Blaming the Survivor: A Cultural Evolutionist Responds

Photo used originally in TVOL for this article
“What evidence do I need to make my experience any clearer? Do I need a camera attached to my pussy and a recorder strapped to my mouth to show you that I said “no” or demonstrate that I was bruised and how it happened? People don’t lie about rape and assault. It’s not a privilege to be afraid during and post rape. My life didn’t emotionally or physically improve. I wasn’t told by my professors, “oh, you were raped? I’m sorry. Let me make your life easier by giving you extra time to write your thesis so you don’t fail out of Swarthmore.” 1
Lisa’s story is one of many that is consistently ignored, dismissed, and shamed on and off campus. People continue to blame her for being a victim, as well as dismiss the fact that she has experienced life-altering trauma that needs to be taken seriously. Survivor shame and silence is perpetuated on a cultural and systematic level, and universities are proving they are complicit in this reality. The University of Chicago’s Dean of Students, John Ellison, distributed a welcome letter to students recently taking a stance against the use of safe spaces and trigger warnings. You can find the letter here. In short, the letter proposes that in the name of academic rigor, ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ should be eliminated from higher education wholesale. This is a tremendous cultural problem and the science of cultural evolution may provide some clarity on how to approach and solve these problems.

For the sake of clarity, “safe spaces” are defined as “a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability”. This definition is widely used among social justice and organizing communities. It is understood, in these contexts, that safe spaces are critical to productive, respectful and inclusive dialogue, contributing to larger systemic change.

Trigger warnings are exactly what their name implies — a form of notice given to people who have suffered trauma (such as rape, sexual assault, abuse, violence, or hate crimes). It usually takes the form of a simple statement prior to open dialogue or the viewing of material that might provoke the re-experiencing of trauma in those who have experienced it in the past. For example, in a classroom setting, before a teacher or professor discusses rape or plans to show potentially traumatic content they could simply say “this upcoming content could be a trigger warning for those who have survived rape or sexual assault.”

The University of Chicago’s “welcome” letter has received a lot of pushback from People of Color(POC), survivors of assault and more. However, there are many individuals within academia and higher education who think this should be held as a model letter for other universities to adopt. I’ve engaged many people from a variety of backgrounds and identities about this. What I have found is that, especially in the sciences and in particular among those who study evolutionary science, there seems to be a resistance to evolution and learning as a framework to inform educational policies. There is a resistance to change, and ultimately at the crux of the problem — for many people currently in leadership positions — is a tendency to be stuck in a colonial, imperialist or privileged mindset.

The major patterns I have found in condoning the elimination of safe spaces and trigger warnings are the following:

1. These policies impinge on academic freedom
2. Universities are not responsible for coddling students
3. Safe spaces and trigger warnings aren’t relevant to evolutionary studies, there are other support systems people can advocate for and utilize
4. Creating safe spaces is too difficult

I find these justifications very problematic and want to address how we can use cultural evolutionto resolve them in a dynamic way. For those of you who are not quite clear on what cultural evolution is (the ideas have been around for decades but we are still early in the process of synthesizing them as researchers and practitioners), it is simply this:

Human cultural change (or change in cultural traits such as belief systems, knowledge, skills, behavior, social learning, language, etc.) can be described as an evolutionary process whereby Darwinian selection can operate on cultural traits.

Using cultural evolution, we can apply a lens of multi-level selection, co-evolution and other evolutionary tenets to cultural issues as long as we take care to outline the specific mechanisms involved. As David Sloan Wilson writes about in The Neighborhood Project “It’s a Darwinian world out there” whereby there is the opportunity for rapid behavioral change and also change by genetic evolution. What most people don’t realize, is that in Darwin’s time, his synthesis of evolution is in alignment with cultural evolution. If you want to read more about this see Cultural Evolution via MIT Press.

Researchers study aspects of cultural evolution to approach complex systems and to investigate behavior in a dynamic way. An example of this is developing a fuller understanding of religion by redefining the framework by which we analyze religion. Rather than looking at belief analysis, researchers analyze religious behavior from an evolutionary and historical perspective.2Similarly, researchers have also begun to question how cultural transmission and learned behavior influences outcomes with regard to reproductive decision making.3 Therefore, cultural evolution has many lenses with which it can be applied to study the real world, in real-time. Cultural evolution is a useful practice to understand human behavior, including trauma, triggering, racial inequality and institutional power structures.

