book are far more inflammatory than are its ideological implications. Like so much of evolutionary psychology, Thornhill and Palmer's book is utterly lacking in sound scientific grounding. Moreover, the authors use rhetorical tricks that mislead the general reader about their arguments. Once its scientific weaknesses are recognized, The Natural History of Rape becomes one more sociobiological "just-so" story--the kind of tale that evolutionists swap over a few beers at the faculty club. Such stories do not qualify as science, and they do not deserve the assent, or even the respect, of the public. II. Thornhill and Palmer's thesis is based on certain current ideas about the evolution ofabout the evolution of