We Can’t Blame it on Nature

By Madronna Holden

Updated Oct. 19, 2011

In 1651 Western philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote that human life in the state of nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, a “war of every man against every man”.

William Golding popularized this perspective on the awful state of humans in nature in his modern novel, The Lord of the Flies, in which a group of boys stranded together on an island revert to the savage nature of humans without the constraining hand of civilization.

Though Hobbes thought that we must submit to state authority to rescue ourselves from such terrible natural tendencies, others maintained that our actions, derived from nature, are neither our choice nor our responsibility.

Robin Fox and Lionel Tiger put forth this “nature made me do it” theory in The Imperial Animal.  Their work bolstered the “spreading your genes around” theory—postulating that human social behavior, including colonialism and the oppressive of women by men, can be chalked up to the impulse to insure that as many of our genes as possible have a future.

What I remember most about Robin Fox’s presentation at the New School where he spoke when I was a grad student there was that he entertained no critical perspectives concerning his ideas.  That was hardly surprising, since he entertained no sense that we had any choices for which we might be responsible.

In this sense, Tiger and Fox’s theories had an unsavory kinship to the narrative of Manifest Destiny in which “civilized” folk were constrained by nature to overrun the world. As a pioneer in the Willamette Valley expressed it in her diary, the fact that the Kalapuya were dying as a result of her people’s taking over their land was a fact to be regretted but inevitable–for they were doomed to fade away before a superior race.

On a global scale, Manifest Destiny licensed the deaths of millions of indigenous peoples as being a simple matter of nature at work.  That is the implication of Robert Ardrey’s thesis that men were driven by the Territorial Imperative.

Some sociobiologists also used the “nature made me do it” idea to explain away rape. They postulated that the rapist got more genes to survive. They thereby glibly bypassed the fact that rape is a crime of violence, not sex—and thus not a matter of biology. As those who work with rape victims know all too well, the psychological trauma involved in rape cannot be ignored.

The sociobiologists so focused on their genes also neglected to mention that there are a number of cultures in the world that had no word for rape—since they had no concept of any such act before they encountered conquering and self-termed “civilizations”.  They learned that word as a result of the rape of their women during conquest.  In her article, “Locating the Cannibals”,  Amy Den Ouden observes how sexual violence against indigenous women has classically been used to “valorize” such acts of conquest.

In fact, rape, which on a global scale goes hand in hand with imperialism, is a decidedly unnatural act.  We hardly need remind ourselves that a good percentage of rapists kill their victims.  All in all, the violence of rape makes ludicrous the idea that rapists are driven by any biological impulse to pass on their genes. No  woman physically brutalized and psychologically traumatized is a good candidate for motherhood. And as my student, Amanda MacKenzie, noted, there are those who rape children far too young to conceive–brutal rapes which often leave their victims unable to conceive at all.

In opposition to the violence-based theories of “passing on one’s genes”, the best way to ensure healthy babies is to protect the health and well-being of their mothers. Many anthropologists assert that establishing a context for the care for children is a central reason that bonding and egalitarian relationships developed between human partners.

And with respect to the more than human animals, data is coming in that indicates that so-called “alpha” males actually pass on their genes less than more affable members of animal communities. This has been found in the red deer of Ireland, where the non-combatants breed while others are locking horns; among wolves, in a PBS documentary, in which a mild mannered wolf bred far more often than a dominant one.  Recently, research on baboons in the wild did genetic testing that indicated that male “buddies” of females rather than alpha males were actually far more likely to pass on genetic material.

Further,  culture is a key component to the survival of any humans beyond their deaths and women are unlikely to pass on the cultures of their predators to the children they bear. Indeed, in the human context, we can neither discount nor prioritize biological fathering over social fathering—the passing on of knowledge, experience and tradition.

And perhaps the strongest weight against the theory that men naturally express aggression on behalf of their genes is the fact that so many human societies perceive the natural world as modeling interdependence and cooperation, rather than aggression and competition. For many of the Pacific Northwest’s indigenous peoples, for instance, following the “laws of nature’ means acting with cooperation, reciprocity and sharing.

This idea is supported by modern psychologists who recently published the results of four experiments addressing the question, “Can Nature make us More Caring”? They found the answer to that question to be an emphatic yes. Their experiments indicated that contact with nature not only makes us kinder and more caring—but more autonomous and impervious to outer-directed goals. Altogether, viewing slides of nature and imagining ourselves in natural landscapes shifts personal aspirations focused on gaining individual wealth and fame to a focus on caring.

And the simple act of having a plant on their desk made experimental subjects more likely to share money given them by the experimenter than those whose desk was empty of greenery.

The subjects so effected by contact with the natural world were a random group of US citizens, aged 19 to 54, numbering between one hundred and twelve subjects in the first experiment to seventy-five in the last  one.  They were women and men, Caucasian, African-American, Asian American, and Latinos or Latinas. Most of them spoke English as their first language, but a few didn’t.

One of the experimenters postulated that because we became human in communal cultures, exposure to the natural world re-stimulates our communal and sharing attributes.

I find this a hopeful point indeed.  And good support for protecting greenery in our modern cities. We are  thereby fostering not only the health, well-being, and relaxation of the members of our communities, as previous experiments have indicated—but improving the likelihood we will both make authentic personal decisions and enact care for others.

And here is an excellent discussion of the UN campaign to end violence against women.

222 Responses

  1. The part in this article about rape, and the dismissal of personal responsibility was disturbing. It is an interesting point that many rapists kill their victims, therefore the possibility of continuing their genes void. And the other important point that was made is we can not discount the importance of social fathering over biological fathering. A father that passes on ethics, knowledge, experience, and traditions is essential for a society to function normally.

    After studying domestic violence, researchers have yet to find a gene that represents aggression. Domestic violence has been traced back to our roots of intrauterine, and the effects mothers have on their unborn babies. But this is due to the altering of chemicals through the mother drinking alcohol, or taking drugs during pregnancy; not from an inherent gene. If the child is then born into an environment of abuse and violence, the combination of altering their brain chemicals intrauterine, and their environment, can breed violent behaviors such as rape.

    • Thanks for leading off the comments here, Marla.
      I think your addition of “ethics” to the items we should be passing along with our genes is an important one.
      I also think that the search for a biological something behind domestic violence begs the question–or at least it will never be complete, so that we have never found a “gene for violence” as you indicate.
      Fairly recently, such research was centered on hormones– and the idea that testosterone is linked to violence. First of all, this is not a single chemical, but has several complex variations. Secondly, we run into a chicken and egg problem: we can’t tell whether certain hormones are the result of violent actions or the cause of them. An African culture, the Dagara, provides us with insight into the ways in which hormones foster potentials for behavior that change with social context. If a young man exhibits aggression in that society, a “male mother” sits with him as he experiences various moods until he learns to channel them into more beneficial ways.
      Yes, things like stress have a biological component. And exposure to particular pesticides, for instance, can increase aggression. But it is more than a biological problem to prevent the use of such pesticides. A more useful story about power dynamics is intimated by the fact that domestic violence increases in any community where unemployment rises.
      I am just reading M.D. and Ph.D. Lewis Mehl-Madrona’s book, Narrative Medicine, where he discusses the failings of the modern medical model in its attempt to find single biological causes or cures for many diseases, especially those that have a mental component– which is actually all disease in some way. (He has been a psychiatrist for many years). He cites, for instance, a WHO study that followed several thousand psychotic individuals in several countries for over thirty years and found that patients given drugs for their condition in first world nations are much less likely to be permanently cured than those who lived in communities in third world countries (“communities” being the operative word here). A group of modern psychiatrists from the first world were so upset with the results of this study when it first came out, they repeated it trying to poke a whole in the results but instead got the same results in their study.
      Mehl-Madrona is not saying that medication should never be used — or that there are no biological causes of human distress. Only that nature is complex and mysterious and medical “stories’ often have more than a single cause that can be “fixed” with a drug. As an alternative, he offers a “narrative medicine” that honors each person’s empowering story in an interconnected natural world (which is also alive with spirit, a belief he derives from his own indigenous roots), in which illness is addressed by restoring balance and connection.

  2. I find the idea of nature completely controlling our actions to be preposterous. I agree that there are certainly a natural urges, as ultimately as a species we must survive, but we still have control over our actions. This idea of nature ruling our behavior would negate all laws and morality, since if we are unable to shape our own behavior, then right and wrong would cease to exist. We now this to be false because as a society we have always implemented laws based upon morals for this very reason.

    I also find the link between nature and community to be less than surprising. We justify that a lion that kills a wildebeest is filling its role as supreme hunter and therefore “survival of the fittest” is the law of nature. We fail to admit that not only does the lion kill only when it needs food, but that the kill controls the wildebeest population so that they don’t ultimately wipe themselves out from overpopulation. The lions cannot survive without the wildebeests anymore than the wildebeests can survive without the lions. Nature is inherently cooperative and harmonious with each species relying on another to fulfill some critical role. Ironically when natural balances are usually upset is when mankind intervenes either through habitation, or introduction of foreign species into the ecosystem. I am hopeful that we will in many ways continue to advance as a society as we have, but also very hopeful that in others ways we revert back to past views.

    • I like your argument from balance here, Damien, which I discuss in another essay on this site, “Misusing Darwin”.
      If we continue to learn from our past, we perhaps may “advance” in the true sense of the word, ethically as well as technologically. I stand with your hopes on this one. It was Einstein who noted that a major problem in the post-atomic world is that our technology appears to advance so much more rapidly than the ethical systems that ought to govern how we choose to use it. I don’t think any real “advance” will be possible until we are able to set the two of these back in balance.

  3. It seems in this article emphasis is being placed on the duality of man. The idea that rape can be justified as a primal way to procreate seems to be conflicting with the idea that the introduction of greenery in one’s living space “soothes the savage beast” due to its connection to our primal past

    • Hi Amber, I am confused as to where you stand here.
      A central point of this article was to oppose the notion that “nature made me do it”–since, for one thing, the research cited at the end indicates that contact with nature does not cause us to do violent and aggressive things, but instead fosters our autonomous (decision-making) capacities and our caring connections with one another.
      Does that make sense to you? Where do you stand in this issue of whether the “laws of nature” are good or bad for human community? Do you think it is right to foist off any immoral activities on our supposed “savage beast” nature– when it seems there is not any such thing?

  4. My belief system has been fairly centered around taking responsibility for actions and words. It is difficult for me to put my head around an excuse of “nature made me do it”. The rape examples are interesting as, from a legal standpoint, much defense is laid on the rapists upbringing, background, influences. As if to say he was brought up to do this act and had no control or other choice. Understanding there is always a choice is important, but perhaps it can be said that some individuals still do not believe they have a choice and that is a significant problem. I do not agree that there is a biological excuse for atrocities committed by individuals or groups.

    In my opinion, man was created to live on this earth, no specs were laid out, man had to figure this one out on his own. He was not put here to conquer, enslave, degrade, abuse, etc.

    As for the portion on being close to nature and being more caring, that made sense to me. I am off to go purchase some greenery for my office now!

    • It is great that you have chosen responsibility as your personal decision-making course, Bernadette!
      We are certainly influenced by our communities and your point relates to the idea of self-fulfilling prophecy: in the Tending Instinct (see our “quote of the week” here) Taylor cites numerous studies that indicate how being told that self-interest is the main human motivator shifts personal action in this direction (and also decreases trust of other human beings).
      I agree with you that choice is absolutely essential. Happy plant buying– I’m thinking maybe those Supreme Court Justices who just found in favor of unlimited corporate campaign spending could use some nature therapy to shift from an emphasis on protecting wealth to more democratic ideals!

  5. I think that a lot of humans believe that they are not a part of nature in the same way as everything else. A major reason why I believe this is due to the fact that humans have the ability to verbally communicate about subject matter far more advanced and complex than any other living thing. It is crazy to think about how different humans are, but it is equally as crazy to think about how similar humans are with all else that inhabits the earth. Moreover, I think that the latter tends to be overshadowed by the former.

    I knew that often times rapist kill their victims, but it did not occur to me that the reasoning behind this was due to the discontinuation of genes. As other people have commented, it is really distressing. Also, I absolutely agree that, “discount nor prioritize biological fathering over social fathering”.

    I do think that nature can make us more caring. I really don’t see how it couldn’t. Drawing from my experiences alone, with every added experience I have with nature, I do change as a person… for the better. Noticeably, I do find myself caring about things that I know I should care about. Conversely, the longer I go without having intimate encounters with nature, the more disconnected and saturated I feel due to my every day encounters with my busy life. Although I am not surprised, I found the study very fascinating that people with plants on their desks effect their actions. As the articles states, greenery should be added and never subtracted. If something as small as a plant on a desk affect how someone feels, I honestly can not imagine what life would be like if people devoted time and energy to establishing a symbiotic relationship with their environment.

    • Hi Dana, the justification of rape is distressing in any event.
      But I want to be clear about the death of rape victims in the context of the horror of this act–and the inexcusable use of gene theory to explain or justify it. The sociobiologists whose theories I am arguing against here speak as if rape were a matter of passing on genes; my argument is that killing your victim is hardly a way to have her bear your child (and thus pass on your genes).
      This is a fascinating experiment to me as well– of course, there are some in some cultures that would say they knew this to be the case without the necessity of an experiment.
      Thanks for the comment!

      • Professor Holden,

        I feel like if we were to use the “blame it on the genes” reasoning then that could potentially lead to blaming a multitude on inexcusable things on genes… how far will people actually take it? I just watched Food, Inc. last night at the MU as a part of the OSU Food Group’s food film series and, although it is not a new concept to me, it is still scary with patenting genes. It worries me and makes me wonder what could be next? Patenting humans. Too much scientific intervening if you ask me!

        Sorry for the confusion but I was wondering if there has been a study explaining the motive to why rapists oftentimes kill their victims is due to consciously not wanting to pass on the “gene”. Or if it just an objective speculation of the people trying to justify it.

        I hope my question makes sense?!


        • Hi Dana, it is food for thought (no pun intended) that we are licensing the manipulating of genes with the idea that if just fix the human “machine”, all will be right. I don’t know of any studies linking killing of rape victims to NOT passing on genes, as opposing to those theories that assert that rape is a way of passing on genes… the only analysis I know that bears on this is the well-researched link between rape and violence, which asserts that rape is a crime of social violence rather than sex (or biology of any sort).

  6. I have never really studied domestic violence nor have I ever been a victim of it… and I had no idea that sociobiologists made sense of it due to a human needing to pass along his genes. It seems ridiculous that sociobiologists think/thought this way because it makes no sense with regards to considering a woman’s health and the health of the baby. If a woman got pregnant because of a rape, it would lead one to believe that the woman and the baby would be LESS healthy both mentally and physically because of the traumatic nature of the conception.

    • Certainly true, Katy! A central point I was getting at with such examples was the problem with theories that assert that nature makes us aggressive and competitive. Can you see aspects of the modern industrial worldview that might be connected to such assumptions?
      Thanks for your comment.

  7. In a world where the vast maority of our actions seem to be at odds with nature, I find it a little too convenient now for these people to start blaming nature for prolems that now arise.

    It is true that all primates seem genetically predisposed to violence. They also seem to naturally form themselves into social hierarchies. But when chimps commit an act of rape, for instance, it generally accompanies other types of physical assault, and in much the same way as human rape victims are murdered. This, to me, clearly defines rape as an act of violence – as if it needed any clarification in the hearts and minds of anyone with any sense of humanity.

