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Creation 23(4):50–53, September 2001

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Rape and evolution

Evolution shows its true colours


It’s not often that we ask to reproduce an article that has already appeared elsewhere, but this one is exceptional. John Lofton, a Christian, here interviews Craig Palmer, who, along with Randy Thornhill, is one of two evolutionist academic authors of the book, A Natural History Of Rape: Biological Bases Of Sexual Coercion (MIT Press). The book argues that rape is to be expected on the basis of our alleged evolutionary heritage. Many other evolutionists have attacked the book’s thesis; this interview brilliantly spotlights the inconsistency between evolution and the idea of moral values in a society. We do not know the interviewer, but we commend him for his unashamed willingness to confront an unbeliever with the truth, yet in a way that is full of wisdom and insight.

John Lofton: So, how would you sum up what your book is saying?

Craig Palmer: That there is obviously some evolutionary basis to rape just like there is some evolutionary basis to all aspects of living things. In the book we narrow it down to two plausible specific evolutionary reasons for why we are a species in which rape occurs. One is just a by-product of evolved differences between the sexualities of males and females. Or, two, rape might be an adaptation. There might have been selection favouring males who raped under some circumstances in the past. And therefore there might be some aspects of male brains designed specifically to rape under some conditions.

What do you mean when you say evolutionary reasons?

An evolutionary reason is also known as the ultimate level of explanation. It’s really the question of why are we the way we are?
And the evolutionary answer is what selective forces favoured those traits in hundreds or thousands of past generations that we eventually end up with today.

So, if men rape for evolutionary reasons then they are not responsible for their rape?

Oh, absolutely not. That’s not—

How could they be responsible? To what?

Excuse me?

Evolutionary man would be responsible to what? To whom?

The question of causation is a different question from responsibility. Let me turn it around and say the typical explanation is that culture, your culture, causes you to rape. Why aren’t people saying then, ‘Oh, then the person can’t be responsible because it’s their culture, something else that caused them [to rape].’

I assume you think rape is wrong and should be a crime.

Absolutely. Yes.

But, if we just evolved, how can there be any right and wrong?

That’s a very good point. But you need to avoid the naturalistic fallacy. What was favoured by natural selection is no more likely to be considered good or bad. You can’t just make the assumption that if something is natural, favoured by evolution, that therefore it is good. That is the naturalistic fallacy.

But, you’re a naturalistic evolutionist, right?

I’ve never heard that term.

I mean, you either think that God caused evolution, and that’s the way people were created. Or it all just happened naturally.

Oh, oh. Then given those two options, I guess I’d be a naturalist evolutionist.

Then I repeat my question: Where would right and wrong come from in a completely natural world where things just happen?

It doesn’t come from what was selected for. I suggest that where it comes from is that you look at the consequences; not the causes of a behaviour, whether it’s evolved or not, but what are the consequences. And then you are free to choose which consequences you find desirable and good and which should be encouraged, and which consequences you find bad and should be prevented.

But let’s take this conversation out of the realm of the abstract. I’m talking to you, Dr Palmer. You say rape is wrong and should be illegal, right?


But, if there was no law against rape, why would you be for making it illegal? Why do you think it is wrong? By what standard is rape wrong?

Because it causes so much human suffering.

But this begs the question. Why is it wrong to cause human suffering? In naturalistic, evolutionary terms, what is a human that it is wrong to make one suffer? I mean, you believe that humans are accidents, they just happened.

I would go with that.

So, why would it be wrong then to make humans suffer if they just happened?

We’re free to deem those things we consider wrong. Let me ask you: Are you a creationist?

I’m a Christian who believes the Bible.

Ahhhh, I see.

Are you a Christian?

No. I was raised Christian, a Congregationalist. I’m now an agnostic. I don’t have any evidence that God doesn’t exist.

The reason men rape is because of Original Sin. This very easily explains rape. But because you’re an unbeliever, you have no real answer as to why rape is wrong.

You don’t like my human suffering answer?

As I’ve said, this begs the question because you don’t say why causing human suffering is wrong. I say, because I’m a Christian who believes the Bible, that rape is wrong and human beings ought not to be made to suffer, because God says this is wrong. God says rape is a capital crime. And making humans suffer is wrong because we are made in God’s image. But, you can’t say any of this.

That’s true. I do not give that ultimate reason. You’re right, absolutely right.

You still say rape is wrong, however. But, where would right and wrong come from in an evolutionary world where things just happen? Isn’t there a problem here, from your perspective?

I actually think that what you say is basically true. I kinda like the view that we have free will to decide what’s right and wrong and that we don’t have to follow some scriptures.

But, if we have this free will that means that each one of us can decide for ourselves if rape is right or wrong. A rapist can decide that rape is OK for him. And a rape victim can decide that rape is not OK for this victim. If all this is true, then there is no right or wrong regarding rape. There are just different opinions.

But you have democracies and laws—

But you say individuals decide about rape being right or wrong according to their free will.

An individual can decide if cannibalism is fine or whatever. But others have the right to disagree and to enact laws and vote so that persons can’t act on that.

But your free will, everybody-decide-for-himself-what’s-right-or-wrong view, by definition, means that there is no transcendent, absolute argument against rape or anything else.

You also have the rule of the majority in law and that does figure into it.

Not at all. This doesn’t, necessarily, bind individuals. In fact, what you just said is just one more opinion that I can accept or reject according to my free will, as you see it. Do you really think rapists respect majority rule?

Well, they might if they know the majority has passed laws that will lock them away for the rest of their life.

