There is an odd line of argument that comes from evolutionary psychologists when people object to poor quality research on rape coming out of their discipline. A form of this argument is in Ed Clint’s post on Rebecca Watson’s Skepticon talk.
The naturalistic fallacy. One can hardly find a more pristine example of this fallacy than in criticism of evolutionary psychology, and Watson’s remarks were no exception. She spelled it out clearly at 38:30 “men evolved to rape… it was used as a well it’s natural for men to rape”. The problem to Watson is that some evolutionary psychologists study the phenomena of rape as a potential adaptation, or a product of adaptations such as the use of violence to obtain what one wants. Watson assumes that if rape is about sex, and sex is good because sex is natural, then rape must be natural and therefore good. This is an absurdity of course; it’s every shade of wrong from the rainbow of ultimate wrongness.
Well, no, but before I get into discussing why this is wrong, here’s another example of the argument in the wild, provided by Clint. Buss & Schmitt argue:
More generally, we believe that proponents of all theoretical perspectives should keep an open mind about the scientific hypothesis (and it is only that, a hypothesis), that men may have evolved adaptations for sexual coercion. It should go without saying that rape is illegal, immoral, and terribly destructive to women, and should in no way be condoned, whatever the ultimate causes turn out to be. Unfortunately, what should go without saying has to be repeated over and over, since those who advance evolutionary psychological hypotheses are unjustly accused of somehow condoning or excusing rape. The naturalistic fallacy, mistakenly inferring an ought from an is, seems to be a particularly stubborn error committed by critics of evolutionary psychology, despite the many published descriptions of this error (e.g., Confer et al. 2010).
As Vandermassen (2010) points out, the two central contenders for explaining sexual coercion are (1) adaptations for rape, (2) byproducts of adaptations that evolved in non-rape contexts (e.g., desire for sexual variety; male use of aggression for other instrumental goals), or some combination of the two. We concur with Symons’s 1979 summary that the then-available evidence was not “even close to sufficient to warrant the conclusion that rape itself is a facultative adaptation in the human male” (Symons 1979, p. 284). We believe that his conclusion is as apt today as it was then. Nonetheless, absence of evidence does not qualify as evidence of absence. Scientists from all theoretical perspectives have a responsibility to uncover the actual underlying causes of rape, even if they turn out to be unpalatable or repugnant. Whatever the flaws inherent in the Thornhill-Palmer book, it is perfectly reasonable for them to advance their two competing scientific hypotheses. It is a gross disservice to current and future victims of rape to prematurely discard either of them.
I’ll mostly be talking about this example, as it indulges less in telling us what someone is thinking and is closer to the primary source. It also contains a glaring error that should tell you what critics are actually objecting to. I’ll save that for a little later though. First, the problem with just saying, “naturalistic fallacy”.
Let’s take a step back. What is a fallacy? In the sense that it is used here, it is a decision-making heuristic that is frequently useful (thus, used) without actually giving us information on whether our conclusions are true. The naturalistic fallacy (or more accurately, the appeal to nature, which is different than the problem of deriving what ought to be from what is) says that if something is the natural state of things, it is good.
So, do feminist critiques of evolutionary psychology studying rape as an adaptation rely on the appeal to nature? Are they based on the idea that if rape is an adaptation, then it will be good?
Well, no. We’ll get into those critiques a bit more in short order but even without looking at the critiques themselves, we can answer this one. Feminist activism against rape isn’t based in the idea that rape is unnatural. It is based in the idea that rape causes harm: It causes direct trauma and reduces women’s (and other targeted demographics’, but these are generally elided in the studies in question) participation in the public sphere.
No, feminist critics who make the accusation that some researchers are “somehow condoning or excusing rape” are not engaging in an appeal to nature. They may, however, be observing one.
We skeptics talk about fallacies as much as we do because they are potent. As noted before, they can be useful. As much as the appeal to nature is a fallacy, it is true that, far more often that not, up and eating a local plant that isn’t part of the local diet (when such a thing still existed) was going to do nothing for you at best and poison you at worst. There frequently are reasons why things are the way they are. Simply not always. So fallacies are reinforced and continue to be relied upon.
One of the major places where we see fallacious reasoning? In political argumentation. Not only are the vast majority of people in politics not trained to spot fallacies, either in their own arguments or from others, but many don’t recognize their own. Beyond that, fallacious arguments are often effective. Nobody is going to stop using bandwagon appeals in political argumentation just because they’re fallacious. They work.
When it comes to arguments against feminism, the appeal to nature is one of the biggies. Feminism, in case you didn’t know, is totes unnatural. That being the case, it is quite reasonable to both notice and object to research that does little more than feed that fallacy. Bad research that concludes rape is
natural selected for in nature falls under that category.
And do not mistake me in any way. Most of this research is awful. I’ve gone through some of the serious problems more than once. Researchers and science communicators who specialize in rape have done the same (pdf). To summarize the general shape of the problems:
- Much research ignores the specialized research on rape, isolating itself intellectually.
- Much research ignores the realities of who is raped.
- Some researchers misrepresent the body of knowledge on rape.
- Many researchers ignore data from other cultures that suggests rape is not so universal and, thus, is driven by factors other than genetics.
- Much research ignores scientific criticism driven by the above factors.
Now, it’s time to find out who noticed the problem in the quote I gave above. Was this what you spotted?
As Vandermassen (2010) points out, the two central contenders for explaining sexual coercion are (1) adaptations for rape, (2) byproducts of adaptations that evolved in non-rape contexts (e.g., desire for sexual variety; male use of aggression for other instrumental goals), or some combination of the two.
If so, give yourself a cookie.
There’s a third theory, or constellation of theories. Broadly speaking, it is that rape is a result of particular aspects of culture: overall rates of violence, degree of definition and maintenance of gender roles, degree of overall inequality, basis for property transfer, women’s political power, narratives that obscure the nature of rape. Studying cultures in which rape happens frequently and those in which it almost never happens has turned up a wealth of differences between the two.
There is plenty of work still to be done on getting to the bottom of the matter, of course, but the fact that culture isn’t even mentioned as something with explanatory power is disturbing. As it is to have that followed by this:
We believe that his conclusion ["that the then-available evidence was not 'even close to sufficient to warrant the conclusion that rape itself is a facultative adaptation in the human male'" ] is as apt today as it was then. Nonetheless, absence of evidence does not qualify as evidence of absence. Scientists from all theoretical perspectives have a responsibility to uncover the actual underlying causes of rape, even if they turn out to be unpalatable or repugnant.
That is also true if those underlying causes happen to be found through a discipline other than evolutionary psychology.
Bad research, research that ignores the data and theories that come from others working on the same topic, does not help end rape. Researchers who do work that is little more than noise and then insist that people pay attention to it and only it are not helping to end rape. In fact, when they publish research that makes untrue claims about rape, these researchers are hampering the fight against rape.
That makes two ways in which bad research on the topic of rape supports the continuance of rape. That, in turn, makes the observation that the researchers doing this research are supporting rape to be the opposite of a fallacy, naturalistic or otherwise.
Image: “Natural Beauty” by Shan Sheehan. Some rights reserved.