    That being said, I find that nature is the last entity that we can accuse, and use as an excuse. Every anthropologist would agree that it is culture which most affects our evolution today – an evolution, by the way, which is by no means progressive. I am not sure if it ever was, considering that nine out of ten species that ever existed is now extinct! And what about us? For tens of thousands of years, we have been selecting for recessed olfactory capability (which affects our ability to smell and taste) and larger and larger sized genitalia – that is bound to land us in some trouble. Furthermore, language, although it has been a formidable tool, has landed us in some other tough spots. In order to vocalize in the wide ranges we have ascended to, our tracheas have expanded to the point now that we risk choking on our food or drink everytime we ingest anything – we are the only mammal that is in this peril. Furthermore, our capacity for language has made it necessary for us to have bigger frontal lobes, which means bigger-headed babies a.k.a. more complications during childbirth.

    I have heard other people excuse rape based on their religious and cultural background. I remember having to really hold my tongue while overhearing a conversation where my husband’s very conservative great aunt discussed a young girl who was raped. She actually said that she felt that the girl “asked for it” because of the way she used to dress. Unbelievable. I suppose the guy, once again, just couldn’t help himself.

    • I very much like your insight that it is just a bit too “convenient” to blame nature for our problems now that we have mistreated nature so thoroughly, Hannah. Actually, it is not true that all primates seemed predisposed to violence: certain species are entirely non-violent (e.g. the bononbo) while others are less so. Also, primates confined even in very large game preserves seems more predisposed to violence and territoriality than do totally free-roaming primates (of which there are very few these days).
      I think you have a very good perspective on rape and assault.
      As an anthropologist, I find there is so much distinction between cultural values that it highlights our personal choices. I am sticking with Hegel’s observation that we can be the best of creatures because we can be the worst of creatures: we have so much adaptability and choice in how we behave it is time to assume responsibility for that behavior.
      But if there is anything we know about human “nature” that aided our survival on the planet as a species as we became human it is that cooperation was essential in this.

      • Thank you for commenting. It is true that bonobos are for the most part peaceful. And it is a good point to note that it is usually chimps that are put in stressful situations that cultivate such violent behaviour. But then that begs the thought: is it not the humans that have led difficult lives that most tend to violence as well?

        I do believe that we learned a lot of our cooperation skills from the wild dogs which we later domesticated as well. A lot of evidence seems to suggest that we aided each other through survival for at least fourteen thousand years, but plausibly to as long ago as thirty thousand years ago. In that time, we learned much from each other. We empathized with the way they reared their young and hunted in packs, formed social hierarchies not unlike our own, had similar dietary demands, and sought the same type of shelter. We sought out the calmer features, and bred those specifically for domestication purposes. We took advantage of their more advanced senses of smell and hearing, used their protection and help with hunting, and were happy not to either become prey for them, or have to compete with them for food. The biggest factor in domestication, I think, was breeding an animal that did not mind giving up its dominance to another species – did not mind being less territorial, more agreeable and sociable…controllable. Suppose life is discovered somewhere, someday, which is more advanced than the human race. Do you see us becoming that docile about giving up our place in society?

        • I appreciate your thoughtful contribution to this dialogue, Hannah. You have an excellent point about crowding and confinement (doesn’t say much for our prison system) leading to potential violence. We humans are also great at modeling things– that is how culture works. I read some time ago that close to one hundred per cent of abusive parents, for instance, have been abused themselves. That is one of the reasons why Sweden underwent a massive public education campaign to stop spanking as a discipline measure for children and educate as to alternatives– spanking models the idea that physical force solves problems. It is now illegal to spank a child in Sweden. But the abuse to abuse response does not seem to be built into us, since one study indicated over three quarters of those brought up in abusive situations do not abuse others. In fact, having experienced the trauma of abuse themselves, the last thing they want to do is pass it on.
          Indeed, there is considerable evidence (The Tending Instinct) that we have another entirely different response to stress than “fight or flight” ; there is a bonding response to cope with stress that seems to be part of our make up as well.

  8. I’d like to comment on the last part of this article—the idea that “contact with nature makes us kinder and more caring.” While there are the people who firmly agree with Hobbes’ interpretation of “human nature,” as evident in those who insist rapists are just exercising their strong sense of carrying on their genes, I believe the counter findings presented in this article have the beautiful potential to start changing the way society as a whole views “human nature.” It is true that many human societies already feel the natural world flows with interdependence, caring, and cooperation, but I have yet to hear of a scientific study that supports this idea. We live in a world that tends to put science on a pedestal of hard fact; these scientific experiments are very interesting to me because they suggest nature encourages people to focus on caring, community, and sharing. Thus, while there are people who already know this and live this, I believe these new scientific findings encourages those hard believers in “scientific fact” to pay more attention and maybe even rethink their view of “human nature” as more aligning with what many of the Pacific Northwest’s indigenous peoples already feel—that “following the ‘laws of nature’ means acting with cooperation, reciprocity and sharing.” Indeed, this is very hopeful in shifting our world to caring more about others and the overall health and wellbeing of people.

  9. In nature, survival of the fittest is what propels species to live on through the changing environment. Being more fit means that you are able to survive and reproduce. The genes which allow them to survive in that particular environment have to be passed on through heredity. Because, as the article said, many rapists kill their victims, they can no longer pass on their genetic material. Therefore, they are a less fit for long term survival of our species because they aren’t reproducing. It seems simple that this goes against what nature typically has shown us as advantageous. Nature is constantly trying to place itself in equilibrium in a world which is constantly changing by providing itself genetic advantages. In what way is raping and killing the person that could pass on your genetic material an advantage to survival? There isn’t any that I can think of.

    In my experience, nature has always provided comfort for me. Even if the weather is terrible, it takes my mind off everyday problems either by providing challenges, activities, or by visually stimulating my senses. I agree that nature promotes cooperation, reciprocity and sharing among people. It’s more advantageous to our survival to work together in a non-dominating way.

    • You have an excellent analysis leading to the rhetorical question as to how rape can be biologically advantageous– the answer is that it can’t– or can’t in any way that either you or I can think of. My own experience is like yours in terms of the natural world– and I know a number of mothers who swear by this as well: if you want to calm a fussy baby, just take them outside for a moment. Always worked for my daughter. Thanks for your comment, Benj.

  10. Wow! I had never heard of this theory that it was in men’s genes to rape. How horrendous and ridiculous. It seems like an excuse to make it okay for men to continue to make the rules. Does this mean that men have no control over their actions and, therefore, are not to be held responsible? With ideas like this, no wonder we’re in such a mess.

    On a recent trip to San Francisco I was stunned at how little greenery there was on the streets. I wondered, as I have many times before, what living in a forest of concrete does to one’s being. Does it make us cold and hard like that which surrounds us? If being surrounded by nature, or even a little plant on your desk, allows us to be kinder, more generous, then what does being surrounded by dead, hard, cold concrete and metal do to us?

    I like the idea of biomimicry, which challenges us to look to nature to model our human inventions after. This allows us to both surge ahead with our “progress” while at the same time considering ways to do that that will 1) have greater longevity 2) foster a relationship between man and nature and 3) remind us that we still have a lot to learn from nature.

    • I think you have an apt assessment of excuses that indicate men (or our society for that matter) have no choices over their actions. How often have you heard, for instance, that the economic state of poor countries forces corporations to pay workers there a poverty level wage? Or that we need to trash our environment in order to bolster our economy? All such statements are based not only on the faulty assumption that certain circumstances exempt us from ethical behavior (and our current way of doing things is the only one there is), but on faulty data. For instance, areas with the highest environmental and labor standards also have the highest rates of employment.
      I also like the idea of biomimicry–and in general working within the constraints of natural systems. I think you have a point about greenery in cities; in this context, it is interesting how community gardens support not only the health but the strength of community in the areas where they are located.

  11. I remember a beginning philosophy class I took during my sophomore year, we were asked to write down a crime for which there can be no justification. Almost everyone in the class cited rape as the one crime for which it was impossible to justify. I’m going to add my vote to the general agreement of responders to this essay that to try to explain the motivation behind rape as somehow genetic in nature is not only misguided but shows a very flawed understanding of natural selection of which one of the cornerstones is “fitness”. Those whose genes are most fit survive and pass their genes down to succeeding generations. I would argue that if there were indeed a genetic propensity to rape then that trait would have been selected against by the very fact that those most likely to commit rape would be seen by potential mates as far less “fit” than those who would not. I read through the conclusions of “A Natural History of Rape” and the authors state that there are “only two likely candidates for ultimate causes for human rape” – natural selection or by-product of psychological adaptations. I believe the first one can be dismissed and to be honest, even after re-reading the conclusions, I’m still not sure what the authors meant by “by-product of psychological adaptation” unless it is a catch-all for every possible psychological condition.

    • I appreciate your philosophical inquiry into this moral issue in some depth, Jeff. This biosocial justification with which no one in your beginning philosophy class concurred makes no sense to me either. I agree that it certainly does not rest on any argument related to natural selection. Thanks for your thoughtful analysis.

  12. I feel like the plant on the desk connects the person in the experiment to Nature’s abundance. Maybe manifest destiny is such an attractive idea to people because they don’t have a sense of Nature’s abundance. Like, the idea that “there’s not enough” scares people into wanting to secure more for themselves.
    I feel like rape is a mutation of potential. We may all be capable (on some level) of violence, but we have self-consciousness, which can heal(destroy) a mutated intention or feed(indulge) a mutated intention.

    • Great insights, Kellie. I think perceptions of scarcity (which are played in modern media ads) do indeed cause people to respond with greed–and violence toward others. I like your idea about what the plant on our desk tells us. And I agree with you about out potential and , I think, our responsibility to be our full selves.

      • I agree that compassion is something that can be practiced and cultivated within a person and a society. Spending thoughtful time in Nature and even having plants around can certainly put us in touch with those aspects of our psyche which are aligned with kindness and reciprocity. On the same token, I think that spending time absorbed in violent movies and (most) porn can work to cultivate personalities that are aligned with domination and that use fear as a stimulus.

  13. I can’t help but feel that a lot of what is deemed “human nature” actually arises from the economic and social climate of capitalism, consumerism and patriarchy. Madronna brings up excellent points by showing us that “human nature” is definitely not derived from nature. In my mind, nature is caring. It has survived for billions of years, thriving, going through its paces. It has survived through the interaction of fragile and delicate ecosystems, where plants, animals and other creatures work in harmony. Is it idyllic? Maybe not always, but it is the way nature restores herself and furthers herself. Nature is, in no way, self-serving or gluttonous. I feel that the term “human nature” is a misnomer, as nature has nothing to do with this mindset. Human nature is simply the way we pawn off our responsibilities for our own misdeeds. Stabbed a coworker’s back to get promoted? Human nature, sorry! Don’t want to give anything to charity or share any of your talents with the world? Just blame it on human nature, survival of the fittest and all that. It’s nothing more than an excuse! Using human nature as an excuse for the most vile of behaviors is perhaps best shown in the rape example that Professor Holden writes about. She writes that some people believe that rape is only a sexual crime, not tied in with violence, and that some believe that it can be explained away by the “‘nature made me do it’ idea.” As she points out, this is not only patently false, but it is demeaning to those who have suffered rape. I might also add that, not considered in this article, are those who rape children who are too young to carry babies, or those who are mentally ill. While this topic is certainly unsavory, I cannot believe that these people are committing these horrifying acts “to spread their genes.” Also, many women (especially younger women) who are brutally raped are left unable to carry children. If rape was a crime of sex and not violence, this would certainly not be the case!
    I am left with hope, however, by the idea that exposure to nature can help us reshape our ideas of “human nature.” Perhaps, by being more in touch with the nature world, we really CAN redefine human nature. Isn’t that a lovely thought?

    • A lovely thought indeed, Amanda. Thanks for your very well considered response; you bring up some pointed examples of why rape is not “spreading your genes around”– examples that touch further on the violence of this act. Thank you for your insight, compassion and vision here.

  14. I find it very difficult to believe that stable-minded intelligent people would be able to justify a brutal act like rape this way. There was a story on the news recently of a doctor who raped 130 of his patients betweent the ages of 6 months and 3 years and video taped them. How can anyone justify this kind of act in any way? I’m attempting to understand the thought processes and logic that would lead to this justification but can only do so by thinking that they might be taking an alternative side for the sake of argument, but sadly I know it’s untrue. So, if rape began as a way of “valorizing” conquest (which is accomplished through violence), this would make sense that such a brutal act would feel like it’s acceptable to the rapist – it was born of violence and the violent nature make sense to the one who is committing the act because he is looking for the violence, not sex. This concept explains why rape is so prevalent in places like Africa where violence of every kind is a daily occurrence. I recently read a book called Miriam’s Song by Mark and Miriam Mathabane, who were raised in Alexandra, So. Africa during aphartheide and the general feeling was that even if you did not become sexually active at an early age by choice, you would become so by force. Miriam had chosen to put off having sex until she had followed her brother to America to become a nurse but was raped by a “friend” 2 years before finishing school and became pregnant. She remained “in a relationship” with the man who raped her because she figured he’d just keep raping her anyway so she may as well be a “willing” participant until she was able to take her child and move. Although she told people what had happened, the idea of punishing the man was never even addressed.
    Once one form of violence is introduced into a society and accepted as normal, the violence spirals out of control, especially when your only form of “control” is to cage the offenders, feed them, educate them and basically give them a better life in many cases than they had before they had committed the crime. This doesn’t repair the damage that was done to cause them to become the violent offenders they are.

    • I’m not sure there is any way to understand such insanity and violence, Maria– I am not sure I would want to try. The connection between rape and violence does lend important insight into this crime against–not because of– nature. Such a tragic story that you relate here– I think you are right that violence always escalates once a society legitimates it.

  15. If one were to agree with the theory of “spreading your genes around”, couldn’t you say rape is the opposite of that theory instead of an act of the theory?
    This idea of mine comes from one of the last comments made about the many children who are raped at a very young age often prohibiting them from being able to conceive at all after such experiences. In this sense it is allowing you person to “spread their genes” but causing another to lose their ability to “spread their genes”. And often a rapists affects more than one persons life so the “spreading of one person’s genes” is causing the “spreading of several person’s genes” to end. Therefore, the act of rape should be considered an act against the theory.

    Either way the act of rape is a horrible experience that I have not been a victim of but feel for those who have. One family has been at the center of media this past week because of rape, the King faily from southern California. I wonder what they would have to say about this theory and the idea of rape?

    • I think you are absolutely right, Kerri, that if one assesses things rationally, rape is the opposite of spreading one’s genes–a point I hoped to make in this essay.
      I hope that those who have suffered the horror of this crime in their families would not be subject to those who argue this theory-which seems another form of degradation. Thanks for your comment.

  16. Disconnecting from nature is disconnecting from what it means to be a human, as to not see one as a part of nature is ultimately destructive. The reference to books like “Lord of the Flies” as well as Tiger and Fox’s “spreading your genes around theory” is (in my opinion) an arrogant and absurd way to define nature. To use nature as an excuse to act without thought or responsibility is ignorance. Rape is an act of control and violence and using any excuse particularly one of “nature made me do it” goes beyond justification. However, when we surround ourselves with influences focused outward, defined by things or defined by control and fill our contemporary social interactions with TV and internet rather than cultivating meaningful relationships/communities, it is easy for some to forget who we are and where we come from. Many current TV, particularly so called “reality” TV promotes the same types of violence, manipulation and fueled anger that William Golding sets in “Lord of the Flies” leading one to believe that one’s “human-nature” is defined by the “reality” set in front of them. NATURE has nothing to do with it. Anesthetizing ourselves with this so called “reality” makes many feel completely justified in their actions or values.