But see, the problem you have is that the way you reason—and the only way you can reason as a naturalistic evolutionist—is that everyone decides for himself, according to his own free will—which he does not have but thinks he does—what’s right and wrong. And this means there is no right and wrong, that everybody just makes up his own religion, his own right and wrong. And this is exactly the situation we have in our society today, which is why we have moral chaos! In fact, this is what God talks about in the book of Judges in the Old Testament—a time in Israel’s history when they, too, were in chaos because ‘every man did that which was right in his own eyes’ (Judges 21:25).

Very interesting.

It is. But, tell me this, please. For generations now, in our public, government-run schools, your view has been taught. Kids have been taught evolution, that they are animals who evolved from lower forms of animal life. How do you think this is working? I don’t think it is working.

Photo by Joy Luke Rape statistics
I would agree with you on that one. Absolutely.

So, why doesn’t this shake your belief then? If you can honestly say that the teaching of your view is not working, why doesn’t this shake your viewpoint?

This may surprise you, but I actually think religion has a good effect on people because it has been the way that generation after generation has passed down moral codes.

But, I’m not talking about just ‘religion’. I’m not a religionist. I don’t believe ‘religion’ saves anybody. ‘Religion’ is something people babble about and praise when they don’t know what they are talking about. ‘Religion’ isn’t, necessarily, good or bad. It depends on whether you’re talking about a true or false religion.


But, again, why do you cling to a view that you admit has not worked when taught to our kids in the public, government-run schools? Do you care if reality refutes what you believe?

Could it be possible that my view of how living things came to be, would it be logically consistent—possible—that what I believe is true and yet the teaching of that truth has social consequences that we might consider bad? I think that is possible. And that your view—though not accurate—might have better consequences if taught? I think that’s possible.

(Laughing) Oh, boy. One of the things I have on my resume is that I thank God I never went to college—which is why I am so smart.
But, no, your view is not possible because it contradicts the Word of God. Your view is an interesting evasion to try and get you out of the corner you are in. But, it is not possible.
The consequences of teaching your view are bad because what you believe is bad, is false! But, if you really believe that your view when taught has bad consequences, where does this leave you? And what should be taught in the schools?

I think there are aspects of religious teaching that have wonderful social consequences and particularly the encouragement of morality and self-restraint that does come with religion and—

Again, please, forget ‘religion’. I’m not a religionist. I’m defending Christianity.

Sure. OK, this all comes certainly with Christianity. I’ve written a paper but never published it arguing that all types of sexual crimes increase when religion and moral traditions in general deteriorate.

You mean Christianity since there are no ‘moral traditions in general’. The reason I’m so touchy on this matter is because God, the Lord Jesus Christ, is to be given the glory for all good things that happen. And He is robbed of this glory when one speaks of ‘moral traditions in general’.

OK. I would agree that there is a correlation between powerful Christian traditions and the lowering of all kinds of crimes, maybe particularly sexual crimes. And I would agree that in our society we have seen Christian traditions weakened.

You’re a master of the under-statement.

And that (the weakening of Christianity) is a factor responsible for the increase in rape and sexual crimes and violence, murder in our schools, which you’ve mentioned. So, there is maybe a small point of agreement here.

But, where does this leave you and what you believe? If the secular humanist order is collapsing all over the world—and it is—where does this leave you when you admit this view has bad consequences when taught? And what are these bad consequences of teaching naturalistic evolution?

The question is whether the benefit of teaching this outweighs the cost. My view can increase knowledge, generate predictions which can be tested and you discard the ones that aren’t met and keep the ones that can increase knowledge. The downside is that my view tends to—you would say it has to—is that it diminishes the role of religion. And I think that religion does make people more co-operative, more self-restrained, nicer, altruistic …

But, we’re back to ‘religion’.

OK, Christianity, sorry. I’m an anthropologist and am used to talking in those terms. I’ll try to stick to Christianity. [My view] turns people away from Christianity. Christians are nicer, more altruistic, more willing to sacrifice for someone else, more willing to restrain themselves for someone else than from someone who does not practise—I would say any religion—than in evolution. So, you have to choose and I’ve had to choose. What are the benefits of increased knowledge versus the cost of this loss of say Christian behaviour?

It’s interesting that I actually started a dissertation in graduate school on religion. And what I found was that it was too close of a call for me to make. Yes, I thought I could increase knowledge about religious behaviour, its causes, etc. But in doing so it tended to have the effect on people I convinced of [this that they] would no longer practice their Christianity. I was not at all sure that was a good thing. In fact, I sensed that it was making them more selfish and less cooperative.

But, when you—as an unbeliever—worry about people falling away from their Christianity, when you are not a Christian, [it] makes you a hypocrite! Seriously, how can you do this when you, too, reject Christianity?

I understand perfectly. I would try to behave in a nice, caring, non-selfish, restrained way …

A Christ-like way, you mean. The Christ in whom you do not believe!

Yes. Exactly. Perfectly put.

Your problem is that you want Christianity without Christ.

Yes, the behaviour without having to…

But, you’re not going to get it! You will not get Christianity without Christ! You will not get the fruit without the tree! See?


You remind me of a story that was told about the French atheist Voltaire (1694-1778). It is said that when he had atheist friends over for dinner they spoke openly, while being served, of their atheism. But, Voltaire told them to shut up, that he didn’t want such godless talk in front of the hired help because if they believed this they might murder him in his sleep and rob him.

(Laughing) That’s very good.

And it’s very true, too, and applicable to you! What you need to do is repent of your sin of unbelief and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. You need to admit that your godless philosophy has been a dismal failure. But, you’re not there yet.

No, not quite. But, I have enjoyed this.

Reprinted with kind permission of the internet newspaper WorldNetDaily.com

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