Darwin's Rape Whistle: Jesse Bering responds to the critics.

The state of the universe.
Jan. 21 2011 4:09 PM

Darwin's Rape Whistle: The Morning After

A response to the critics.

Painting of Io and Zeus by Correggio.
Jupiter and Io, by Correggio

Oy vey. For my last piece here at Slate ("Darwin's Rape Whistle"), I described a diverse set of scientific studies that were motivated by what I deem to be a very reasonable hypothesis: that women's social cognition and behavior have been shaped by natural selection to pre-empt rape, and that these adaptations are likely to come into play at precisely the time when a woman's mate choice and genetic interests would be most undermined by sexual assault. That is to say, the studies are predicated on the idea that women have evolved to avoid being raped when they're ovulating. The article caused quite a stir.

This included a flurry of critical posts disputing the validity of the data I reported, my wide-eyed acceptance of them, and questioning—even if the data were valid—their ability to rid the world of the anathema that is rape. Jerry Coyne, biologist and author of Why Evolution is True, jumpstarted the debacle; Rob Kurzban, psychologist and author of Why Everyone Else is a Hypocrite, then responded in defense of his field. Then P.Z. Myers, prominent science blogger and professional firebrand, became nauseated by my essay and got all worked up about the evolution of penises. Kurzban did a one-two punch back at Myers. Amanda Marcotte, Emily Yoffe, and Amanda Schaffer of Slate's DoubleX blog jumped into the ring, all of them weighing in on rape research by evolutionary psychologists. Coyne had some more to say, and John Rennie, former editor at Scientific American, agreed with the critics, and then he agreed some more. And that's just part of the storm that's followed in the wake of my anti-rape essay.

I must say, the whole affair has given me a bit of a headache, but I also realize that this prickly reaction presents a great opportunity for discussion. Strange, is it not, that such grievous concerns about the science of evolutionary psychology—in particular, whether its central hypotheses are falsifiable, whether reporters should be so enthusiastic in reporting its results, and whether its methods are adequate—seem to appear at some times but not others? Where were these same outraged critics, I wonder, when I wrote enthusiastically about the evolutionary psychology of humor, blushing, athletics, male body odor, suicide, and cannibalism? Yet whenever the issue at hand relates to female sexuality—whether it's the prevention of rape or the evolution of female orgasm, the field's most outspoken opponents turn up in droves. We do need to clear up a few misunderstandings about the science. But I would like to know what we are really, truly, talking about here. Is this a debate over quality control in a particular academic field or a battle over politics and ideology? I wish I could believe it were only about the science. When the skeptics chime in, I suspect they are egged on by politicized reactants.

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I've been writing about evolutionary psychology, among other topics, for a while now, and I know that whenever I cover studies of women's sexuality, I'm bound to receive comments, emails, tweets, and blog posts calling me a "mansplainer," "douche-bag," "rape apologist" or worse. (Once, for the reportorial sin of failing to mention transsexuality in a piece about sexual development, a disgruntled reader posted to Twitter: "Jesse Bering is a shining example of the kind of hateful f_ck who gleefully murders trans women.") That's fine. Well, I'm not exactly immune to such hostilities, mind you, but I do brace myself for them and think I can get my head around where they're coming from, for better or worse. I can only say in reply to this brand of criticism that I write with a style of insouciance in a sign of solidarity with natural selection, which is completely indifferent to any ideology. I will confess, however, that I'm often at a loss to understand the more peculiar, and even more fervent, animosity toward evolutionary psychology shown by so many biologists. Take P.Z. Myers: It's not just my little review article that has him in a state of vascular thrombosis; it's the entire discipline. "Researchers in this field produce some of the most awesomely trivial drivel," he says in disgust.

Perhaps, just perhaps, some biologists are besotted with a sense of ownership over the world of evolutionary theorizing—how dare these mere psychologists trespass on our grounds with their outrageous, "just-so" stories?

P.Z. Myers is not, of course, the undisputed public ambassador of his discipline (although I've no doubt he sees himself as such), and by no means does the following apply to all biologists, or even all those who are critical of evolutionary psychology. But Myers' affect-laden views regarding evolutionary psychology do represent those of at least a significant and vocal minority. Critics are particularly irritated by the fact that evolutionary psychologists do not test for genetic inheritance of the very traits they argue are adaptive but instead rely on behavioral or self-report measures to evaluate their theories. They also believe that evolutionary psychologists take too many story-telling liberties in reconstructing the ancestral past, since we can never know for certain what life was like hundreds of thousands of years ago, when such traits would have, theoretically, been favored by natural selection. (This is a point also stressed by Rennie in his critique of my Slate essay.) According to Myers, the whole messy endeavor, therefore, "is a teetering pyramid of stacked 'couldas' and guesses that it woulda had an influence on evolution."

I would recommend that you read Kurzban's cool-headed critique of Myers' hot-headed critique, if only because he's done as good a job throwing water as I could hope to do here. But I will address one of Myers' points myself.

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