    • Hi Stacie, I like your statement that “disconnecting from nature is disconnecting from what it means to be human”. I absolutely agree with you that these “reality” shows of humans against nature are really supporting our numbness to the results of our actions–and our justification to continue them. It is sad that actions we wouldn’t allow from our children we allow from supposedly mature humans. Reaching adulthood ought to make us more responsible– not less!

  17. Although Thomas Hobbes perspective seems harsh, it is very much the truth. We do have a mentality of every man for himself, and it carries over into how we treat the natural world around us.
    On the topic of rape being a product of nature and spreading one’s gene, I agree that this concept is proven wrong by many of the examples presented within the article. Rapists the great majority of the time kill or attempt to kill their victims. I have to say that I agree with the argument that rather than instill aggression within us, nature teaches us to be kind and care for those around us.

    • Thanks for your comment, Dana. I hope I was clear that Thomas Hobbes’ believe was that this is the state of nature– not culture. And the point of this essay is that it is culture (and individual human choice) that creates such problems, not our natural tendencies.
      I don’t think–as you indicate here– that nature can be blamed for human violence.

  18. The sociobiologists should be raped and perhaps they would see things differently. The so-called sociobiologists should have studied a few actually cases before making such a claim.
    Men who rape have a hatred toward women. They always have a motive — to cause pain. They don’t feel the need to spread genes. They feel a need to hurt something. The rape is often followed by strangulation or stabbing. They usually don’t shoot the victim because they want them to feel pain. That obviously shows no need to reproduce.
    An “ignorant” statement like that angers me to the core.
    Rape is a Hate Crime. It is killing out of hate. The same level as murdering someone because of their race.

    • Rape IS a hate crime, Dana. Your personal (and I think appropriate) anger here is obvious. Though I wouldn’t want to perpetrate this violence on anyone, I understand your sense that we must bring those who speak in this blaise way about rape into some position in which they understand what rape victims experience.

  19. The idea that rape is somehow the act of a person who has NO control over their actions and that their genes are “meant” to make a man behave in a way that will spread around his seed – is absolutely ridiculous. I have a similar argument with my grandmother all the time. She contends that people are a product of the chemicals in their brains – and that willingness and conscious decisions have little to do with the way that we behave. She feels that if a person has a chemical imbalance, they will not be able to control their behavior at all. Furthermore, she contends that the one and only way to “fix” this chemical imbalance is the consumption of more chemicals. She does not think that reaching a certain maturity, or understanding would make any difference in the way that a person feels. She thinks that happiness is a certain chemical reaction – I tend to believe that it is a state of mind. While I do understand that some people do have chemical imbalances that make them feel differently than they otherwise would. However, I don’t think that chemicals alone could cause a depressed person to feel normal again. It is also a state of mind – a choice – a decision to be happy. I think that almost everyone is capable of this state of mind; although, many people don’t realize they have had the ability to be happy all along.

    I think that it is only an excuse in the name of male superiority to believe that male rapists are being driven by biological components out of their own control. While an anger problem is very real and it does make it much harder to control – I have learned that it is not true that the abuser cannot control it. I have been in an abusive relationship, and I can say from experience that the abuse was certainly within his control. If it wasn’t, then why would he stop when people came to the door? Why would he purposely try to avoid injuries on parts of the body that people would see? Had he truly not been able to control himself – other people arriving would make no difference at all. Do you know how much hair can be pulled out or how many times you can be slapped before its outwardly noticeable? It is all about control and domination – when he felt like he didn’t have totally control of a situation – he would snap – and then “show” me who was in charge by overpowering me and belittling me.
    Rapists aren’t doing it for sexual pleasure either – they are doing it for control. It makes them feel validated if they can dominate a woman by overpowering her. Most abusers (sexual, physical, and mental) are actually so insecure about their own problems – the only way they see to boost their manhood is to dominate another person. Its all about power and control……..not biological or genetic urges.

    • I completely agree with your second paragraph, Heather. Unfortunately, I’ve “been there, done that” myself. *hugs*

  20. I think that the arguments put forth by those men are completely wrong. Rape is not a good way to “spread genes around,” especially since many men would take pleasure in torturing or killing a woman after he’s done raping her. Rape is all about power and domination, it isn’t about sex.

    To me, their arguments make it sound like they feel that there is a biological justification for rape. And if there’s a biological justification, then that makes rape part of nature, which in turn makes it okay. Bottom line, they are saying that there is nothing inherently wrong with rape. Society may not agree, but biology is biology according to them.


    Unfortunately, many parts of our society actually condone rape. How many times do people say that a rape victim deserved the rape? “If she hadn’t worn that outfit, she wouldn’t have been raped.” “If she hadn’t had too much to drink, she wouldn’t have been raped.” “Since she accepted the drink from the guy, it’s her fault that it was drugged and she was raped.” I could go on, but you get the idea. Our culture actually blames the victim for being raped, which shows how little women (and unfortunately, children) are respected in our country.

    I understand that there are cases in which people have committed crimes while mentally ill. That’s not good, but it does happen. However, labeling rape as something that happens simply because men are biologically wired to commit rape is a lame argument.

  21. I think that the idea that nature makes people more caring and sharing to be a great concept. It is very interesting that the study showed that just to have a plant on your desk vs no plant you can have a better outlook on things and be more sharing or a reward given to you.
    I though the part about rape and in some countries this is not a word they know just blew me away. How can men think they are not raping someone if they are sharing there genes with them. This concept was to much for me, when I think of so many women and girls getting raped these days and for me to think this is okay just makes me stomach ache. When the article stated that some girls are so young when they are raped that it enables them from reproducing in the future. This is so sad because I think that most women that are living on this great earth want to go through the joys of pregnancy and birth without being raped to create the child.

  22. This articles opinions on rape were what stuck out to me most. I agree that rape may not stem from nature at all, instead it is a form of violence.
    However, given the way we hide sexuality and repress it in our society I think it is a product of inner tension. If one holds their breath, they don’t simply start breathing normally, there is a violent exhale followed by a rush of blood to the brain and repeated quick breaths before one returns to normal. All of these actions are involuntary if the breath is held long enough.
    As society seems to pull its members away from each other and have individuals cling to objects to define self worth we are poisoning the foundation on which our nation was created on. That all people not only had the right to congregate, but also to live freely and without the restraints that surrounded religion. As we push away the last large congregation of people, church, what is left for the people to connect with?

    • I’m not sure what in this article (or outside it) tells you we are pushing past all churches–are you also saying that they are our only moral guides? Do you agree or disagree that human “nature” is communal on its own?

  23. There are luckily some changing views on imperialism and its effects on people and nature. It seems most people are changing perspectives in the way they are thinking about environmental issues. With science making it clear that climate change will have dire effects on our way of life and our health. People are realizing its not a political issue and it’s time to put aside our differences and to put the health of our families and our neighbors above the desire for business profits. This issue is something matters more than money, more than winning, more than dominating and raping for profit; and it matters to everyone, rich and poor, female or male, every color, every religion, and every nationality. Everyone needs to work together to make necessary changes, and that’s what’s happening in many communities including the Pacific Northwest. And the benefits of learning to put the well being of others above sheer profit is surely bound to have far reaching and long lasting changes on our society and our future way of life- at least we can hope so.

  24. […] ”Robin Fox and Lionel Tiger put forth this “nature made me do it” theory in The Imperial Animal. Their work bolstered the “spreading your genes around” theory—postulating that human social behavior, including colonialism and the oppressive of women by men, can be chalked up to the impulse to insure that as many of our genes as possible have a future. […]

  25. Is Manifest Destiny purely a European worldview? My ancestors were not out to overrun the world. My wife’s ancestors were not to overrun the world. It seems that the Europens are constantly looking for an excuse for their actions. Yet the actions they take are purely a conscientious choice.

    Rape of women is an act of violence and rape of the land in the name of “progress” is an act of violence. If we had more respect for our women and nature we would become a better society and since our indigenous peoples were mostly hunter gatherers and were very much exposed to the natural world we should look to them for answers more than we should look for excuses.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Jeff. I really like the idea of learning from other rather than making excuses for our actions. I don’t think this is necessarily a European view–though it is runs throughout the Euro-American worldview.
      It it the theme of many societies that engage in conquest of others, which include some societies in Africa, the ancient Middle East (where many European roots lies) and Central America as well.
      But perhaps it does not say much to say that societies bent on conquering others often have this point of view of their own superiority. And how “dominator”-based societies began when the majority of our ancestors have lived in cooperative societies is a complex affair. One part is, as you indicate, the mistreatment of both women and nature. But others include scarcity, trade that sets individuals with access to special goods outside the values of their societies, certain technologies (like irrigation) that demand specialization of labor–and some anthropologists have even linked hierarchy to the manufacture of cotton cloth. As humans we have considerable capacity for good and for bad; for cooperation and compeyition– the trick is to create social contexts which, as Nigerian Noble Laureate Chinua Achebe wrote, “protect against the human instincts of self-destruction– which I see as greed, arrogance and exclusion. Societies which don’t create mechanisms for curbing these and encouraging their contraries are often torn by conflict without and within.

  26. I’ve had three women in my life who were the victims of rape. It is an act of violence that can so traumatize the victim so as to alter their lives thereafter. One of my friends who had been raped and physically abused was a Native American woman who lived on a reservation in Minnesota. Her story was, as she told me, not uncommon for women who lived on her reservation. After leaving her abusive marriage, she devoted many years to working with the women and children in her community who were victims of the same behaviors she had endured. She was adamant that rape is an act of violence and that those who perpetrate the crime need to be held accountable. No excuse is acceptable. What she explained beyond that was that the men on her reservation were angry. She said that governmental policies, institutionalized racism and unrelenting poverty took their toll on everyone on the reservation. The men were angry because they felt ineffectual in their own lives so took that aggression out on the weaker in their community that they could control. The issue itself is beyond the scope of my knowledge but what I took from Billie is that we are all responsible for our actions and those who perpetrate violence on another need to pay for it regardless of any excuses that might seem feasible. However, she also brought up important factors affecting the people on her reservation. It makes me think that if we really want to find causes for violence and hopefully decrease it’s rate maybe we should look to such things as how certain policies are harmful and change them to empower rather than make people feel helpless, recognize that poverty devastates hope, and examine how institutionalized racism continues to exist and oppress people in our society. I know that these things don’t cause people to rape others but I wonder if they aren’t contributing to the anger that triggers such violence in certain populations or cases. My friend Billie felt that it contributed and I give great creedence to her wisdom.

    • Thanks for sharing these powerful experiences, Sue. “No excuse IS acceptable” for such acts ever. There was a recent study of the prevalence of this type of abuse in native women linked in the essay on “taking back the power to nurture” here. I think there is a vast diference between blame and responsibility: the latter is what we need to assume. I appreciate your perspective here.

  27. The idea that people would actually use nature as an excuse for rape is absolutely ridiculous and disgusting. I can hardly believe that any sane person would use the idea of “wanting to spread genes” as an excuse for committing such a heinous act against someone. It really truly sickens me, and I can’t imagine EVER sitting down with a rape victim and telling them that the man who harmed them did it simply to produce offspring. Reading about this made me really, quite angry.
    I like the idea that nature makes us more caring much better, because I know that when I get frustrated or stressed I feel more at ease in the beautiful surroundings of nature. In fact, after reading about the ideas of using nature as a way to justify raping women, I think I’ll go take a walk.

    • Thanks for your comment, Amy. I appreciate your passion and very appropriate anger here. I think the reaction you have-as well as what you get from taking your walk indicate that we need to make humans responsible for their behavior–and care for the natural world that offers us both physical and emotional sustenance.

  28. This article leaves a pit in my stomach. The fact that every women has to live with the threat of being violently attacked and raped at almost anytime is horrible. I think it is disgusting that an educated person would claim that the motive behind such a violent and heiness act is because they want to pass on their genes. Or are both rape and this appalling justification of rapes product of our society? Or is the result of living in a heirarchal society?

    Our society accepts these conditions in which women have to live, and as women, conditions us to accept it as well. Dominance and oppression are un healthy, and I believe these social conditions are related to our “civilized” culture’s way of life.

    I think it is also sad from a mother’s perspective. When one compares the coming of age traditions of some indigenous cultures, the young women is empowered, growing in widom and stength. In our culture, we have to warn young ladies about the dangers of men and the harm that they may cause our youth. Our media teaches young men to dominate and conquer their female peers–all in the name of being a real man. This is extremely twisted and harmful for everyone. A comment made by one mother to another regarding this subject: “If the mothers of boys taught their boys to respect women, I would not have to worry about my daughters so much.” It could be extended to society and all people. If we all taught and lived examples of respecting all others, we would not have to worry about our children so much. Extended even further, we would not have to worry about our earth, animals, plants, air and water so much. We would have a natural balance that would enable all others to “pass on their genes.”

    We are all taught to “tame” and control nature, as well as other people. The misconception that dominance equals strength needs to be eradicated from our society. We need to teach and expose our youth to the truths about strength (integrity and nurturance) and natural balance: inner balance and balance within our environments.

    I do feel hopeful when thinking about the study mentioned. It makes sense that reconnecting nature, even in such a small way, would have a positive effect.

    • I should correct myself in the second to last paragraph. When I said we are all taught– I should say “most of us in the “American” society are taught”–through the media, and other wordly sources. It is a bad habit to assume we all grew up in America, and that we were all subjected to the conditioning that the American culture offers.

    • Thanks for sharing your compassion here, Erin. Including your compassion for yourself as well as all women who have to live with such threats. You have shown us a better vision at the end of your comment: teaching (and sharing) respect for other lives. And I also think the study mentioned here is hopeful– though it may shake up some folks who would rather blame our problems on nature than take responsibility for changing them. It sounds like you yourself are moving the latter direction.

  29. The concept that rape is somehow a biologically “smart” thing to do is disgusting and damaging. I fear that the promotion such beliefs by Thornhill and Palmer will give a violent man the small push he may need to ignore social ethics. It always gets me when people revert to “we’re just animals, its biological!” as an excuse for the nasty things humans can do to one another, the planet, and its other inhabitants. We are capable of developing technologies that seem out of this world, of writing great works of fiction and music etc. yet some will explain away the extermination of whole cultures as an animalistic survival technique to expand territories, or rape as a biological strategy to spread genes. Such excuses are cowardly, foolish and destructive. As a whole, humans need to accept the ethical imperative that we have to do good to each other and all living things.

    • Disgusting and damaging are appropriate adjectives to describe the untenable position that we can somehow blame all our human misdeeds of the worst kind on the impulse to “spread our genes around”. Such excuses are, as you well put it, “foolish and cowardly” as well.
      You seem to agree with Hegel, who once said we can be the worst of creatures because we can be the worst: it is the choice-making or adaptation process that is part of our nature.

  30. There were two points in this article I found surprising. One, at the suggestion that rape can be deduced to instinct to reproduce and that any scientist, psychologist, sociologist could ever come to such an absurd hypothesis. The second was the desk plant experiment. I am curious as to if the production of oxygen has been studied in relation to this topic. Nature, plants and flowers have always been symbolically linked to clam, sereneness and possibly have effects of communal interest subconsciously as well. We call it “the great outdoors” and say “take time to smell the roses” so why don’t we make an effort to incorporate these concepts into our lives more often?
    As for the ideas on rape and blaming it on nature, even if it was so, it has also been argued that human beings have differentiated themselves from such animalistic nature. However, I believe this evidence to not even matter because the act cannot be blamed on nature as you so pointed out in this article. Man should definitely try to be more tied to and in-tune with nature, but that does not allow the excuse to be made that “nature made me do it”.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Cheyanne. Any thinking person should react to such “science”. I find the contrary evidence in this experiment heartening indeed. An interesting point about oxygen– that could be a part of touches us in an ancient forest- that and so much more.

