29 November 2009

Evolution and Rape III: Responding to a history professor

Here is my response that appeared in proftalk to an attempt by a history professor at Fredonia to defend the Johnston-Robledo and McVicker letter that she signed. Proftalk is a campus discussion forum for faculty and staff.


Thank you for your thoughtful note. Here is Johnston-Robledo and McVicker’s argument.

“To argue that rape is a reproductive strategy or that it is motivated by reproduction continues the illogic of the column. … Further, social science research has not determined that men have a reproductive motivation for rape despite Kershnar's reliance on limited evidence to suggest that they do. When men indicate that they are motivated to rape by sexual desire, this response does not mean that they are motivated by reproduction as opposed to power and control.”

Here is a restatement of their argument.

(P1) If rape is connected to evolution, then rapists are motivated by reproduction.
(P2) It is false that (in general) rapists are motivated by reproduction.
(C1) Hence, rape is not connected to evolution. [(P1), (P2)]

My objection was that premise (P1) is false and rests on a misunderstanding of how evolution works. I’m not sure I see how your points rehabilitate (P1). More generally, I don’t see why anyone would think that this argument is convincing.


You assert that the following statements are true.

1. Rape [often] results from a desire to control others.

2. The desire to control others is the product of evolution.

We thus agree that the evolutionary theory of rape is likely true. Note that even if the control theory (proposition 1) is true, this does not show that other specific theories (e.g., rape-is-about-sex theory) are false. The theories are compatible. So I’m not sure we disagree.


Johnston-Robledo and McVicker make the following claim.

“It is virtually impossible to argue that rape is primarily about sex and/or reproduction. Rape is, arguably, more about sexualized aggression than aggressive sex.”

I don’t see that you or Johnston-Robledo and McVicker have presented any evidence for this claim.

First, I don’t know how “impossible” is being used here.

Second, there is some evidence that rape is about sex. Here are a couple of examples. At least one researcher who interviewed rapists concluded that their actions were explained in part on the basis of their desire for sex. Also, a significant percentage of college men (60% in one study) report having used force to achieve sexual intimacy despite the female’s negative response. It is not implausible to think that this behavior is related to sexual desire.

Hence, even if one thought that rape is not primarily about sex, it is hard to see why it is “impossible” to argue for this claim.

In any case, it would be interesting to see who else signed Johnston-Robledo and McVicker’s letter. Perhaps they have other arguments against the broader or narrower evolutionary theories.

I hope you had an enjoyable Thanksgiving,
Steve K

1 comment:

Scott said...

I'm pleased to see you using an evolutionary argument to settle a controversial debate. The lack of a cogent response to your arguments really highlights the strength of modern evolutionary theory (although it doesn't seem you're arguing with the brightest bulbs). I wish we'd see these types of evolutionary arguments used more often to settle hot-button issues, rather than reverting to the wishy-washy emoting of current 'social science' research (which we are seeing amounts to a pile of rubish).

One comment I have about your response to J-R&M's 1st argument is that it seems plausible to allow P1 and deny P2 (although you chose to do the opposite). Rapists may be motivated by reproduction everytime they rape, but just not have the awareness of this motivation. We shouldn't expect that we are aware of every evolutionarily adapted behavior we act out. It seems that if they were not motivated by reproduction at all then it would be far less likely that genes for raping would have been naturally selected. I suppose it is still possible that they could have been selected for some other reason than reproduction, but it's hard to see what that reason would be.

If you change P2 to 'It is true that (in general) rapists are motivated by reproduction', then you are left with an entirely different conclusion which I think serves your argument well.

Just a quick thought. Keep up the good work, I hope they don't try to screw you over again. SUNY Fredonia cannot become a place where free speech is suppressed. I applaud your efforts to have open debate.