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Artist, Heather Oliver             

That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

[Re-posted modified EvoPsycho Bingo Card -- click on image for bigger version]

One of the unlovely things that has been happening in Anglophone SF/F (in line with resurgent religious fundamentalism and erosion of democratic structures in the First World, as well as economic insecurity that always prompts “back to the kitchen” social politics) is the resurrection of unapologetic – nay, triumphant – misogyny beyond the already low bar in the genre. The churners of both grittygrotty “epic” fantasy and post/cyberpunk dystopias are trying to pass rape-rife pornkitsch as daring works that swim against the tide of rampant feminism and its shrill demands.

When people explain why such works are problematic, their authors first employ the standard “Me Tarzan You Ape” dodges: mothers/wives get trotted out to vouch for their progressiveness, hysteria and censorship get mentioned. Then they get really serious: as artists of vision and integrity, they cannot but depict women solely as toilet receptacles because 1) that has been the “historical reality” across cultures and eras and 2) men have rape genes and/or rape brain modules that arose from natural selection to ensure that dominant males spread their mighty seed as widely as possible. Are we cognitively impaired functionally illiterate feminazis daring to deny (ominous pause) SCIENCE?!

Now, it’s one thing to like cocoa puffs. It’s another to insist they are either nutritional powerhouses or haute cuisine. If the hacks who write this stuff were to say “Yeah, I write wet fantasies for guys who live in their parents’ basement. I get off doing it, it pays the bills and it has given me a fan base that can drool along with me,” I’d have nothing to say against it, except to advise people above the emotional age of seven not to buy the bilge. However, when they try to argue that their stained wads are deeply philosophical, subversive literature validated by scientific “evidence”, it’s time to point out that they’re talking through their lower digestive opening. Others have done the cleaning service for the argument-from-history. Here I will deal with the argument-from-science.

It’s funny how often “science” gets brandished as a goad or magic wand to maintain the status quo – or bolster sloppy thinking and confirmation biases. When women were barred from higher education, “science” was invoked to declare that their small brains would overheat and intellectual stress would shrivel their truly useful organs, their wombs. In our times, pop evopsychos (many of them failed SF authors turned “futurists”) intone that “recent studies prove” that the natural and/or ideal human social configuration is a hybrid of a baboon troop and fifties US suburbia. However, if we followed “natural” paradigms we would not recognize paternity, have multiple sex partners, practice extensive abortion and infanticide and have powerful female alliances that determine the status of our offspring.

I must acquaint Tarzanists with the no-longer-news that there are no rape genes, rape hormones or rape brain modules. Anyone who says this has been “scientifically proved” has obviously got his science from FOX News or knuckledraggers like Kanazawa (who is an economist, by the way, and would not recognize real biological evidence if it bit him on the gonads). Here’s a variation of the 1986 Seville Statement that sums up what I will briefly outline further on. It goes without saying that most of what follows is shorthand and also not GenSci 101.

It is scientifically (not politically) incorrect to say that:
1. we have inherited a tendency to rape from our animal ancestors;
2. rape is genetically programmed into our nature;
3. in the course of our evolution there has been a positive selection for rape;
4. humans brains are wired for rape;
5. rape is caused by instinct.

Let’s get rid of the tired gene chestnut first. As I’ve discussed elsewhere at length, genes do not determine brain wiring or complex behavior (as always in biology, there are a few exceptions: most are major decisions in embryo/neurogenesis with very large outcomes like Down syndrome, aka trisomy 21). Experiments that purported to find direct links between genes and higher behavior were invariably done in mice (animals that differ decisively from humans) and the sweeping conclusions of such studies have always had to be ratcheted down or discarded altogether, although in lower-ranking journals than the original effusions.

Then we have hormones and the “male/female brain dichotomy” pushed by neo-Freudians like Baron-Cohen. They even posit a neat-o split whereby too much “masculinizing” during brain genesis leads to autism, too much “feminizing” to schizophrenia. Following eons-old dichotomies, people who theorize thusly shoehorn the two into the left and right brain compartments respectively, assigning a gender to each: females “empathize”, males “systematize” – until it comes to those intuitive leaps that make for paradigm-changing scientists or other geniuses, whereby these oh-so-radical theorists neatly reverse the tables and both creativity and schizophrenia get shifted to the masculine side of the equation.