  31. Having never really heard the argument that “nature made me do it”, especially in the context of rape, I have to say this would be the stupidist argument I’ve ever heard to justify violence. In fact, though I am not a zoologist or other expert, I am not familiar with other species that violently “mate” with unwilling parties. It seems that typically in nature, one sex deliberately attracts the opposite in order to pass along their genes through scent, sound, outward markings, etc.

    I liked the information on the positive effects of greenery on the human psyche. I wonder if this helps take us back to the way life should have been. We weren’t designed to live in a concrete and iron exisistence. We were created to live in a garden, perhaps being in the presence of flora beckons us back to our roots and an ideal existence.

    • I agree that “nature made me do it” in the context of violence is indeed “the stupidest argument I’ve ever heard” as well, Clayton. I like your way of putting the response to the experiment at the end: “we were created to live in a garden”. We were certainly created to live in a living environment rather than one made up of lifeless objects.

  32. The idea of nature re-stimulating our communal and sharing attributes is a remarkable idea. Parks, gardens, and recreational areas in cities are wonderful ideas for many reasons. They provide a place for people to recover from the complexities of city life, they allow people to see natural things while surrounded by steel and concrete.

    Using them as a social tool for reconnecting humans with their roots is a great addition to their list of uses. If even a handful of people are reconneted with the “Laws of Nature”, these parks have done their job.

    More opportunities for people to be nurtured by nature can only help them explore its glory and hopefully want to do more to protect it.

    • I think nature’s “re-stimulating and sharing attitudes” is not only a remarkable but a hopeful idea, Rick. I like your ideas about parks and how they link us to nature–indeed, provide essential opportunties for “people to be nurtured by nature”. Once we realize nature as a source of our nurturance, we will surely treat it with care.

  33. Linking rape to genes of a male is preposterous. How can you justify this crime in that type of way? What type of hatred can a person have towards women to discuss this issue in this way? I can’t understand the thinking of people. The rapist themselves are in control. Their sexual urges do not have a thing to say about their genes, but more with the fact that they feel the need to indulge themselves by the lack of the use of what is in their jeans. The thought of this act is unnatural. To write something like this is even more unnatural. I am going to go to a lighter point because the other just makes me insanely mad.

    I agree with the use of plants to bring a little bit of nature to our everyday lives. I need plants around me. They make me more aware that there is more than work in my life. I find the study a hopeful point also. Having a park next to large buildings, or a rooftop garden would definitely foster a sense of well being for me.

    • Thanks for your anger on this point, Scott. We need as many men as possible to feel this way. And just think if we put in “green space” along with extra police to foster well being security in our communities.

  34. I must say that the part of this article made me think alot of about how if it was a natural process for Europeans to create the idea of manifest destiny. The first explorers from Europe were vikings who I feel like were very aggressive and came from the same mindstate that would create manifest destiny. I think that perhaps man’s relationship with nature may have something to do with it. The weather of Europe caused humans to run on a cycle and be prepared for winter by hoarding and storing food and supplier for the entire winter. I feel like that this behavior may have subconsciously continued throughout the generations. Along with a rise in population and more people coming to the city life, people had to become more competitive and hoard food to survive the winter. While native cultures were organized in a much more communal tribe set up where everyone worked together for a communal good. just some of my thoughts on that.
    I’m hesitant to post my thoughts of rape as far as a natural sense but I’ve decided to share because there were quite a few paragraphs about it. I read this last night had been thinking of it quite a bit. My mind lead me to think about the scene in “28 days later” where the main characters finally are saved by the army but at that point the soldier had gone a little mad and had come to the conclusion that they had to repopulate the world. In combination with a traumatic event humans are capable of some pretty crazy behavior. Another example brought to my head was the forced breeding of Norweigian women to Nazi soldiers during the second world war in a hope to create a perfect Arian race. Some pretty messed up ideas in eugenics led to this attrositiy. But at the time i think that the nazis believed this was a natural process. While I don’t think that this was caused by genes I do think that propoganda and group think can have some crazy effects.

    • Thoughtful point, Benjamin– but I don’t think we can blame it on weather, since the circumpolar peoples such as the Inuit and Sami are among the most peaceful and generous cultures in the world. You are absolutely right that “group think and propaganda” can have some crazy effects: which is why we need to be conscious of the outrageous nature of the idea that we can blame human violence on nature.

  35. Nature, to blame nature for the atrocities of what we as a species have done to each other and other species, is simply a cop-out. It is an excuse used by those who dont want to look and admit to what they have done. Which unfortunately is a horrible habit that we have, we have learned that it is easier to blame nature for what we do, rather then take responsibility.

    As ex-military, I have seen what people in the worst of conditions will do to each other. Adrenaline, stress, panic, but deep down, nature is not the cause. Nature doesnt war. Nature doesnt rape. It kills for food, not for sport.

    Nature should be the reasoning we use to change our ways, not the reasoning to blame our current ways on.

    • I am sorry that you had to experience such things, Sam. Thank you for sharing this point with us to alert us to our human choices–and potential to do better by being responsible. I very much like your perspective that nature should be the motivation to change our ways, not a “cop-out” to blame our mistakes on (thus we will never learn from them).

  36. This first reaction I had to this article is that I have always disliked the idea of blame. To me blame solves nothing. Yes, it is critical to find the source of a problem in order to fix it but pointing fingers is not the key. The section concerning rape absolutely disgusted me. “Some sociobiologists also used the “nature made me do it” idea to explain away rape. They postulated that the rapist got more genes to survive. They thereby glibly bypassed the fact that rape is a crime of violence, not sex—and thus not a matter of biology.” And it is a very good point that a traumatized women would not make a very good mother. I would image that each time she looked at her child she would have awful memories of the rape. I think that nature has a huge potential to make human more compassionate. I have always believed that it is critical for children to have pets because they will gain countless skills and a healthy, caring mindset. I love caring for plants and always enjoy the awe that I have in keeping them alive and watching them prosper.

    • I have always like the idea of Albert Camus, French existentialist philosopher and resistance fighter against the Nazis, who said, “No one is to blame, but each of us is responsible”. I think absolute disgust is an appropriate response to some of these excuses for tragic human acts of abuse. I feel the same way about my plants– inside and outside my house. Anything that reminds us of the wonder of the circle of life and our place in it can only make us more caring.
      I find this a hopeful point indeed.
      Thanks for your comment, Ashley.

  37. Many things “postulated” in this essay do not seem like basic human nature to me. Spreading your genes around and giving justification to rape are not what humans practice at the most basic level. We are social creatures by nature, and like many other social creatures, we share and care for others, giving a sense of community. If you don’t believe me, answer this simple question; do you lock your doors? Yes most likely. This was not applicable to houses 100 years ago, or ever for indigenous peoples who share a kind and reciprocal community. The move towards “civilized” society has brought in much hate and crime that simply would not exist in a nature oriented reciprocal community. Societies are conquered that are not as militarily advanced. This takes no intelligence or understanding compared to what Native peoples have come to learn and understand; they don’t need to focus on fighting with kind communal relationships they have with one another.

    • We are indeed social creatures by nature, Kyle– at least this is the way we survived and evolved over tens of thousands of years. I think that, as you indicate, we must evaluate “progress” according to quality of life–and living in fear to protect what we have from others is not a positive aspect of any quality of life I can see. Thanks for your comment.

  38. It is hard to understand how Robin Fox and Lionel Tiger support the theory that “Nature made me do it.” Personally every time I spend quality time in the outdoors I end up feeling more connected with the earth and myself. Using this theory that nature somehow enables one to go forth and prosper at whatever means necessary is frankly arrogant and flagrant. This theory does lend a hand to Manifest Destiny, which basically just attempts to justify genocide. You are a human being, with no special privilege over any other living thing. We are on the same playing field and there fore can not dominant or over take another. Nature is not there to use as an excuse to flex some sort of power trip. Once we understand that it is a partnership, an even keeled relationship, we will be able to flourish with nature.

    • Obviously the “nature made me do it” attitude must be developed by someone with blinders on to the beauty and power of the natural world–as you indicate, Julie. I think it is time to stop using cover-up or heroic sounding words for horrible deeds like genocide– which is, as you note, exactly what Manifest Destiny is. I absolutely agree with you that the bottom line (the real bottom line of community and survival here) is realizing and then enacting the fact that we must live in partnership with one another and the natural world– after all, we evolved that way as human in the first place.

  39. Professor Holdren,

    There was some pretty heavy material in this article and some interesting thoughts on human nature. One of the things I am inclined to believe is that when I am in Nature I do feel better, and it is possible that I would be more generous. As in the example of the desk plant experiment, those who had a plant were more likely to share money. I think that the outdoors give you perspective on what is truly important rather than what can be perceived as being important in the heat of the moment.

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective here, Kurt–and your own experience with being outdoors. This brings to mind that when my daughter was a baby, whenever she was fussy, all I had to do was take her outside and she settled right down. I have experienced this is several babies since.

  40. This article brought to mind for me an example of imperialism and how it “rapes” nature. Here in the Middle East there are examples everywhere of the impact centuries of conquest and war have had on the environment. More recently we have seen rivers being polluted and environmental issues put aside because it is a lesser priority to military issues, but looking back to earlier times there are examples of how conquest and occupation have permanently damaged the landscape. A classic example in Israel is the lack of forests. Once upon a time, much of the northern part of the country was covered in forests but during the Ottoman Empire and as part of World War I the Turkish cut down thousands and thousands of trees to build railroads to help their empire and war efforts. Now the country is working to restore these forests, but much of the wildlife has disappeared and it will never be the same.

    • Good perspective, Hannah– it is not that humans are imperialistic because of nature but that when they are imperialistic they ravage one another–and also rape the natural world. The Ottoman Empire was not the first to cut these forests. I understand that the forests on Cyprus were cut over and over again to fuel the copper mines–until the island so beautiful it is said that Aphrodite came out of the sea here is riddled by deserts. I saw the land scraped to bare rock in the hills of Palestine–this has been going on a long time. Check out my essay on Gilgamesh (there is a section on this site with a few essays on Palestine on the right sidebar). I am sure you could add many details to the ones in any essay here.
      Trees are still being sacrificed to war efforts: the Occupation has torn down countless precious Palestinian olive trees and other forests in the quest of control over the Palestinians and the building of settlements.
      Once the Middle East hosted the cedars of Lebanon– readily recognized by my Palestinian students as the kinds of forests torn out by Gilgamesh in this ancient allegorical tale.
      Just as the prison at Ramallah has been run by one colonial authority after another (Turkish, British, Jordanian, Israeli), if the land could speak, it might also say, “here come some more of them.”

  41. This reminds me a bit of a thought/argument that Catherine MacKinnon had which goes something like: because heterosexuality is compulsory in many ways, people are not given the option of opting IN to heterosexual sex. As such, if we cannot opt in we cannot say NO in any meaningful way either, making all heterosexual sex a form of objectification.

    In many ways this is exactly what we are doing to the Earth when we fail to ‘listen.’ By not taking into account the damage being done to the Earth when planning our next great industrial venture, we are not giving the Earth a chance to say yes or no. We are in effect, and I do not mean to say this in a way which takes any power away from survivors, rape.

    • Thoughtful point about objectification and robbing those we objectify of the ability to say yes or no to our actions. Check out my response to Hannah on the rape of nature and imperialism, Thomas.

  42. I agree we cannot blame nature for our own mistakes. Humans seem to have the need to always blame someone else or something else for our mistakes and never take the blame ourselves. I was surprised to here the “nature made me do it” idea to explain rape. I never heard before that they were trying to pass rape off as biological such that the rapist got more genes to survive then the victim did. I guess I knew people liked to blame others for their own mistakes but I never thought that it was this bad, so bad that everything was getting blamed on nature just so humans could feel better about themselves. I like how they talk about how nature makes us kinder and more caring, and also helps direct our goals. It’s nice to see nature take credit for something like making humans kinder and better people rather than just getting blamed for everything.

    • Thanks for your comment, Ayla. The propensity to blame others only disempowers us as it removes our responsibility for the results of our own actions from us. I also like to see nature getting credit for something positive! In a different culture this might well happen more often.

  43. The subversion of Hobbes’ theory of nature and the social contract theory as Hobbes wrote it, is something I have long been seeking. I never thought of the point made here, which is, native Americans lived long, satisfying, happy, peaceful lives for thousands of years based on a model, not of authority, but reciprocity and sharing. That living in nature creates cooperation, not competition, now seems so obvious to me.

    • Great, Michele. I think we might say that many indigenous peoples lived under authority–but we need to evaluate what kind of authority it was: as in the authority of cooperative systems, care for the commons, and the extension of kinship to all life. We need to evaluate, I think, just what authority we are willing to live under–and come together to share. Thanks for your comment.

  44. I actually did quite a bit of research last year and wrote a term paper on the connections between rape and evolution. It was unbelievable to see the amount of information, case studies, and different viewpoints that are out there surrounding rape. I researched, at first, from several different viewpoints including rape as an adaptation, rape connected with patriarchal power (as opposed to sex itself), and rape as a learned action. All of these viewpoints were very interesting and powerful. Although I eventually narrowed my focus on studying rape as an adaptation, I am still not sure how I feel about the topic itself but it was very interesting to study and learn what other people think.

    Like I said, I learned that there are many different views on rape and why people rape. When inquiring about the history of rape my research actually took me to animals. Although the word “rape” is something that animals will never understand, this forced action is very common in many species of animals. The Scorpion fly, for example, not only “rape” other female Scorpion flies, but they actually have an appendage called the notal organ that is specifically used to restrain the female during forced copulations. I just find it very interesting that something like this happens in non-human species and it is purely about increasing the success rate of reproduction, not sex or violence. However, in humans it seems to be a completely different and devastating story, as we all know.

    Another note I must make is that through my research I did learn that according to Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer and their studies only .01 percent of rape victims are murdered or beaten violently (reported and unreported). Which to me, was and still is extremely surprising. You would think that number would be much higher.

    With that being said, what we must realize is that we are an evolved, civilized species with laws and strong morals. Although this is something that may happen in other species, it is not something that we condone whatsoever in the human race. People need to think about and take complete responsibility for their actions. It is certainly something that we can’t blame on nature. This is a heavy topic that most people shy away from discussing. However it is important to make clear that the actions of others, especially violent or sexual ones are remembered forever and extremely harmful.

    • Thanks for sharing the information you found in your personal research on this topic, Hana. I think that your last paragraph gives us some essential perspective– we can hardly leap from something done by a spider to excuse for human violence.

    • Thanks Hana for the insights you learned from your research. I agree that attempting to use the mating habits of scorpion flies to condone rape among humans is not logical. After all, should we condone murder because it is natural for the female black widow spider to kill the male black widow after they mate?

  45. I agree totally. We can not blame our acts of violence, selfishness, greed etc on nature, although I know that some people try.

    I see the “nature made me do it” defense as a weak attempt at denying responsibility for our own actions.