Here are a few key ways that it directly applies to the University of Chicago:

1. These policies impinge on academic freedom. The creation of safe spaces, despite popular belief, actually enhances academic rigor. It is basic attachment theory applied on a broader level, that individuals are more likely and more encouraged to participate and engage when they feel safe. Also, the historical developments of these issues (colonialism, People of Color being dismissed by those who have historically dominated these discussions) really plays a major role in understanding this. To take it a step further, cultural evolution could be applied by analyzing which traits are interacting with multi-level selection to perpetuate these behaviors. For example, one could set up culture design labs to observe and understand how safe spaces may enhance the act of learning itself and contrastingly, which types of traits are persisting against this. We may also be able to learn if this type of resistance is frequency dependent for the groups and ecologies one associates with from both a proximate and ontological perspective.

If we apply cultural evolution, we can understand how culture (learned or copied behavior) is selected for, and in which cultural dispositions behaviors are maintained. For example, it is well known and documented that there are certain thresholds for Women and POC in public forums to speak and participate, and whether they go above or below that threshold can be predicted by how well they feel represented in such an environment, and how much value is placed on their voice. For example, men tend to interrupt conversations significantly more when they were speaking to women, rather than speaking with other men.4 Likewise, it has been found that even though women make up the majority of Twitter users, they get retweeted less than men. Lastly, within the realm of academia, women researchers are underrepresented at conferences and symposia, asked to speak on panels less than men, and are in general, given less time to speak than their male peers and colleagues. Women in academia are changing these gender biases currently.5 Similarly, there are sources about white people dominating discussions with POC and the difficulties of being a minority academic.

It is because there has been both historical conditioning to not have a voice, but also because there are mechanisms and institutional backing of certain dominant behaviors being selected for in the social makeup and institutional practices of the cultural setting.

2. Universities are not responsible for coddling students. Safe spaces are not coddling. If you think allowing historically underrepresented and unheard individuals to have spaces (notice I said spaces, because the need for institutional backing and support from the world that consistently tells them their trauma doesn’t matter is so important) is coddling, then revisit and become aware of the space you take up in a room, in a conversation, and stringently analyze how universities have allowed for both innovation, and resistance to forward thinking (see The Atlantic for a recent example). You can also find a source on university policies and administrative responses to things like diversity and trauma here. We, as researchers and practitioners, can become aware of these factors and change the course of systematic oppression by evolving them with intention, open dialogue, and care. This means that rather than social justice issues and research being separate, we use strong, ethical methodologies to address structural and cultural change. There is a lot of research being done currently (especially in grade school programs) about how safe spaces actually encourage more discussion, a wider array of voices, and of course, encourage the participation of marginalized groups who have typically been silenced with very much explicit and implicit support from the education system.

3. Safe spaces and trigger warnings aren’t relevant to evolutionary studies, there are other support systems people can advocate for and utilize. When it comes to science, universities have historically been the cutthroat places where any topic can be explored. This is true in some regards. However, personal experience absolutely informs our research efforts, the way we think about science, and how we apply it in the real world. Whether you’re studying trauma from a view of patriarchal control (especially with regard to sexual coercion), or from a potentially-very-loosely-adaptive perspective, the experiences of those in the room matter. To expect students to leave their personal trauma at the door is impossible.6 It’s the ideal of an ignorantly blissful university corporation that continues to dismiss rape survivors, and dismiss the potential for reforming a system so enveloped in survivor-blaming, shaming and everything in between. It should be noted that rape and sexual assault are huge problems in higher education especially when it comes to the silencing of individuals who have been assaulted and harassed by their advisors, mentors and colleagues. The National Sexual Violence and Resource Center reported in 2015 that 1 in 4 women will be raped or sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and 1 in 5 women will be raped or sexually assaulted while in college. Of these rapes, 90% of rapes will not be reported and 63.3% of men who committed rapes or assault behavior admitted to repeat rapes.