Now although hormones play critical roles in all our functions, it so happens that the cholesterol-based ones that become estrogen, testosterone, etc are two among several hundred that affect us. What is most important is not the absolute amount of a hormone, but its ratios to others and to body weight, as well as the sensitivity of receptors to it. People generally do not behave aberrantly if they don’t have the “right” amount of a sex hormone (which varies significantly from person to person), but if there is a sudden large change to their homeostasis – whether this is crash menopause from ovariectomy, post-partum depression or heavy doses of anabolic steroids for body building.

Furthermore, as is the case with gene-behavior correlation, much work on hormones has been done in mice. When similar work is done with primates (such as testosterone or estrogen injections at various points during fetal or postnatal development), the hormones have essentially no effect on behavior. Conversely, very young human babies lack gender-specific responses before their parents start to socialize them. As well, primates show widely different “cultures” within each species in terms of gender behavior, including care of infants by high-status males. It looks increasingly like “sex” hormones do not wire rigid femininity or masculinity, and they most certainly don’t wire propensity to rape; instead, they seem to prime individuals to adopt the habits of their surrounding culture – a far more adaptive configuration than the popsci model of “women from Venus, men from Mars.”

So on to brain modularity, today’s phrenology. While it is true that there are some localized brain functions (the processing of language being a prominent example), most brain functions are diffuse, the higher executive ones particularly so – and each brain is wired slightly differently, dependent on the myriad details of its context across time and place. Last but not least, our brains are plastic (otherwise we would not form new memories, nor be able to acquire new functions), though the windows of flexibility differ across scales and in space and time.

The concept of brain modularity comes partly from the enormously overused and almost entirely incorrect equivalence of the human brain to a computer. Another problem lies in the definition of a module, which varies widely and as a result is prone to abuse by people who get their knowledge of science from new-age libertarian tracts. There is essentially zero evidence of the “strong” version of brain modules, and modular organization at the level of genes, cells or organ compartments does not guarantee a modular behavioral outcome. But even if we take it at face value, it is clear that rape does not adhere to the criteria of either the “weak” (Fodor) or “strong (Carruthers) version for such an entity: it does not fulfill the requirements of domain specificity, fast processing, fixed neural architecture, mandatoriness or central inaccessibility.

In the behavioral domain, rape is not an adaptive feature: most of it is non-reproductive, visited upon pre-pubescent girls, post-menopausal women and other men. Moreover, rape does not belong to the instinctive “can’t help myself” reflexes grouped under the Four Fs. Rape does not occur spontaneously: it is usually planned with meticulous preparation and it requires concentration and focus to initiate and complete. So rape has nothing to do with reproductive maxima for “alpha males” (who don’t exist biologically in humans) – but it may have to do with the revenge of aggrieved men who consider access to women an automatic right.

What is undeniable is that humans are extremely social and bend themselves to fit context norms. This ties to Arendt’s banality of evil and Niemöller’s trenchant observations about solidarity – and to the outcomes of Milgram and Zimbardo’s notorious experiments which have been multiply mirrored in real history, with the events in the Abu Ghraib prison prominent among them. So if rape is tolerated or used as a method for compliance, it is no surprise that it is a prominent weapon in the arsenal of keeping women “in their place” and also no surprise that its apologists aspire to give it the status of indisputably hardwired instinct.

Given the steep power asymmetry between the genders ever since the dominance of agriculture led to women losing mobility, gathering skills and control over pregnancies, it is not hard to see rape as the cultural artifact that it is. It’s not a sexual response; it’s a blunt assertion of rank in contexts where dominance is a major metric: traditional patriarchal families, whether monogamous or polygynous; religions and cults (most of which are extended patriarchal families); armies and prisons; tribal vendettas and initiations.

So if gratuitous depictions of graphic rape excite a writer, that is their prerogative. If they get paid for it, bully for them. But it doesn’t make their work “edgy” literature; it remains cheap titillation that attempts to cloak arrant failures of talent, imagination and just plain scholarship. Insofar as such work has combined sex and violence porn as its foundation, it should be classified accordingly. Mythologies, including core religious texts, show rape in all its variations: there is nothing novel or subversive about contemporary exudations. In my opinion, nobody needs to write yet another hack work that “interrogates” misogyny by positing rape and inherent, immutable female inferiority as natural givens – particularly not white Anglo men who lead comfortable lives that lack any knowledge to justify such a narrative. The fact that people with such views are over-represented in SF/F is toxic for the genre.