    I suppose that a look at the actions of some species in nature might lead the observer to believe that violence and conquest is the norm in nature. But to see nature this way takes a special kind of person with a very narrow view of the world (mu opinion).

    My observations and life experience have taught me that as a whole the citizens of nature function in a very cooperative and mutually beneficial manner.

    I can vouch for the idea that being around plants and being out in nature has a calming and soothing effect on people. Without a doubt, being in nature somehow transfers to us the desire to be more cooperative and caring among ourselves as well as with natures “others”. I have experienced this effect many times.

    Being a man of faith I would be remiss if I did not also comment on the issue of “free will”. I believe that we were given the ability to make decisions and reason things out. It is a marvelous gift that was given to us for a reason, but it also comes with great responsibility.

    I believe that our behavior is influenced by many things including our “nature”. However, as modern thinking intellectual humans we must use our ability to reason and our free will to make choices that are beneficial to our fellow humans as well as to all others in nature.

    There are those among us who would argue that the behavior of certain individuals is a result of their “environment” or that they are just acting like the animal that nature has made them to be.

    I believe that our actions are a result of the choices that we each make. Although our choices may be influenced by other factors, I believe that our choices and our actions are our own responsibility.

    I believe that our society as a whole is in denial of our role in the current and growing environmental crisis. I believe that the sooner we accept responsibility for the part that we play in nature, the sooner we can start the healing process.

    • Hi Ron, thanks for the thoughtful comment. I like your phrase, “the citizens of nature”–and it seems that as a whole, they do indeed function in a cooperative and balanced way– those features derive from the ways in which ecosystems work with one another over time. I do think that our social environment can certainly influence our choices: but to say this is the result of a nature that makes us behave automatically (without thought or choice) is not only abdicating responsibility, but self-deprecating.
      I think you are right about our state of denial concerning what we are doing to the environment– a denial created in collusion with the ways in which corporate interests influence media.
      As you note, we need to face the responsibility for our actions before we can heal their results.

  46. It’s interesting trying to connect our social interactions to something in nature. It’s fairly obvious that there is both violence and peacefulness in nature. Carnivores catch and kill their prey, fire can burn down a forest, and even plant and animal corpses are broken down and in a sense torn apart as they decompose. On the other hand plants and animals are continuously producing offspring, species are interacting so as to support each other, and even the sounds of nature have a peaceful quality. Nature somehow maintains a balance between these two ways. For our actions, it would be easy to say nature can have an influence on us in both ways, that when we are acting violently we draw more on the violent aspects of nature and when we act peacefully we act more out of the peaceful element of nature. We are unable to balance these different aspects in the way that nature does so overarchingly, yet it seems that many indigenous cultures were able to balance out their violence in hunting and warfare through a ritualistic consciousness which helped to integrate these actions into the greater scope of nature and not focus them so particularly on the moment of violence, which if taken out of context becomes truly lamentable because it can be done more for its own sake. Modern Western culture, so clearly expressed in Hobbes and Fox and Tiger, is far from what was present in indigenous cultures consciousness in being able to meaningfully integrate our actions into the larger way of the world. And it seems that only very slowly are we approaching such a consciousness.

    • Thoughtful balance here, Andy. I have always liked Chinua Achebe’s statement: that the best cultures are able to “fight the human instincts of self-destruction”– takes some age and maturity to come to this. Hope we get there ourselves soon!

  47. People belonging to Western civilizations certainly are acculturated to believe that they are destined to “overrun the world”, but is that the only reason they do so? I don’t condone the discovery/destruction of indigenous people, or of rape or violence toward women, but shouldn’t we take into account (in some regard) the biological imperatives that we share with all other organisms (that being to survive long enough to reproduce and pass our genes on to the next generation)? So far this class has focused on the peaceful, nurturing, sustainable natures and practices of indigenous people, but certainly it wasn’t that way for all of them (the Mayans, for instance). Does being in tune with nature automatically overwrite the fact that we are essentially just ‘fancy’ primates? In writing this, I do not mean to be disrespectful of indigenous cultures, but I am seeking a balanced perspective on a very complicated issue..

    • I appreciate your quest for a balanced perspective, Barbara. I like to quote Chinua Achebe’s statement that there are no utopian societies, but that some cultures are better than others in fighting the human instincts of self-destruction.
      The discussion for the first lesson speaks to the issue of mistakes/learning from the past on the part of certain indigenous peoples in North America.
      I do think that there is ample (and stereotypical) writing about how “savage” and “backward” indigenous peoples were to balance out anything we read in this class.
      As for the topic at hand in this particular essay: I wonder how you feel about the emphasis on social fathering in many non-Western cultures and the idea that what characterizes humans is their adaptability– so that the range of choice should be discussed as we see our possibilities and make our decisions.
      I hope that you don’t find any sense here that we are not on integral part of the natural world: I think the problem exists when we lay our ill deeds at the feet of a “natural world” constructed to take the blame for what we don’t want to be responsible for.
      And important discussion topic: thanks for your comment.

      • Thank you for your clarification . I understand that whereas I was speaking from a strictly biological viewpoint, perhaps you were speaking also of the social aspects of our natures, and how we take responsibility for our actions.

        I do have some experience with “social fathering” of a sort. My mother was not married when she became pregnant with me in 1956. She discussed putting me up for adoption but her father told her that this was not an option and that he would raise me if need be. He was 69 at the time and had already raised five children of his own. I lived with him until I was 10, when he died. I never called him Grandfather or Grandpa – he was always “Papa” to me. I didn’t meet my biological father until I was 12, and it then that I knew that any man can father a child, but that the man I called Papa was irreplaceable. Although my grandfather’s contribution to raising me may not strictly be referred to as “social fathering” since we were related, he certainly went above and beyond and I never felt that I ever lacked having a father in my life.

        • Thanks for the follow up comment, Barbara–and sharing your personal experience with your wonderful father– grandparents fulfill important roles in many cultures. Your “papa” was obviously a personal treasure.
          And I also want to add that IF we are going to attribute our behavior to nature, we need to be fair to the natural world in the process– many cultures see nature as exhibiting a model of interdependence, reciprocity and balance that humans needs to live up to, rather than a nasty chaos or a fate that causes us to trample others.

  48. I always knew I didn’t like the Lord of the Flies. I guess the fact that it exemplifies the Man vs. Nature (in which I use the word Man quite intentionally, as this worldview comes out of a patriarchal and dichotomous ethic) as inevitable is definitely on the top of my list of reasons.

    It would also appear that folks like Fox seem to forget or ignore the fact that the dominant paradigm and its history are not the only history of humankind or the natural world. How privileged and closed off their worlds must be if they can completely ignore a history more vast and experienced than that of the current dominant paradigm. Especially when one references the discussions in Lesson One which emphasized the fact that despite being a physical minority, Indigenous populations lay claim to the majority of cultural, historical, and natural knowledge when combined.

    I also find it a very upsetting, yet helpful fact to remember that, as stated, “We hardly need remind ourselves that a good percentage of rapists kill their victims.” I don’t think people who argue that rape is a crime of uncontrollable natural instincts realize how contradictory the facts – the *reality* – is to their argument. Unfortunately, I can think of a few times where quoting this would have come in handy when talking to someone such extremely misguided and sexist points of view.

    I think this also touches on something interesting about the topic of amassing private wealth vs. communal sharing that was discussed in Lesson Three. The rape and brutalization of women definitely reflects a culture and worldview (since such acts originate from a dichotomous, domineering society) that views women as personal , private property that can be either used for personal gain, stolen and used, or damaged as a way to damage the men/soldiers (as primary targets – clearly the destruction goes beyond this group) of other societies (since rape is a notorious tactic of war, as shown in this article). It’s yet one more horrendous example of how dangerous and destructive it is to make amassing personal wealth a social and cultural priority.

    • These theorists not only forget that the current paradigm is not the only one– but try to make, as Marilyn French has put it, the oppressions of the current system (especially the oppression of women) into a natural fact (and thus an inevitable one!).
      You express a central insight in connecting the objectification of women/ “others” to the license to do violence to them and the sense that they are owned by those who commit such acts of violence. What we own we think we can do with what we will– without responsibility to the commons on which we all rely to survive. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  49. This article reminds me of people blame their actions on other events or people.They are seemingly unable to take responsibility for themselves and need to make an excuse for their behavior. It is sad that this happened/happens so frequently. To say that the natural world is what makes us “savage-like” or that the people who live in the wild are uncivilized is just outrageous. I don’t know what else to call it but outrageous. So few people comprehend that earth is our home, and we were made here specifically to thrive here. How could that change us? It seems more likely that the drifting away from nature is what is causing us to become more hateful.

    • I think you are absolutely right about place in the natural world: our lives are the result of millions of years in which natural lives co-evolved. We should be grateful citizens of the home that give us the incredible gift of life. And I agree with you that we can charge most destructive humans acts to our lack of belonging within that community of life.
      Thanks for your comment, Samantha.

  50. I think the whole concept of finding “genes” for aggression, or what have you is fascinating. I cannot decide how I feel about it however. Is searching for a biological, genetic, testable answer to the violent and glaring flaws of human nature necessary? I understand that people want answers, but I can’t help but think of the word “excuse”. We want an excuse as why fellow humans do these things, commit these crimes. I think people would find solace in knowing that as much as we are all humans, there are certain humans who have that “special” gene and that is why they act that way; those of us without it could never do such a thing. There is a level of responsibility that our society and those of the past do not want to own up to.

    • I think it is important to put things into perspective here in terms of human choice, Katie. Recently, I heard an interview with the man who discovered the supposed “gene for aggression”, since it facilitates “anger” or the take over of the rational brain by more ancient parts of the brain– who is nothing like the sociobiologists here who used genes as, you aptly put it, an excuse. In fact, he wants to put the brakes on the rush to find the “answer” to violence in our genes– and did something interesting. He analyzed a large group of men. testing for this gene: some of them had been murderers and physically abused their wives; some of them were pacifists. And guess what– there was actually no coincidence between having the gene and ACTUALLY living a violent life. Sometimes the most “intellectual” men had it; sometimes the mass murderers did not.
      So what happened what that men were making choices what to do with the genetic make up they were given.
      What we are finding now most interesting is in the field of epigenetics, which indicates that our “genes” (which are not even single “things” but organs or processes) are in fact may be turned on or off by our environment –and perhaps even by our choice of reaction to our environment in radically different ways.

    • I agree with you that searching for a genetic cause for violence/aggression may not be necessary and may very well be an excuse. I worry that if they did find such a gene people would use that as an excuse to not be held accountable for their actions. Someone could claim that they think they have that gene and say that obviously they aren’t responsible for what they’ve done. And how would that influence the justice system? Would that mean that anyone with that gene would then be put into some sort of mental health facility instead of jail?

      • Hi Sarah, in fact there is such a genetic marker — which fosters the metabolism of the adrenal hormones related to aggression. However, their discoverer does not believe this in any way supports the idea that we can blame aggression on nature, since he tested a random selection of men and would that the most violent were often without this genetic marker and the most peaceable had it. It seems to be what you do with what you have that is the most important.

  51. That is very interesting. I suppose you can never underestimate the power of the environment you are surrounded by. The social factor in life and one’s experiences are truly powerful. Thank you for that insight and the information.

  52. I have seen both the tendency toward communalism and a certain degree of anti-social deviant behavior in groups of people away from civilization for several weeks at a time. Granted it is usually on fire assignments where certain elements of civilization such as tents, vehicles, equipment, and aircraft, are generally present, and higher levels of stress are experienced due to the work environment. I wonder to what extent sexual frustration, as I have observed in groups of people away from their mates and society for several weeks at a time, increases the likelihood of conquest-related rape, just as it seems to increase deviant behavior.

    • I think the communes in New Mexico in the 60s were a case in point in terms of totalitarian mind-bending of their members to the group. But it is also important to remember that in many indigenous cultures, wild nature is a place of refuge (and final authority) that protects individual self-expression. When Marion Smith said of the Puyallup-Nisqually that traditionally, the only rule was no rule many decades ago, he stressed that this did not lead to anarchy–or violence or aggression–since the children were brought up in community with care for one another.
      I think we cannot fail to take into account– in your fire crew situation– the unfortunate socialization that many men in this culture undergo. I certainly would not blame that on nature.
      Thanks for bringing up this point for discussion, Amanda.

  53. The idea of, “Nature made me do it” made me sick to my stomach. Rapists aren’t doing what they do because they have this need to “Spread their seed”, and I don’t think they are that interested in sex either. They want a sense of power over another human being, and that is not natural at all. The idea of “Territorial imperative” I found equally as upsetting. This makes me think that the reason so many indigenous people were killed because human nature takes over, and we want to claim the territory. It sounds like people are using our human nature as an excuse to act in inappropriate behavior. Nature is natural, balanced and fluid. I refuse to believe that without civilization we would all become small enough to excuse things like rape or killings.

    • An important–and tragic point– we cannot forget, Melinda, that rape is an act of violence, not sex. Thanks for reminding us of this once again. As you note, whatever way we find to excuse our actions–and abdicate responsibility for them– is simply a moral “cop out”.

  54. I find the idea that rape is motivated by a biological need to spread genes around to be disturbing. I think it is dangerous to put ideas like these out in the world. I am also surprised that people would suggest this idea that we have so little control over our actions, when conversely, humans are often trying to feel above nature. Interesting how people can say we are part of nature when it justifies horrible actions, but that we are superior to nature when we need to take from it.

    The crime of rape, I think, is a social one, not a biological one. It falls in line with some very Western worldviews, such as the tendency toward domination, hierarchy, objectification, sexism, and authority by force. Taken out of the context of the Western worldview, the biological arguments begin to fall apart.

    I saw an example of the social influence on sexual violence in a video I recently watched for an adolescent development class. Researchers analyzed media to see how often sexualizing a woman was found in the same scene or close to a scene of violence. It was alarming. Often they found, in movies and video games, that the moment in a scene of the viewer’s highest arousal would be interrupted by an act of violence – especially in horror movies. Also in violent movies, female victims are often over-sexualized, especially just before the violence. What an awful association to create, especially for young people who are still learning about appropriate behavior.

    • Your comment indicates the irrationality of attempts to abdicate the responsibility of our choices, Isabel. In the case of justifying rape, we run smack into the contradictions you speak of (asserting we are both at the mercy of nature and above it).
      The crime of rape is indeed a social rather than biological one– very good way of saying it!
      You present a powerful example of media’s potent–and dangerous– mixing of sex and violence. What was the name of that video– do you remember. Readers of this forum (including me!) might be interested in looking into it.

    • Good afternoon Isabel,

      Great comments. I especially like your statement, “Interesting how people can say we are part of nature when it justifies horrible actions, but that we are superior to nature when we need to take from it”. That is very true indeed.

      What sickens me is when rapists say that they raped someone who was “asking for it” or who led them to believe that it was welcomed. I think it just goes to show that overly complex societies tend to foster overly-complex societal problems. The “simpler way of life” that indigenous people enjoyed was likely free of such complex problems of rape, murder, etc. I wonder if there are any instances of serial murderers in indigenous stories. I would guess not, because they were free of the western worldviews you mentioned in your response.

      • Thoughtful response, Gabe. I do know that there were many indigenous societies who had no word for “rape”– since the concept was totally beyond their imagination.
        Brings to mind the fact that there was no word for “loneliness” in certain African languages– since one could never be truly lonely in a world so blessed with life.
        I appreciate your supportive comment on behalf of women who suffer this terrible violation.

