Feminist critique of sociobiology...critiqued

Bryant (mycol1@unm.edu)
3 Sep 1996 17:56:33 -0600

I am grateful to Susan for suggesting some books that afford a feminist
perspective on sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. I hope that my
unhappiness with one of those authors does not get misinterpretted as an
attack of some sort, or as a critique of anybody on this newsgroup. That
is not my intention.

I have just read the chapter, "Putting Woman in Her (Evolutionary)
Place," by Anne Fausto-Sterling (1992, "Myths of Gender," Basic Books).
I am disappointed.

My objections fall roughly into two categories: one, her
mischaracterization of sociobiologists' statements and positions, and
two, her misunderstanding of behavioral ecological and evolutionary
principles. (Is she a biologist??) I outline my gripes below in that order.

The only legitimate point I think she made is a semantic one, that
"sexual coercion" is sloppily referred to as "rape" by many

I: What sociobiologists (don't) say and mean:

The chapter opens with an imaginary newspaper headline about a rapist
being freed because sociobiologists Thornhill and Alexander testify at
his trial. She puts quotations around things these men never said, and
never would say, justifying this tactic by describing her testifying
expert witnesses as "Expert A" and "Expert B"...who she identifies by
name(s) (Thornhill, Alexander, and others) in the following paragraph!

She seems to think that a 'rape urge' in male humans would 'justify' rape
by taking it somehow from the realm of free will and "intentionality."
No such argument has been stated or implied by any sociobiologist.

She commits the naturalistic fallacy at least three times by asserting
that "biologisizing" rape will make it socially acceptable!

Fausto-Sterling presents an objection to coercive mating hypotheses based
on the fact that the term "rape" (used by biologists to describe
non-human sexual coercion) applies only to humans (by definition in her
dictionary, rape is "the crime of having sex with a *woman* against her
will."; emphasis hers) Presumably, she would object to descriptions of
male 'rape' in prison as well as to Thornhill's use of the term for
coerced sex in flies and ducks.

She asserts, grotesquely, that sociobiologists "attempt to defuse the
political explosiveness of rape, thus trivializing its effect on women's

Not "run the risk of" or "might be misunderstood to argue that," mind
you. No! They actually "attempt to" trivialize rape! Thornhill, whose
two daughters are explicitely mentioned as a motivating factor in his
study of rape in his papers, is accused of trying to justify sexual assault!

The Thornhills, in particular, have written *numerous* papers on rape
victims' anguish. They have emphasized the special nature of this grief,
writing that it goes well beyond the psychological pain following mere
physical trauma, etc.

Contrary to what Fausto-Sterlings implies in her chapter, the Thornhills
do not apply scorpionfly data to human rape. Rather, they derive an
analogous hypothesis for human male sexual coercion and test it against
the available psychological literature.

In one Thornhill paper, a working hypothesis for a general theory of
'rape' is offered which may be applied to humans. This is not the same
as uncritically taking non-human animal data and asserting that it
"explains" human behavior, as Faysto-Sterlings asserts.

She claims that sociobiology has appeared "again and again as ammunition"
in the debate over whether women should be afforded the vote or the
chance to attend college (!). She cites several feminist writings about
sociobiology to support the claim, but does not cite one sociobiologist
who makes the alluded-to sexist argument.

She claims that "many modern Darwinists" think that sociobiology is
little supported by Darwinian theory. Many? She's probably thinking of
Gould and Lewontin, but doesn't cite any of the folks in this supposed crowd.

Finally, she quotes Ed Wilson as saying of theories of animal behavior
that "potentially, the implications for the study of human behavior are
very great." This, according to Fausto-Sterling, is proof that
Given what she says earlier in her chapter about the reckless application
of non-human animal data to understanding human behavior, I guess we're
to believe that Wilson's claim that behavioral ecology may generate
hypotheses about humans to be some sort of abuse of logic and scientific

II. Ad hominem attacks on biological theory

She gets her behavioral details wrong when describing scorpionflies,
which is merely annoying. If I were to apply her standards to her
writings, however, I would intepret it as evidence of her inescapable
bias and hidden agenda. :)

Strangely, she attacks Thornhill's belief that female scorpionflies which
are mated with against their will (and who do not receive nuptial food
from the coercing male) suffer fitness reductions from the episodes of
forced copulation--EVEN THOUGH he empirically established that coercive
males are phenotypically inferior to gift-giving males.

She (on p. 183) does a nice job of explaining straight-forwardly the
reasons for expecting different selective pressures on male and female
animals. Unfortunately, she then asserts that there is "no evidence"
that females incur greater reproductive cost than males, because male
mammals produce millions of sperm while female mammals only produce "a
small number of rather large" gametes (!!).

She does not address the physiological costs of producing milk,
which outweigh the metabolic costs of gestation, which she also ignores!

She dismisses Parental Investment Theory as a sociobiological "invention"
created to "rationalize" role reversal in some species with regards
to offspring care.

I have to say that this chapter is a very weak argument against
the application of evolutionary principles to human behavior. It does
*not* document the supposed application of animal models to human
behavior, as its author implies it will, and it really does unfairly
characterize Ed Wilson, Randy Thornhill, Richard Alexander, and others
as 'pro-rape' sexists.

Hueristics are not a crime, for Christ's sake!