Further reading:

A brief overview of the modularity of the brain/mind
Athena Andreadis (2010). The Tempting Illusion of Genetic Virtue. Politics Life Sci. 29:76-80
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding
Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World
Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender
Alison Jolly, Lucy’s Legacy: Sex and Intelligence in Human Evolution
Rebecca Jordan-Young, Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences
Kevin Laland and Gillian Brown, Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behaviour
Edouard Machery and Kara Cohen (2012). An Evidence-Based Study of the Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences. Brit J Philos Sci 263: 177-226

58 Responses to “That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle”

  1. Sue Lange says:

    Why did it take me so long to getting around to reading this? Fantastic, Athena. So much good writing here, I don’t know what to compliment you on. This one jumps out:

    “The concept of brain modularity comes partly from the enormously overused and almost entirely incorrect equivalence of the human brain to a computer. ”

    Carry on, Soldier!

  2. Athena says:

    Yes, Ma’am!! *smile*

  3. [...] for the argument-from-history…. Here I will deal with the argument-from-science.”  Astrogator‘s essay comes with the “Evolutionary Psychology Bingo Card!”  (Thanks, James!) Category: [...]

  4. [...] fundamentalists.  Athena (or Athena Andreadis, Ph.D, member of the scientific community) has done a far better job of pointing out the flaws in evolutionary psychology then I ever could. Yes, the basic idea is sound but the practice is often deeply flawed. It lends [...]

  5. Rainha D. says:

    Who has tackled the “argument-from-history”? I recently found out how much His-Storians have lied to us, and I would love to read that.

    A common accusation levelled at people who see Ev-Psych for what it really is, is that we “deny there is such a thing as human nature”. Which many of us don’t – we agree there is a human nature, and disagree with these folks on what constitutes it. Apparently, a lot of Ev-Psych fundies find this position particularly hard to grasp: if you don’t accept their version of “human nature”, you’re a “slatist”. If you point out the ethnocentrism in their “thinking”, you’re a “slatist”. If you point out that natural behaviours don’t need to be enforced through structural, pervasive violence, you’re a “slatist”.

    Seeing the kind of mental gymnastics these people can perform to avoid admitting they’re wrong is the ultimate mind-fuck. There is also the arrogance: not-very-bright, ignorant people who’ve read one or two of Ev-Psych’s core Bibles speaking as if they were experts in multiple fields.

    Anyway, excellent work, as always.

  6. Athena says:

    I’m glad you found the article useful!

    Many people tackled this from the history angle. Two relatively recent such forays (that came after my article) were Tansy Roberts in Tor and Foz Meadows on her blog. They don’t engage rape head-on, but they do tackle misogyny — specifically the “argument” that women were equivalent to furniture through all of history except the present and “realistic, hard-hitting” fantasy simply reflects this universal truth.

    I can’t find the term “slatist” anywhere. Are you sure you don’t mean “statist”? For the rest, I totally agree about the sloppy studies, the sloppy thinking, the sloppy generalizations. There are legitimate and insightful nuggets in evopsycho; they’ve just been buried by an avalanche of garbage.

  7. Alasdair says:

    Hi, came here via acrackedmoon. To just respond to your immediate comment above: I haven’t seen the word ‘slatist’ myself, but I would guess it is a reference to Steven Pinker’s 2002 book, ‘The Blank Slate’, which according to Wikipedia ‘argues against tabula rasa models of the social sciences’. The pejorative inference being that such a person thinks humans are born as ‘blank slates’ and our behaviour is entirely created by our culture rather than our genes, and that this position is clearly scientifically false.

    Well, that may be so, but I have to say I think it’s something of a straw man argument. It’s so obviously true that our genes play *some* role in influencing our behaviour, I don’t think there’s any serious scientist who would completely deny that; Pinker claims that the ‘blank slate’ view was once the dominant view in academia, which I find hard to believe. Regardless, even if it once was it definitely isn’t today, so calling someone a ‘slatist’ is like calling them a ‘flat-earther’ – accusing them of holding a position which virtually no one actually holds, and relatively few people ever did.

  8. Athena says:

    Hello, Alasdair! Your explanation makes sense. I also agree it’s a strawman argument — which “academia” is Pinker referring to? If he’s talking about academic research, the biological basis for behavior was never in doubt (I suspect he’s referring to Soc Sci departments). What needs to be researched carefully is how this influence is actually exerted. Among other things, although genes do define us as a species, they never define higher-order behavior and our brain wiring is a general chassis at birth; the real wiring happens post-natally, hence the enormous variation within the wide initial parameters.