  55. The question of whether our inherent nature is dangerous or not is the root of much of our political debate. As George Lakoff outlines, the conservative worldview is Hobbes’: people are inherently bad, the world is full of temptation, and we must try to fight our natural impulses to succumb. They see liberals as yielding to licentiousness and their willingness to accept different behaviors as “anything goes” and “if it feels good, do it”. These undisciplined people are evil.

    On the other hand, a nurturing worldview of people containing the possibility of kindness assumes that we need to teach our children to be kind but that they have the capacity to learn to make good judgments. The world is full of wonder and experiences to be had and lessons to be learned – children need guidance but do not need to be warned of how bad the world is. Accepting people who don’t follow specific moral strictures is kindness, tolerance, patience and compassion, a moral strength.

    I definitely favor the latter worldview, although history suspects there is a little truth to both. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos, reflect these two sides. Bonobos are nonviolent with each other and actively practice free love. Chimpanzees, however, are quite violent. Our biology appears to be a mix of both, as does our behavior. As I see it, it’s up to us to teach the future generations to learn to control the violence in ourselves but to not fear what we can discover in the world.

    • I think the point is that we are adaptable creatures– creatures, that is, of choice–and that we must assume responsibility for our choices–and not use “nature” as an excuse for our own excesses.
      Perhaps you heard of the scientist (whose name I mentioned somewhere in these comments) who located a chromosome linked with human violence– since it seemed to foster the “extra” metabolism of a particular hormone associated with the “fight” response. However, he is the first to argue that this does not argue for “natural” causes of violence, since he surveyed a random population of men (this genetic anomaly is only found in men), from prisoners on death row for violent crimes to perfectly well adjusted (or at least peaceable) academics and found that many of the non-violent men had the genetic marker, whereas many of the peaceable men did. The point was that it is not about what we are given by nature in humans, but what we do with it.
      I have always been impressed by Malidoma Some’s statement about the “Male Mothers” (mother’s brothers) in his African tradition who sit by and calm a young man who expresses aggression until he learns what to do with his energy. We could use more than a few such mentors for young men today.

  56. My first thoughts in reading this post are the contrasts between healthy working environments and solitary confinement in prison. I work for a large company that develops and constructs buildings that earn high LEED certifications. Some of the elements we focus on are large windows that allow sunlight to reach every desk, high ceilings, state of the art HVAC systems that bring fresh air inside and green roofs that recycle rainwater. These elements are important because studies have shown that workers are more focused and productive when they have ready access to natural light, fresh air and green spaces to look upon. In contrast, I recently watched a documentary on the use of solitary confinement in maximum security prisons. The result for most of those persons confined was an increase in violence and tendency towards mental instability. The wardens opinion of the cause of most of the violent outbreaks was the prisoners need to connect with other people even if it meant having a knee in the chest or pepper spray in the face. Confining a human within a small space without access to human contact, natural light, fresh air or any type of nature is inhumane and causes the opposite effect of what is desired when trying to rehabilitate a criminal. Human connection to nature is impossible to deny because once upon a time human were no different than the wild animals we see in nature today. We survived in nature without the creature comforts we have today.

    • A pointed contrast between these LEED buildings and getting the opposite of the results we want from confining prisoners to solitary, Amy. I remember a paper delivered at an anthropological meeting some decades back that postulated people fear isolation– or being outcast from society– more than death: in death at least, they often have a legacy if they are not outcast.
      We not only survived without all this technological intervention between ourselves and the natural world in the past– but our bodies were shaped within ecological systems in concert with natural life.
      Thanks for your comment, Amy.

  57. Allow me to play devil’s advocate here. First of all, I agree that rape is by no means justified by nature and rapists deserve the death penalty for what they do to their victims. I also agree that rape is of a violent nature rather than strictly a desire to procreate. With that said, violence is just another gene that is subject to survival of the fittest. While it’s true that many rapists kill their victims or target women who are too young to bear children, it’s also true that many women are impregnated unwillingly and many of them choose to keep the child or are forced to keep the child because of their circumstances. In the strictest sense, violent genes are a contender in the battle for survival of the fittest. The reason that rape is not commonplace or that rape is considered unethical in our society is due to the fact that the “ethical” gene has won the battle over the violence gene (thank god…). If our ancestor’s ancestors had been more successful in forcing their genes into the gene pool through rape, we might have ended up living in an entirely different world.

    As such, I don’t think it’s possible to completely dismiss the theories of the sociobiologists who claim that violence is a natural part of some men. After all, we still see rape in our society. These men may not be conscious of the fact that their violent tendencies are caused by a biological desire to procreate but this doesn’t matter. All that matters is that they succeed in passing on the gene.

    While it may be true that there are parts of the world where this gene was completely weeded out, it is also true that other parts of the world are brutal, uncaring places where most women never know love in the sense that we think of it. It’s fortunate that our society is not one of those places.

    This idea leads into the idea that ethics itself is passed on through genes and it’s entirely possible that, had things gone differently in history, we could have been living in a world where rape, murder, and all sorts of nasty stuff was the norm.

    Anyway, this is my scientific point of view on the matter. I don’t mean to offend anyone and I truly believe that a caring society is a much better world to live in than the alternative.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful point, Mark–and let me play devil’s advocate a bit. Perhaps you are aware that a “gene” is not an actual anything, but a fiction– in fact, a recent historian of science has suggested we stop using the terms because it leads us to assume that we are talking about some evolutionary bit of “stuff” that we can demarcate in our bodies. Interviewed on the CBC series “How to think about science”– check it out.
      I would not dismiss the idea that the potential for violence is in all of us: but I would be interested to see what you think of the article, “Warrior Baboons Give Peace a Change” in the last issue of YES magazine (written by a man who has researched baboons for decades: Robert Sapolsky). He argues that basically species characteristics are potentials that may or may not be expressed or creatively transcended–even among baboons,
      I am not offended (I don’t know if anyone else it), but there is a good deal more than one “scientific” view on the matter.
      I have elsewhere noted the man who found a marker for violence in male DNA, since it was linked to metabolism of hormones linked to aggressive expression. On the ground it looked great (in fact, I think he won the Nobel Prize for this); but he absolutely dismisses the sociobiologist perspective. Why? He tested the most violent criminals and most successful non-profit CEOs for this gene and found that the criminals might not have it–whereas some of the greatest leaders in peaceful leadership had. What happened? It was raw material and how each man used his genetic material made the difference.
      Just to continue in the devil’s advocate vein…

  58. This essay reminded me of two things. First, in relation to the part about the Lord of Flies, it made me recall a show that was on TV a few years back for only a short period of time.. I think it was called Kid Nation but I could be wrong. It was advertised as an experiment to see if kids could build a better society than adults could (it was sort of a reality TV type show). I was actually interested to see what the group of kids would come up with until I discovered that it consisted of the kids living in this sort of old west town where they found a “journal” that gave them suggestions of what they should do and how they should structure their community, etc. I stopped watching after the journal suggested they needed to have protein, so why don’t they kill and eat some of the chickens. Seeing kids killing the chickens while other kids cried made me sick to my stomach. On a more positive note, the other thing this essay reminded me of is how often positive results are achieved when inner-city kids are taken out into nature or onto a farm to spend time in the environment or with animals. I think it is important for kids to spend time in nature and see something besides man-made objects all the time.

    • Makes me wonder what they will try in reality tv next (these shows are actually somewhat scripted, as their “writers” recently went on strike!)
      We might also note that such “experiments” could not be pure unless we started from absolute scratch. There is a good deal of socialization that has taken place by even the age of one year old.
      I agree with you about kids’ spending more time in the natural world.

  59. I thought it was really interesting that greenery makes people more generous. How cool! I think it is necessary that we try to own up to our own problems and decisions. I think regardless of how our nature is we should hold ourselves accountable. I do think though that our original nature does have some violence and maliciousness to it (chimpanzees killing the babies of female chimpanzees they want to mate with) but it also has goodness (make peace not war Bonobos or the relationship between Foute’s chimpanzees and him). Humans have to make their own decisions about which natural feelings they are going to let control their actions.

    • Thoughtful point, Caroline: we are not chimpanzees. Better to stick with a look into actual cross-cultural human history.
      Good point about Bonobo (or “pygmy chimpanzee”) who has entirely the opposite non-aggressive thrust.
      Check out the essay on the Baboons in the latest YES magazine– and this ability to change among even more supposedly “aggressive” species than chimpanzees– which supports your notion about choices.

  60. I thought it was very interesting that two totally different things in this article were associated with nature. One was rape, the other was generosity. Humans seem to love the idea of nature being involved with the things that we, as humans, do. We think getting in touch with nature can stop wars, can take an unruly teenager and make him docile, and can even heal the sick. Though I do believe that nature is good for humans and can indeed make humans happier, I do not believe it can be responsible for as much as we would like it to be. Rape, for instance. In the age old “nature vs. nurture” debate, nurture always wins out in why people turn out the way they do. That is to say that, human contact has more influence than who your parents are.

    • Thoughtful point, Caleb: the different ways of seeing the natural world certainly indicate the flexibility of human societies/values in treating this subject.
      I think the problem arises when we pass off our responsibility for our choices to “nature”– in whatever way we conceive it. Thanks for your comment.

  61. This article shocked me in the beginning. I had never associated the over powering of nature as rape. Reading further though made it clear that it is very easily the same thing. If people looked at what we do to nature in this way I think that many more people would be conscientious of their actions.

    The study about putting plants on your desk and making you kinder and more generous is interesting. It is amazing how powerful just a little bit of nature is. It makes sense that nature would have these changes in us because we used to be more involved in nature even just a few generations ago. Children used to spend much more time outside, working and playing. People as a whole were much more generous and community driven even in our grandparents young years. Now we sit in offices, are secluded and only care about what gadgets we have. Many companies today are starting to have gyms and incentives to work and live a healthy life. It would be interesting if companies tried to involve nature in the office or as company activities. It would be interesting to see what changes in society would occur.

    • Carly – There are companies in Asia (China / Japan) already doing this. I heard about one maybe 6 or so months ago, but I couldn’t find the new article (It was on the BBC if I recall). But in summary, many countries / companies have found a direct link to productivity via happy, calm workers. These is especially noticed in the Far East. Some local companies, such as Google and Pixar, not only have ‘green’ workspaces, but they have other facilities that allow for collaboration. So even though the worker looks like he’s relaxing, the chat that he and his buddy are having is really quite productive.

      • Thanks for this point, Susan. A sad contrary trend is the industrial pressure on workers to produce that has led to suicides among Asian (largely Chjna) Ipad makers.
        Counter trends are more than welcome.

    • I take heart in the movement to give children more bonding time with nature. It is indeed “amazing how powerful just a bit of nature is.”
      I like pondering the vision of what our society might be like if there were more outdoor spaces everywhere. Thanks for your comment, Carly.

  62. I agree wholeheartedly with this article, and the “blaming nature” excuse to justify rape disgusts me and is something that everyone should be aware of. There is no one to blame but the perpetrator of the crime. It is also insulting to imply that such a violent act is intrinsic in human psychology. Humans have evolved with the intellectual capacity to overcome or elect not to participate in so-called biological tendencies such as eating meat, for example, because we have the capability to understand concepts such as morality and compassion. I think that alone renders the argument (that our decisions are generally inherently controlled by biology) moot.

    • I agree with you completely. There is no excuse on justifying rape. We know right from wrong and to try and blame biology is just wrong. Rape is not a natural thing. Reproducing is fine but if there is consent then a line has been crossed.

    • It is indeed insulting to all humans to imply that such violent crimes are part of our “nature”, Marissa. I like your point that the fact that our very capacity to “understand concepts such as morality and compassion” renders the argument about biology-controlled actions moot. An important point for consideration!

  63. There is also a correlation between access to green spaces and lower violence rates, which brings up an interesting social justice point of building green spaces into urban developments. Additionally, in another class that I recently took, I also found through some the readings that then we need to help people know how to use them. This has its beginnings in the time of the Industrial Revolution when the Public Playground Initiatives started to take flight, which led to the development of Parks and Recreation.

    • Important point about green spaces, Lindzy. Social and environmental values are closely intertwined in any given society.

    • What surprises me is that we have this knowledge and the capacity to put it into practice but that we opt to take different routes altogether. For instance, I watched a documentary about hazardous waste facility placement in the United States, and do you know where they opt to place them nine times out of ten? They choose communities that are urban and poor. They eliminate the few green pieces of the landscape in order to place a facility that will inevitably cause harm to humans in their places. What I don’t understand is why we do such things if we know the consequences as well as the potential we have to make positive change like decreasing violence by planting a few trees. Additionally, this idea makes me think of the environment of prisons and the lack of greenery that is present within them. If we have these studies that demonstrate the power of nature to alter or at least influence behavior, it confuses me as to why we would choose to keep our inmates in sterile environments with very little interaction with nature.

      • I am perhaps more cynical than you, Amber, but am not surprised at these examples of placing hazardous waste sites in poor communities– who have relatively less power to fight them. And interesting point about the self-defeating results (from a societal point of view) of bleak prisons absent of green. We might even save money by allowing prisoners to garden–and perhaps you have heard of the amazing success in reforming “hardened” criminals when they are given a dog to train.

  64. What caught my attention about this article was how nature can calm people and make them more caring. The experiment on how a plant on someones desk can make them more giving is so interesting. I agree completely with protecting the greenery in our cities because with these experiments it shows that our community members will be happier people. It is incredible hoe plant life can change the moods of all kinds of people.

    • Thanks for your comment, Desiree. It seems most of us intuitively gravitate toward such greenery.

    • I agree- I was very surprised at the example of the plant on the desk. It makes me want to go out and get a plant- I have no greenery in my house! In seriousness, I think there is a lot of truth to nature soothing and creating a more peaceful and compassionate aura. One that will hopefully be passed on to the people around you.

  65. I think there is definitely some truth to this. I always feel more compassionate and better when spending some time in nature. It is easy to get away from your roots so to speak when we live in cities without much greenery or nature. I think people would be more inclined to be more compassionate and kind if they were exposed to nature more.

    • Thanks for sharing your own response here, Jen. I certainly cannot disagree.

    • I agree, Jen. There is a lot that can be learned from just a little time spent in nature. I too feel refreshed and happier after some time spent outside, whether that is in the mountains or just in my backyard. No matter where it may be, a little time time spent in nature seems to bring things into perspective.

    • Nature is definitely relaxing. In England/Britain it is common to escape to the country for the weekend to relax. If we would return to nature a little more often in this country maybe we would not be so stressed all the time. I know just going for a walk in the park helps lift up my spirits, and going for a hike in the forest just makes my week.

    • I have noticed this about many in campgrounds, for instance– or maybe just because they are on a break?

  66. I am stunned that anyone would put forth a defense for rape saying that nature ‘made them do it’ – how absolutely ludicrous. I’m not even going to delve too far into this distressing subject because I think you made all the appropriate points in the paragraphs following that statement, not the least of which that rape is a crime of violence, not sex. How anyone could think that a rapist’s goal is the furthering of his (or her, I suppose, though unlikely) lineage is beyond me.
    On a decidedly different note, I really enjoyed the experiment that showed people with plants on their desks felt more generous than those without – in another class, I read many articles about the benefits of green space, and I truly believe it works. It’s not only good for the environment, but it reduces crime, it has a calming and renewing effect on people; in one study, in fact, it was shown that girls who grew up even simply being able to see trees from their home were more likely to succeed in school, to have better self esteem, and better self control (less likely to succumb to peer pressure or get pregnant). That’s amazing!

    • That’s amazing indeed. Thanks for sharing the results of this experiment, Kim. Seems to fall right in line with the analysis of three current psychologists (Mother Daughter Revolution) that write that one of the greatest losses of personal power in young women comes with their loss of connection to the natural world. And if you have a link to this research, it would be great to share it.

  67. I think it is interesting what some may think makes a person “civil” and what may not. Just as this essay demonstrates, being away from organized societies in nature does not make a person carnal or uncivilized. Instead, nature gives us an example of compassion, sharing, and reciprocity which is often lost in many modern-day societies. Much can be learned from nature and a little time spent in the natural world can do wonders for the soul.

    • Indeed, “civil” and “civilization” used to put down indigenous ways of life need some serious critical defining–as do words such as “progress” and “advancement.”
      In terms of learning from nature, it is important to note that certain indigenous societies learned precisely the values you list from the natural world: “natural law”, the peoples of the mid-Columbia River termed it.

  68. Humans exist “within” and “without of” nature. Our cognitive abilities allow us to make decisions that our animal kin cannot possibly make. The “nature made me do it” defense went out the window when we started to utilize fire and make tools. Sure we have biological urges that cannot be wholly controlled or even explained (ask major advertisers), but we also have the ability to make choices. Most of the research I’ve read links rape to power and control. This is of course, in direct relation to many western world views such as domination, objectification, greed and even dualism (seeing the victim as less than the perpetrator). Those world views don’t exist in “nature” as they are constructions of human kind.

    • Worldviews such as domination are indeed, as you point out, “constructions of the human mind”, Dale. I also think an argument could be made– as some indigenous peoples make it– that we can never exist outside of nature, even if we think we do. Since we are products of the long history of natural systems, and our bodies run on natural biology, no matter how we might try to deny it, here we are… which does not in any way abdicate our responsibility for making choices. And actually, other animals also use tools, sometimes in relatively sophisticated ways, and that does not take them out of nature. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  69. Nothing makes me madder than the “Devil made me do it”/”Nature made me do it” argument. We all have free-will. It is our choice how to react. There are some of us who have genes that predispose us to alcoholism/drug dependency. This does not mean that we have to be alcoholics or drug addicts. Decisions have to be made, and sometimes we need to live with the consequences of those decisions and not try and play the victim.

    • I absolutely agree with you, Amanda. We make our own decisions, as indicated by the moving story about the decisions made in the worst of situations by Tamara Curry great grandfather (posted as a comment to the Solstice Story). If he could act with integrity in the face of such atrocity, there isn’t any excuse for any of the rest of us in our daily lives.
      Hold onto that righteous anger!

    • I admire your tenacity towards mind over body. Many people dismiss their actions by claiming they had a genetic predisposition or a weak tolerance. It is our duty as human beings to learn what weaknesses we may have so that we can control or eliminate them. I have a great respect for those who do something about their alcoholism because relying on excuses is not what we should be teaching future generations to do; we have to be the solution to our problems.

      • Yes, alcoholism is a very difficult addiction to heal. Thanks for the supportive response. And I am not sure I would call this a matter of mind over body (which assumes addiction can be healed by self-control– and there is much more to it than this).
        Thanks for your comment. We indeed need models of those who have done this for themselves in a society which is so addiction prone.

  70. I do not believe that nature causes human beings to become evil. I believe that evil is part of the human nature. Today’s environment is damaged because of the evil in human beings, which is destruction. I do, however, believe that impacts from nature can cause human beings to become good. Natural disasters, such as the tsunami that happened recently in Japan, can bring out the good in people by making them kinder and caring. Basically, which may be kind of harsh to say, natural disasters are for the own good of human beings so that the evil of human nature can be suppressed.

    • You are not the only one who has put forth this idea, Maileen. From a bit of different perspective, Grandma Aggie, Chair of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, believes that the earth is taking back her water (leading to tragic droughts around the world) because of the human failure to honor the water of life–and that might teach an essential lesson– if we get it before it is too late.
      In a sense, this is another way of stating the model of reciprocity: our actions have repercussions like increasing the world’s deserts–and that is indeed a manner of disrespect for the gift of life given us by nature–and it we continue to act in this way, we will reap the consequences.
      And we always have a choice: disasters may wake us up to our need and care for one another- though we don’t always heed the lesson. On the one hand, the 911 tragedy spurred great generosity and sacrifice on the part of many–and many interfaith connections. On the other hand, some responded with increased prejudice.

  71. This makes me more dedicated to getting as many kids out to natural areas as possible!
    Maybe instead of marching on Wall Street, we should all be sending the bankers plants and taking them on nature walks. Hackers could post pictures of naturescapes on their monitors.

    I heard a while back that the Viking’s tours of conquest were more about bringing back women than for any other purpose. Genetic diversity through forced means. If this is true, how would they deal with the women once they brought them home? Stealing of women has occurred in many cultures; many slave trading cultures do so partly as a way to find suitable marriage partners. Slaves eventually become part of the tribe. How do women mentally and emotionally mend themselves in these conditions?
    There was a study recently that showed that the smell of a woman’s tears induced lower testosterone readings in most men.

    • Delightful idea about the revolution created by bringing these folks back in touch with the natural world, Neyssa!
      As for your questions about women in captivity, I can’t answer them, and someday, if we heal particular global rifts, no other woman will be able to answer them either.

    • I agree I think we should get more people out in natural areas to stop the areas that are getting destroyed by greed. People are forgetting that most of the things we use in modern society come from the finite natural resources. We need the masses to demand a more sustainable environmental plan in order to guarantee the survival of those resources.

  72. The “alpha” male is simply a “boy” with no self control, driven by selfishness and greed. Anyone can see the difference between a man that respects and cares for his family/ belongings/ surroundings, and a man that consumes and uses everything and everyone he comes in contact with. Instinct is saving another person, not harming them.

    This is an interesting study. Nature is theraputic, and soothing, and humbling. Gardening needs a lot of nurturing, (especially if it is in city limits), and it teaches patience, plants do not grow over night, they need consistent caretaking. I know for myself, that it causes me to pay more attention to my surroundings, I have to become more attentive because plants do not talk, they only give signs. When I care for something, I want it to succeed; and the longer I care for it, the more I appreciate it. I have come to realize that when something affects one area of my life, it inadvertently affects all of my life.

    • Thanks for sharing the insights derived from your experience in gardening, Michael. I think you perhaps have a comparative insight with respect to indigenous societies who developed their values from close association with the natural world– developing patience, attentiveness, and care as you do from gardening.
      Nature apparently agrees with you on the “alpha” male– at least as far as some mammal species are concerned, since it deigns such immature males as undeserving of biological fathering. It is telling that that the kind of behavior many of us would not accept from our children we sanction in persons with particular social status.

  73. The idea that people are more prone to communal living when exposed to natural environments is evident in the parks around Portland, Oregon. One only needs to go out and hike on a sunny afternoon through the vast forest trails of Forest Park to find a network of people enjoying the plants, animals and other people they meet along the way.

    One of the first experiences I had in Portland was a 4 hour hike on Wildwood Trail. Several times during my trek I encountered individuals and groups of people immersing themselves in the scenery. I saw more smiles that day than I had seen in a long time living in cities, and had at least two heart-to-heart conversations with open-minded people willing to stop and talk with me.

    I was also heartened by the compassionate acts of some of these fellow naturalists who stopped to walk around a slug or snail, or to gaze wondrously at an enormous spider web. This type of shared experience is spiritual. It spanned the void that usually separates us from one another when we are locked into every day, mundane life of work and frivolous entertainment.

  74. I must say I have never heard the theory of men raping women to spread their genes before, and I’m glad I haven’t. This is very upsetting, and I cannot imagine what a rape victim would feel like if someone were to tell them this is the reason they were raped. I noticed that you pointed out that sometimes rapists kills their victim and some rape children to young, and therefore this clearly states this is not the reason for rape. I also wanted to point out that sometimes there is same sex rape and this is also an argument against this theory.

    As you pointed out many native people had no word and no understanding of rape, and this proves that it is not something biological. As for blaming nature and saying we have no control over ourselves is ridiculous. Many people that came to America and said that nature was monstrous because they had no concept of what true nature was. They were scared because most had come from a country where nature was only manicured lawns and gardens, and seeing something that was different made them fearful. I believe this is also the reason native were considered savage, because how could anyone want to live in the “wild”? This is also why so many settlers wanted to tame nature and the “savages” because they were fearful. A lot of times I think people make up excuses for behaviors because they are afraid but don’t want to act like it, and try to justify unnatural actions.

    It is nice to see research that has proven to an extent that nature makes people more caring. I too also believe that everyone should have plants in their house and in cities there should be many parks and trees everywhere. Reading this kind of made me think of Emerson, Thoreau, Leopold, and others. Many of these people wrote about how every man (and I’ll say women) should get back in tune with nature, especially if they live in the city. They talk about how it made you more of a person and more in touch with God and people. I agree with this and believe if more people just went and enjoyed nature a lot more people would be happier.

    • It is great that you hadn’t heard about this genes-spreading excuse for violence, Laura– sorry you had to learn of it here.
      Perceptive point about same sex rape mitigating against this theory– I should add your observation to this essay when I get a chance.
      I think you also have an insight to ponder in linking fear to the impulse to control and dominate others– there are many other theorists who would agree with you. The other point you bring up of importance is the range of ways we define “nature”– and then use it to excuse our own responsibility for our actions.
      With respect to your idea of reestablishing intimacy with the natural world, I am heartened by movements of this type taking place in cities as in urban gardening and street tree planting– since so many humans reside in cities these days.
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  75. The interdependence of living things and existence because of cooperation seems like such a simple deduction just by observation. Yet our society has spent so many generations breeding competition and a winning spirit into our children. We then blame nature for the exertions of power and control that we deem negative and excuse evil as necessary for advancement or conquest. It’s contradictory of examples of success in nature (how different things work together to survive and flourish) yet we believe it will lead to our personal and societal success..

    • Good expression of the illogic in the dynamic by which we attempt success from a strategy different from that which yields success in natural systems developed over time. Thanks for this comment, Erin.

  76. What is interesting is I have always heard people say that what separates man from animal is our ability to reason. I suppose that is how people have been able to come up with these scientific reasons for such unnatural atrocities as rape. A friend also explained to me once the reason why people, or men specifically, speed up when you try to pass them on the road is based upon the unconscious instinct of their sperm racing towards the egg. After reading the rape justification, the sperm justification makes total sense. That is what is so awesome about the human mind and why lawyers make so much money; one can create an argument to justify everything.
    The experiment with nature is amazing. My human mind latches on to that and justifies my total financial underachievement as being a direct result of my love and devotion to being in nature. It wasn’t until my maternal instinct kicked in with the financial need to provide for my son that I shifted my priorities from spending all my free time in the natural world (and ensuring plenty of it with minimal responsibility) to getting a real job…and going back to college so I wouldn’t have to totally sacrifice one for the other. Maybe I could get a real job in the natural world and not be such a dualist. 🙂

    • I totally agree with you people can make an argument for anything no matter how absurd it sounds. I laugh that someone believes that the reason why men speed up when you try to pass them goes back to a sperm after an egg. That makes more sense than someone is just being a jerk. In society its easier to always blame someone else instead of taking responsibility for our own actions.

    • We might be able to reason, but HOW we reason and what we base that reason on spans a very wide range in terms of ethics– or even reality, I think, Amy. Lest we pump ourselves up over our reasoning ability, we might note how it is misused to justify certain things, as you note.
      I hesitate to imagine what this man’s self-concept was that he is likening his choices in driving a car to a sperm rushing toward an egg! I hadn’t heard that excuse for speeding before, but as you note, it fits right in (and at the very least, I had to laugh out loud when I first read it!).
      I think that are minds and reasoning can be GOOD things (or else you wouldn’t find me teaching philosophy)– maybe we can even use them to get closer to nature rather than sticking to this dualist stance that had led to so much damage in the world.
      Thanks for your comment.

  77. I always made me angry while growing up I when people used sleeping around as a natural thing to do. I disagree with them entirely. In nature there are many animals which are Monogamous most of them are birds but there are others, like the beaver.

    The use of rape as a natural Phenomenon does not seem right to me. The act of rape is a selfish act aimed to hurt someone for the pleasure of another. It is a Sadistic act. By saying that rape is a natural thing says to me that people think animals have no feelings. I have seen a duck morn the loss of its friends when they were ran over by a car. And even after removing the dead bodies the living duck would still go lay in the place where they were hit a quack. No matter how hard I tried he wouldn’t leave the area until I caught him and took him to a local pond.

    I think that caring and loving is more of a natural act.

    • I appreciate your last point that “caring and loving is more of a natural act”, Nathan. Thanks for sharing your experience about the duck. We will see more of the same in an upcoming essay: “The Mice in the Sink–and Us”.
      Commitment of the type expressed by this duck certainly offers some lessons for us humans.

  78. I agree with the simple act of having a plant on a person’s desk making them more likely to share than those whose desk is empty of greenery, whether a man or a woman. I have noticed this for years. I also notice how well the person takes care of the plant. In most cases, the more nurturing the person, the more healthy the plant is. Men are more prone to have someone take care of the plant for them, so I will always remark about the plant and ask where they got it. The response is very revealing and tells me a lot about the person. (“My wife brought it in, my assistant waters it.” or “I potted it from my garden at home and wanted to see if it would grow here.”)
    Another example is the caring of animals. While I know there are many examples of why a person cannot get close to animals (allergies, trauma), I do know that for the most part, if I have just seen someone hit or kick any animal, they are suspect as the kind of personality I will want in my life.
    As to the novel, “The Lord Of The Flies”, I read it when I was ten years old and to this day, it still frightens me. At the time, it seemed like a story, with the boys establishing hierarchy almost immediately and Piggy losing his glasses which actually strengthened his vision. Now, I believe that there is a lot of truth to the story. After all, we rise to the competition. When nature puts you in a survival situation, that’s exactly what human nature will do…try to survive, no matter the circumstances or consequences.

    • I think that having a pet can also increase the tendency to be caring. My dog is 2 1/2 years old and I take care of her as if she were my child. I worry about leaving her with someone if I have to leave for a week and I make sure she is kept happy. (I do realize she is not actually a child). My tendency towards caring has increased since I’ve had her. She is preparing me for taking care of a future child. The normal stresses of life aren’t so bad with an animal that loves you and is ecstatically happy every time you come home. Lord of the Flies was a book that I surprisingly hated. I’ve always been irritated with the views of society, so it’s probably why I took such a disliking. You can see everyday versions of Lord of the Flies wherever you go. Everything is about competition.

      • Good for you for hating Lord of the Flies– as you may have noted, it frightened a classmate. I hope we are changing the “everything is about competition” attitude.
        And I think you have a great point with respect to what animals can teach us.

    • I think perhaps IF boys raised in this culture were set lose on an island, they might behave in this way, but I can’t imagine many of us doing this– I have had the pleasure to experience a very different view of how humans behave toward one another in my life. In fact, nature might convert such boys to a more compassionate way of life– as do the plants you speak of, or the city parks where urban crime rates fall .
      It is unfortunate that we have (are taught to have, I think) such fear of what is deep inside one another.

  79. It is really insulting to hear that some opinions place blame of rape on nature. If we just blame nature for every horrible thing that happens, we are no better than animals. To kill millions of indigenous people and explain it away as nature is wrong.

