Stephen E. Jones

Creation/Evolution Articles

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.

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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

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. [...]


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 


Thornhill and Palmer's thesis is based on certain current ideas about the evolution ofabout the evolution of