To add to the problem, universities are not reporting that there are rape and sexual assaults happening at their universities. The data is unclear on exactly how many individuals are facing sexual harassment within their colleges as well. Silence only perpetuates these problems, and from a cultural evolution perspective, silence is the opposite of what is needed for the transmission of ideas, social learning and cultural traits that evolve toward greater diversity. Silence may certainly be examined as some sort of cultural trait (by not saying anything, it’s ‘saying’ a lot) but we have the power to be the influencers (or “wise managers”) of cultural evolution. This should give cultural evolution researchers something to chew on. I question why silence is the immediate or comfortable response in these scenarios. Are social sanctions, shame and pressure allowing silence to be ‘selected for’ in a complex environment of power, dominance and prestige signaling?

4. Creating safe spaces is too difficult. The claim that safe spaces silence critical debate is inaccurate. When has a scientist ever complained about something being too hard. Don’t we claim to love challenges? When it comes to controversial social issues, many otherwise bold thinkers want to run in the opposite direction. Please don’t. Rethink this. What are some simple ways to get started? One way is to announce a trigger warning when you talk about something that could cause triggering in someone (graphic content, rape, assault, violence, hate crimes, abuse) because triggering can be life or death for someone. Second, on your syllabi include potential resources for survivors and for each module, include those trigger warnings as well. Another important aspect of this is to listen thoughtfully to those (especially students experiencing trauma) who give you feedback and to not shame any survivor of trauma or Person of Color for their lived experiences. Lastly, if you are willing and able to engage in constructive practices around safe spaces and trigger warnings, be aware of the way you are framing the discussion around these topics. Are you biased in who you call on when they raise their hands? Are you tokenizing POC? Are you allowing for POC and women to speak just as much, maybe even more than others? Do you make any dismissive comments? Are other students harassing or being dismissive? Do you contribute to an environment where dialogue and skepticism can take place, while maintaining accountability and respect? You can click here for another resource on this type of growing environment. It is written from a community organizing perspective but can be adapted to a classroom or conference setting. This would also be a great place where we could potentially use culture design labs or implement research to solve these problems.

At the heart of this debate is a misunderstanding about two things: (1) how the history of trauma affects students in the classroom today; and (2) that social norms and practices need to evolve as more diverse student bodies enter university settings. My hope in writing this article is that we can see how the proper use of classroom facilitation will increase participation and expand domains of critical inquiry. In order to do so, it will help to see how the practices used in the past came into being and how they “select” for the unintentional silencing and exclusion of many voices today — in the name of a false cry for academic rigor that is seriously misplaced. We can use cultural evolution and specifically the beneficial evolutionary concept of “population thinking” where “broad thinking trends and patterns” are explained via individual, rather than population-level mechanisms, selection and transmission.7 This would help us tremendously to have a fuller and more solution-based view typifying social learning and how social, scientific, and technological knowledge is accumulated across time and space. Cultural evolution will provide a lens through which to make sense and navigate this challenging transition. Universities are already evolving. Now is the time to practice being “wise managers” of the evolutionary process by becoming aware, writing like this blog, and making small grass roots changes in your university classrooms and departments. What are you doing to be a wise manager?

1. @UltraViolet, “Lisa Sendrow — End Campus Rape,” End Campus Rape RSS, accessed September 20, 2016,

2. Steadman, Lyle B., and Craig T. Palmer. Supernatural and Natural Selection: Religion and Evolutionary Success. Routledge, (2015).

3. Newson, Lesley, Tom Postmes, S. E. G. Lea, Paul Webley, Peter J. Richerson, and Richard McElreath. “Influences on Communication About Reproduction: The Cultural Evolution of Low Fertility.” Evolution and Human Behavior 28, no. 3 (2007): 199–210.

4. Kunsmann, Peter. “Gender, Status and Power in Discourse Behavior of Men and Women.”Linguistik Online 5, 1 (2000).

5. Smith, Eric A., Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, and Kim Hill. “Controversies in the Evolutionary Social Sciences: A Guide for the Perplexed.” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 16, no. 3 (2001): 128–135.

6. Stephanie Sardelis and Joshua A. Drew, “Not ‘Pulling up the Ladder’: Women Who Organize Conference Symposia Provide Greater Opportunities for Women to Speak at Conservation Conferences,” PLoS One, (2016),

7. Mesoudi, Alex, and Andrew Whiten. “The Multiple Roles of Cultural Transmission Experiments in Understanding Human Cultural Evolution,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 363, no. 1509 (2008): 3489–3501.

This article was first published in This View of Life via the Evolution Institute: