Incest Avoidance and the Incest Taboos: Two Aspects of Human Nature

Incest Avoidance and the Incest Taboos: Two Aspects of Human Nature

Incest Avoidance and the Incest Taboos: Two Aspects of Human Nature

Incest Avoidance and the Incest Taboos: Two Aspects of Human Nature


Why do most people never have sex with close relatives? And why do they disapprove of other people doing so? "Incest Avoidance and Incest Taboos" investigates our human inclination to avoid incest and the powerful taboo against incest found in all societies. Both subjects stir strong feelings and vigorous arguments within and beyond academic circles. With great clarity, Wolf lays out the modern assumptions about both, concluding that all previous approaches lack precision and balance on insecure evidence. Researchers he calls "constitutionalists" explain human incest avoidance by biologically-based natural aversion, but fail to explain incest taboos as cultural universals. By contrast, "conventionalists" ignore the evolutionary roots of avoidance and assume that incest avoidant behavior is guided solely by cultural taboos. Both theories are incomplete.

Wolf tests his own theory with three natural experiments: "bint'amm" (cousin) marriage in Morocco, the rarity of marriage within Israeli kibbutz peer groups, and "minor marriages" (in which baby girls were raised by their future mother-in-law to marry an adoptive "brother") in China and Taiwan. These cross-cultural comparisons complete his original and intellectually rich theory of incest, one that marries biology and culture by accounting for both avoidance and taboo.


This book addresses two questions: Why is it that most people avoid sexual relations with their close kin? and, Why is it that they disapprove of other people’s having sex with their close kin—why, in other words, is there an incest taboo? Unlike theft, rape, or physical assault, incest per se does not inflict visible harm on either individuals or communities. It does not even threaten harm in any obvious way.

The great majority of authors who have addressed these questions belong to one of two mutually hostile camps I call the constitutionalist camp and the conventionalist camp. Constitutionalists always begin with the first question and commonly ignore the second—they assume that people disapprove of anyone doing something they would dislike doing. Conventionalists, in contrast, always begin with the second question and usually ignore the first—they assume that people avoid doing what custom disapproves of their doing.

Constitutionalists and conventionalists rally their arguments around mutually exclusive assumptions. Constitutionalists assume that for some reason human beings are naturally motivated to avoid sex with close relatives. Their goal is to discover what this reason is and how it achieves its effect. Conventionalists follow Freud in assuming that “an incestuous love choice is in fact the first and regular one.” Their goal is to discover how and why society overrules this natural inclination. Thus, where conventionalists argue that if it were allowed, many people would marry their kin, constitutionalists argue that even if it were allowed, very few people would be interested in marrying their kin.

The constitutionalist and conventionalist stands on incest were clearly defined as early as 1725. In that year the Scottish philosopher . . .

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