My previous post found fault with Jesse Bering’s over-enthusiastic Slate review of scattered evolutionary psychology papers that might suggest women had evolved certain traits that might help safeguard them against rape when they were most fertile. Since then, three writers at Slate’s XXfactor blog have added still more criticisms to the mounting pile, ones that make both Bering’s piece and the underlying science look more dubious.
Amanda Schaffer points out that the scientists who wrote up the study linking ovulation and racism seemingly ignored their own finding that undermined that link. Emily Yoffe comments on the contortions to which evolutionary psychologists will sometimes resort to tie female fertility to behaviors (and risks of rape). Amanda Marcotte addresses what may be fundamental problems in the conceptual framing of too much of the evolutionary psychology work on rape. On his own site, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne offers an overview of their responses, including some criticisms of them.
Coyne is most critical of specifics in Marcotte’s piece, but I think her general message is important in that it shows the tremendous difficulty, even for researchers with the best intentions, to make evolutionary sense of complex cultural, psychological and behavioral problems—even ones in which the biological stakes might seem as clear-cut as they are in rape.
Coerced sex occurs in many animal species—dolphins and some birds such as ducks among them. The phenomenon surely bears in part on the ugly roots of rape as a behavior in humans, too, but it is not the whole story because rape is not just an atavistic reproductive strategy. It’s also an act of violence that in different places and times has been socially deplored, condoned or both simultaneously. Dissecting rape to understand it is forbiddingly difficult, especially with the blunt tools that human evolutionary science now offers.
That doesn’t mean no one should try. As a fledgling science, evolutionary psychology deserves some patience; most other better-established sciences had the luxury of growing out of their infancy under less scrutiny.
But for better or worse, evolutionary psychology traffics in topics central to highly charged social and political agendas. Incomplete, misunderstood or simply bad science in evolutionary psychology will be abused. Please, evolutionary psychologists—and you, too, essayists who write about their work: don’t let misplaced enthusiasm, carelessness or laxity become hurtful.
Update (2:20pm): Add Mike the Mad Biologist to the naysayers, too.