    On a lighter note, I thought it was entertaining that while alpha males are competing, other males are sneaking in to pass on their genes in the animal world. It is amusing because I’ve heard multiple human males make reference to being the alpha male. I bet they wouldn’t say that if they knew this information.

    I can definitely believe that nature makes people more caring. I enjoy taking care of plants and having a garden. It creates a sense of responsibility towards nature and also creates a more pleasing view of a house, office, or yard. Anywhere I live I always have multiple plants within my home environment. Maybe by fostering more greenery in large cities, people would end up in better moods. I know when I go to large cities people usually look stressed out.

    • I think blaming such human violence on nature makes us worse than animals, who at least do their work under nature’s laws and limits.
      Studies have shown that having more greenery in urban areas does indeed make people nicer to one another!

    • I had to smile at your comment on the alpha males– most recently, actual dna tests on baboon troops indicated it was the most mild mannered males who cultivated reciprocal friendships with females who passed on their genes. The book Almost Human is an interesting read in this regard, as it not only details observations of baboon troops over more than a decade– but the struggle of a female scientist to get work published that did not concur with the alpha male theory prominent at the time– and now falling more and more by the wayside.

  80. The community feeling and the desire to share more when people are around nature is pretty clear when you compare a small town and big city. People are more interested in getting to know each other in small towns, equipment and goods are easily shared. Whereas with big cities it seems to be a battle of the rudeness. But there is a huge difference between the attitudes of cites based on how available parks are to them. Take LA and San Fransisco. LA is a sea of asphalt with high rises surrounded by mountains that lack any vegetation. If you look at the culture of LA it heavily lacks and gives into the superficiality. Then SF a small city area surrounded by parks, and having parks in the city the culture of SF varies so much. Everyone knows about it, people write songs about it, there is something special about that place. Maybe its because of the proximity with nature?
    I have never heard that biologist have made a biological rational for rape. Rape is a heinous act of violence and domination. It is used as a tool to spread fear and hate, how someone could think that its for the survival of the genes blows my mind.

    • It isn’t actually the biologists who have this explanation for rape– but some social scientists who are applying their theory to human society. I think this theory, however, tells us more about these particular scientists than about humanity itself.
      And actually, I have heard that New Yorkers were extremely supportive of one another when there were storms when they lost electricity and suddenly connected to their neighbors and their needs. Perhaps the urban attitude of the stranger tells us something about the way our technologies separate us from one another.
      That being said, I have also experienced the generosity of small town folks.

      • I think that its just social scientists looking for a job for criminals defense. There are crazy things happening in court rooms. If the defendant had a scientist or a subject matter export they could get off with a lessened sentence.

  81. Nature is relaxing and in my opinion is not a cause for crime. Nature is one way to escape the busy life and relax. This is why more parks are being built in cities and the zoos are becoming natural setting exhibits and getting rid of hardscape. Around 80% of Americans live in an urban setting and it is important to have a good urban forest for the mind.

    • An “urban forest for the mind”? Great phrase.

    • Yes, I agree with you concerning the push to return parts of our urban environments back to a “wildlife.” This seems to be a very beneficial element for the health of the human body, mind and soul. To disconnect from nature, as is the trend in modern times is, quite simply, unhealthy for us. It is interesting to note that when Hobbes made his statement concerning nature, the common Western outlook was to “tame” the wild. In doing so, they sought a dominion over nature instead of kinship.

      • Good perspective, Josh. It is no surprise that research on open and/or green spaces (sometimes, as community gardens) indicates these have also increased a sense of security and community in their nieghborhoods.

  82. I have never heard of something so ridiculous as those trying to say rape is caused by nature or the need to base on genes. The fact that many indigenous people didn’t have a word for rape until the civilized people conquered them showed prove that. That crime didn’t exist in indigenous people but it is common through out Europe’s history of conquest.

    • I absolutely agree, though the book, the Selfish Gene, that said we are controlled by our genes in that they simply want to reproduce, was a bestseller a few years back– says something about the way moderners fail to assume responsibility for our actions!

  83. The “nature made me do it” excuse for rape makes me sick. We are not completely controlled by our genetic make-up because if we were every child would follow the exact footsteps of their parents. I wonder how many of these social scientists set out to find a reason for why people rape were rapists themselves… that is of course the only logic I can bring to such an appalling argument for why someone chooses to rape someone.

    But anyway, the act or findings that some wish to portray kindness may hold more truth than I ever could have imagined. For I have witnessed this very kindness in my own family for the first in a long time. Not to go in too much detail, a family of 4 was struggling to escape from a mother who was a drug addict compelled by some unspoken calling we wanted to help them. This family is a family of 3 little girls and the father, who was pulled over by the cops because his booster seats had been stolen along with all of his other belongings of his 3 little girls. When we found them, they had nothing. Yet, we could turned the other cheek and assumed they would do okay but instead we found ways to get them funding by the state, a safe home and a town where the father could look for a job. We have down this by simply an act of faith.

    Now the question remains, is this act of faith in our nature? Are these acts of kindness done because it is in our nature? Before this incident I had been quite a pessimist on human nature, but now I cannot deny that I have not seen good in humanity. This personal incident may help to prove the psychologists points of ‘goodness’ in the nature of human beings.

    • Thanks for sharing your strong and appropriate emotional response here, Collette.
      Part of this repugnant idea comes from a reductive science such as that found in the Selfish Gene popular a few years back, whose central thesis was that we did everything for the sake of passing on our genes– that is, we were totally controlled by our genes. Good point about all of us being carbon copies of behavior if that were so.
      Fortunately, much social science has left the idea of a one to one correspondence between certain behaviors and some physical trait far behind.
      It is wonderful that you found alternatives for this family. My own sense is that we are the most adaptable of creatures– for better and for worse. And it is our responsibility to choose the better.

  84. Parts of this essay gave me chills. Using the “theory” that “spreading your genes around” is an explanation for human social behavior is so ridiculous it’s sickening. What kind of mindset must a person have to go along with such a notion? I understand that rape was widely accepted, even displayed valor, but how could any reasonable person honestly think that such violence and slaughter was acceptable. That thinking requires much more extreme feelings of superiority and inferiority than I am comfortable imagining. Through what lens was Hobbes seeing those who lived in nature to envision a “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” life? Even more confounding, and the source of much of my discomfort with this article, is the fact that these events still occur. Superiority abounds. Communication, nurturing, educating, understanding are all things that (mostly) get washed to the side in favor of “bettering” our standing socially. I do appreciate and agree with the idea that exposure to the natural world stimulates our urge to live communally. The recent surge of desire to protect our earth, and thereby ourselves, is hopeful.

    • It is distressing that any humans would use such superfluous excuses as an explanation for abusive behavior, Latifa. The hopeful part of this is, as you indicate, that there are so many of us who chose to do seek out and enact different values. And it also hopeful to me that in terms of survival, hierarchical or dominance-based society simply do not last very long– of course, this does not do away with the tragedies that individuals within them may suffer.
      And the “spreading your genes around” theory has recently taken another hit in Edmund Wilson’s latest book on the importance of cooperation rather than domination in successful groups of many species, including humans–in which he speaks to the necessary demise of the individual “genes” theory in this context.
      Thank you for your compassionate response.

    • A reasonable honest person may have had a whole set of different values in another time. I would think that an honest man would have to be someone who not only respected others but himself. For how can someone send forth the gift of love if they love not themselves. It may be that violence and domination is fostered in those who do not have respect for themselves and not merely because of genes.
      I would have to agree with your assessment of the natural world as it seems inviting and neutral for all social groups to enjoy.

      • Your idea touches on a notion expressed in some native stories that depicted the ways in which the pioneer’s lack of a sense of belonging– a sense of their personal place in human and natural communities– motivated actions dangerous to those communities.
        Jacob Bighorn, former director of the Chemawa Indian School, observed that the major belief behind educational philosophies of native people was that each person was born with a distinctive gift that it was their responsibility to give back to life– and the responsibility of the adults was to support each child as they worked out what that gift was in dialogue with their Creator.

  85. In the explaining human nature through the novel Lord of the Flies, human instincts for survival seem to have taken over. Moral boundaries are crossed and we are left every man to himself. The idea of predestination comes to mind when I think of Tiger and Fox’s discussion on Manifest Destiny. It as if we were made for a certain mission without deviating paths. This would eliminate choice and consequences though. I would tend to agree that we do have choices and are not merely controlled by our genes.
    One of the key messages of this essay is the line “human societies perceive the natural world as modeling interdependence and cooperation.” I wonder if this cooperation is a result of human population growth and interaction. We may have needed to be aggressive in order to survive in open hostile environments. As societies increase in number, the need for cooperation increases as resources decrease. It would seem to me that we have evolved beyond the western worldview in some cases.

    • I would assert that The Lord of the Flies is not based on any real depiction of “human “instinct”– but on a social construct that sees human nature in this negative way. Of course, if you have boys raised in a culture of competition and aggression and then turn them loose on an island to interact how they will, you have some serious potential dangers.
      When you say resorting to instinct results in “moral boundaries” being crossed, it gives the impression that moral boundaries are somehow apart from our place in the natural world. Is this what you mean to say? It is important, as you indicate, to balance what is inherited in our genes and what choices we consciously make- including those which our worldview motivates us to make–and that which causes us to see humans in a state of nature as “mean, brutish…” etc.
      Likewise the idea of an appropriate response to “open hostile environments” seems to reflect the stereotype inherent in our worldview, that aggression is a legitimate response in the man-against-nature scenario. But what if one believes (and adjusts one’s behavior accordingly) that nature and humans are in partnership, as you also mention? Where do you stand on this issue?
      As for cooperation based on human population growth– wouldn’t that be a hopeful dynamic? But human cooperation is not a new thing. It is a persistent foundation of ancient human societies, even the smallest most isolated ones, as indicated in the essay, “Indigenous Peoples” here.
      What I do hope with you is that such cooperation may emerge from capitalist societies based on competition in the face of current environmental challenges. The recent example of the cooperation between Hindu and Muslim populations in cleaning the Ganges River is a case in point. Wouldn’t it be great if climate change or toxics release brought about a parallel new cooperative globalism in human responses?
      Thanks for your comment and the chance to re-capitulate a critical analysis of the stereotypes we so easily fall into as a result of our contemporary worldview.

  86. Thanks for this article, it was very interesting. The point of view that you bring up about rape being “explained away” as a biological impulse for a man to spread his genes around seems to be a very ethnocentric view. As you stated, some cultures have no term for rape at all, so clearly there cannot just be a simple biological explanation for it. Historically, rape has been used as a form of domination and control, and is used en mass as a weapon of war – as a way to affect not just women, but to terrorize and pull apart entire societies. This tactic of war doesn’t seem to receive much acknowledgment which only reflects the patriarchal domination of the societies involved in conflict. PBS has a great series on the role of women in war that discusses this as related to the Bosnian conflict.

    Your final point concerning the nature of nature being one of cooperation and harmony makes a lot of sense and tends to be my outlook as well.

    • You are quite welcome, Josh. You have some pointed (and as you indicate, too little attended to) ideas on women and war–and the tactics by which conquered populations are put under the control of violent parties.
      As Thomas Berry pointed out, all of us in ecological systems are nourished by others– so it just makes sense to me as well that this cooperative interplay should be the one worked out between natural lives over time.

  87. I find it very interesting that in those numerous studies mentioned, in animal populations, generally the friendliest, most “likeable” male was the one to pass on his genes the most. What I think is further interesting is that animals act by instinct and humans a lot of time do not solely rely on their instinct. As noted, this is in direct opposition to the idea that rape is perpetrated because of biology. Do we see rape in the wild? I would take a guess that that answer is no.

    From my own perspective, I notice a huge difference between being in the city and being out in more rural, forested areas. The city and its large amounts of concrete wear me down. After a week of seeing only teeny tiny trees growing in the sidewalk, I need to get out of the city. I need to hike, to camp, or just to sit around outside. My mental health needs it! Nature itself makes me feel more connected to those around me, which fosters in me a sense of community and partnership. No wonder indigenous populations held a partnership worldview! To be surrounded by nature and interacting with it harmoniously could only foster this feeling of interconnectedness and kinship.

    • Thank you for sharing your personal experience with the need to be in touch with growing things, Jillian. This seems to me to be an inherent part of our nature if anything is– since we became human in concert with the natural world.
      And some male ducks do attempt to forcibly breed with females– however, this is not an instance of passing one’s genes along– since researchers have recently discovered that the female duck’s vagina of species in which the male breeds forcibly has several “dead-ends” that she can open and shut at will that allow her to intentionally and selectively block sperm penetration by males who attempt to breed by force.
      Seems like nature values female choice!

  88. This type of research where socio-biologists have explained away crimes that man can commit based on natural instinct and natural predisposition to me is just another excuse. Why it can be true that we like all animals have instincts that drive us to a certain degree, as the evolved animals we are with “free will” animal instinct cannot drive us to do things that are unethical and immoral unless we choose that.

    I have worked in field where I have experienced responding to or investigating a large quantity of domestic violence and other sexual based crimes. To me, these people do this things because of control issues, these control issues have more to do with environmental and societal impacts during their raising then with biological urges.

    • I think that we do need to be very careful of our use of the word “instinct” or even “biological urges” when there are so many differing perspectives on these depending on one’s social and historical context as well as cultural values.
      Certainly, they should never be used as a way of dismissing responsibility for one’s actions. Charles Baxter has a telling essay on what he terms “narrative dysfunction” in the stories we tell to explain our actions in modern society (in his book, Burning Down the House)– whether those narratives be political, literary or personal, since they are missing their protagonists, as they are told as if no one is responsible for anything.

  89. I could not agree more with the article pertaining to the ridiculous assumption of the instinctive nature of rape. Anyone who will excuse forced acts of sex on behalf of a human being is steering anyone he influences in the wrong direction. Quite frankly, I find acts of sexual abuse (especially those towards children) more heinous that homicide.
    I also liked the concept of social fathering being just as important as biological fathering. We cannot rely on basic instinct to teach our children. It is important to provide insight, experience, and knowledge when teaching future generations because you ultimately save time and avoid problems when you pass on what you already know.

    • Thoughtful perspective here, Peter, in what fathering should provide fro future generations, as well as in your strong personal stand with respect to your values. What you teach other generations is certainly intimately related to modeling such values.
      Passing on knowledge stemming from experience so that we don’t have to repeat the mistakes of the past is an essential part of what made us so successful as a species. I only hope we haven’t dismissed this kind of learning in our rush to “progress”.

  90. There is little question that many aspects of nature are brutal and seem to lack caring, life feeds on life and this necessitates violence, even for the vegans among us, we must take life to preserve our own. There is a very significant difference between taking life becasue it is necessary for sustainance and violence without purpose. The use of biology or evolutionary theory to excuse brutatlity however is one of the most ridiculous concepts concieved by a suposedly higher life form. This idea has been used to justify savagery for the past 700 years and was infamously used to justify the torture and abuse of million of members of “inferior” races by the Nazis.
    Simple biological fatherhood only creates future generations of people, particularly men, who see the world in a very harsh light and will likely pass that view on into perpetuity. I have known many people, myself included, who have been aggresive and thoughtless changed completely by the power of nature. It is very true that time spent in the natural world allows us to see things in a brighter light, one which provides caring for other lives, large and small.

    • I am not sure I would call the process by which “life feeds on life” in nature a “brutal” one, Paul. Violence among humans, however, too often legitimately earns the term “brutal”.
      Thanks for sharing the lessons that nature taught you about leavening aggression and allowing one to “see things in a brighter light that provides caring for other lives.”

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