Darwin's Rape Whistle: The Morning After
A response to the critics.
Incidentally, all four anti-rape experiments I addressed in the previous article were empirically cumulative—meaning they were, like any good reductionist science, extensions of hard work that came before them—and they were published in well-respected, peer-reviewed academic journals with high rejection rates. By the time I relayed them to you, a whole slew of specialists, many with backgrounds in biology and anthropology (and who have devoted their entire careers to perfecting their critical thinking abilities and separating the wheat from the chaff) had already pored over and vetted them. That doesn't make the studies flawless or protected from criticism, of course, but for Coyne to say in response to this very work that "the field suffers from scientific lassitude" is supremely arrogant. And I say that for every editor and reviewer who sifted laboriously through these studies with a fine-toothed conceptual comb. If the data were poor, if the arguments were weak, these studies simply would not have made it through the editorial sieve of journals like Psychological Science.
How we interpret these data, of course, will be colored by our particular theories and beliefs. But if we hadn't bothered to take an evolutionary perspective to the question of rape to begin with, it's unclear how this fascinating and subtle effect would have ever been discovered. Sure, these particular findings await replication, but so do the vast, vast majority of findings from every imaginable discipline. Certainly the investigators would welcome any replication attempts, especially using subjects from other cultures. But given that we've got these intriguing data in hand, so to speak, it's just plain difficult to interpret them in any framework besides a theory of adaptations to prevent rape. Isn't that the most parsimonious, logical explanation available to evolutionary theorists? Maybe Coyne, et al., believe there's something truly special about the nearly two hundred female students from the study. Something in the water in Albany, perhaps, or maybe something they teach all the girls in school there that renders ovulating women—and only ovulating women—extra-strong, but only after they've been thinking about rape? Or maybe they grant the possibility that the findings are universal (and again, the verdict is still out about that), but that rather than serving to reduce the likelihood of conception through sexual coercion, ovulating women's handgrip strength increases when thinking about rape because—well, just because.
It's rather unfortunate that folks like P.Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne think evolutionary psychologists are doing substandard work. But that's about the extent of it. It's just unfortunate. After all, my sympathies are aligned with theirs, and those of many of our readers, in the battle against general stupidity and ignorance. I cannot recommend strongly enough that anybody wishing to explore the subject of rape from an evolutionary perspective go straight to the primary literature. As one of my colleagues, Loyola Marymount University psychologist Michael Mills, told me recently: "When other scientists put forward a model of how the world works, it is called a 'theory.' When evolutionary psychologists do it, it is called 'story telling.' " That is an unfortunate situation indeed, because anyone who swallows up the anti-evolutionary-psychology rhetoric will end up missing out on some extraordinarily innovative, important, and clean science.
Jesse Bering is the author of The Belief Instinct and Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? (July 2012). He is a frequent contributor to Slate and writes the "Bering in Mind" column for scientificamerican.com. His next book will be on the curiously scandalous science of human sexuality. Follow him at www.jessebering.com, on Twitter @JesseBering, or try adding him on Facebook.
Image of painting is in the public domain.