The Evolutionary Psychology FAQ

Edward H. Hagen, Institute for Theoretical Biology, Berlin

Is rape an adaptation?

No one knows, nor is there currently enough evidence to decide the question either way. A better question is whether or not a rape adaptation in humans is conceivable. Here, I think the answer is clearly yes. That rape might be an adaptation is a reasonable hypothesis to pursue, and the proper framework is intersexual conflict. Nature is rife with violent conflict--conflict between members of different species (such as predators and prey), conflict between members of the same species (such as males competing for females), and conflict between males and females (such as the killing of offspring by unrelated males during harem takeovers). Further, many organisms clearly possess adaptations to successfully engage in violent strategies (e.g., fangs and claws). There is no principled reason why animal nervous systems could not be specialized for coercive mating, including rape. In humans, the benefits of rape for males may have outweighed the costs during the EEA in the following circumstances:

High status males may be have been able to coerce matings with little fear of reprisal.

Low status women (e.g., orphans) may have been particularly vulnerable to being raped because males need not have feared reprisals from the woman's family.

During war, raping enemy women may have had few negative repercussions.

Men who were low status, who were likely to remain low status, and who had few opportunities to invest in kin may have realized reproductive benefits that outweighed the considerable costs (e.g., reprisal by the woman's family).

Whether human males possess psychological adaptations for rape will only be answered by careful studies seeking evidence for such cognitive specializations. To not seek such evidence is like failing to search a suspect for a concealed weapon. It is extremely likely that human males, like males of many other species, have both physiological as well as psychological adaptations for successfully engaging in violent strategies. Rape may well be one such strategy. However--and this is important--adaptations provide organisms with special abilities. Rape is a behavior. It could easily result (for example) from the ability of individuals to use physical aggression to achieve any one of a number of goals, including sex; it may not require any cognitive specializations whatsoever. In order for a rape adaptation to evolve, there would have to have been cognitive problems involved in successfully raping someone in the EEA that were specific to rape, and did not generally occur in other aggressive encounters. It is not entirely obvious what these problems might have been. Perhaps identifying circumstances that were propitious for rape, as outlined above, would be one example.

More generally, the human sciences may be forced to consider that individuals are innately capable of doing bad things.

Copyright 1999-2002 Edward H. Hagen