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Book Reviews   |    
Evolution, Gender, and Rape
Reviewed by Joanna Bettmann, L.C.S.W.
Psychiatric Services 2004; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.55.3.324-a
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edited by Cheryl Brown Travis; Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2003, 454 pages, $24.95 softcover

In this edited volume, Cheryl Brown Travis attempts to answer the questions, Are women and men bipolar opposites in perpetual discord over conflicting interests? Did we evolve to be this way? And do these differences form "an evolutionary, genetic basis for sexual aggression?" She states at the outset that she is compiling this volume to address issues raised in the book A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, by Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer (1).

Evolution, Gender, and Rape attempts to disassemble the Darwinian argument made by Thornhill and Palmer that rape is an evolutionary inevitability. Brown Travis states that the contributors to her volume make their arguments from the perspectives of animal behavior, ecology, evolutionary biology, cultural anthropology, philosophy, primatology, psychology, and sociology, although she declines to identify her writers or herself by title, affiliation, or training. She asserts that, of the authors represented in her volume, "None find the evolutionary account of rape [in the Thornhill and Palmer text] to be in any way compelling."

In each section of Evolution, Gender, and Rape, one finds well-written chapters, all of which challenge Thornhill and Palmer's arguments. Brown Travis and several of the book's authors raise a concern about using supposedly scientific evidence to make evolutionary assertions about gender; they note the dangerousness of this argument in cases in which it has historically been applied to both gender and race. They also challenge Thornhill and Palmer's notion that rape has evolved as a means of providing an advantage to males, who need to propagate their genes. Other authors in the book challenge the popular notion that to be a "feminist" is to be antiscience or to be only political.

All the authors seem to effectively refute the argument that rape is an evolutionary imperative, an inevitable result of dynamics between women and men. Some make scientific arguments, critiquing Thornhill and Palmer for poor scientific grounding. Others, using sociological approaches, criticize Thornhill and Palmer for the policy implications of their book: "Given the speculative character of their Darwinizing and the elusiveness of their proposals, even their inability to recognize crucial issues, policies influenced by their text might well make matters worse."

The collection of chapters in this volume is compelling, in part because such a variety of approaches is represented. All the chapters appear to be well conceived and include academic references. Several of the authors use humor effectively to make their points. One writes, "Evolutionary psychology satisfies our hunger for a comprehensive explanation of human existence, for a theory of inevitability that will remove the ambiguities and the uncertainties of emotional and moral life…. Blame your genes, not your mother."

Evolution, Gender, and Rape clearly adds to the literature pertaining to sexual assault and to our understanding of gender issues. However, the book is limited in its scope in that it responds only to Thornhill and Palmer's book and not to broader issues in the field of gender studies. Overall, this book can be considered a valuable resource for anyone who is wrestling with concerns about gender dynamics, sexual aggression, or evolutionary psychology.

Ms. Bettmann is assistant clinical director at Aspen Achievement Academy and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Utah College of Social Work in Salt Lake City.

Thornhill R, Palmer C: A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion. Cambridge, Mass, MIT Press, 2000


Thornhill R, Palmer C: A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion. Cambridge, Mass, MIT Press, 2000

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