Incest: Origins of the Taboo

Incest: Origins of the Taboo

Incest: Origins of the Taboo

Incest: Origins of the Taboo

Synopsis

Throughout history humans have been fascinated with incest. Stories, fables, literature, philosophers, church officials, and scientists have explored this mysterious topic. The taboo is critical to human survival, as incest threatens the species and patterns of human social organization. Drawing upon the rich legacy of theory, empirical data, and speculation about the origins of the incest taboo, this book develops a new explanation for, not only the emergence of the taboo in hominid and human evolutionary history, but also for the varying strength of the taboo for the incestuous dyads of the nuclear family, the different rates of incest of these dyads, and the dramatic differences the psychological pathology incest has on its younger victims. Synthesizing findings from biology, sociobiology, neurology, primatology, clinical psychology, anthropology, and sociology, the authors weave together a scenario of how natural selection initially generated mechanisms of sexual avoidance; and then, as the nuclear family emerged in hominid and human evolution, how sociocultural selection led to the development of the incest taboo.

Excerpt

Two casual remarks set me off on the search for the meaning of the incest taboo. When I was an undergraduate (in sociology) at the London School of Economics (LSE) in the early 1950s, we had a weekly class on social anthropology. One week the subject was the incest taboo. I was trotting out all the standard sociological explanations for exogamy and the expansion of social ties and so on when Maurice Freedman, the great expert on Chinese kinship and later professor of anthropology at Oxford, obviously bored with this recitation, interrupted me. “Why can’t we have a sexual free-for-all in the family and then marry out of it?” I was startled out of my sociological rut and launched on a lifelong intellectual adventure.

The second significant encounter was at Harvard (the old Social Relations Department) in the late 1950s. John Whiting, the genial pioneer of culture and personality studies, observed to me that opposite-sex children who played rough-and-tumble games a lot often seemed to get very sexually excited and then dissolve in tears and anger, presumably out of frustration. It immediately hit me that this might be the foundation for Edward Westermarck’s contention that siblings easily developed a “natural aversion” to sex with each other at the onset of puberty.

A few years later (1962) I worked this idea up into an article called “Sibling Incest” for the British Journal of Sociology. The article was much admired and its conclusions generally dismissed. The prevailing wisdom, backed by Freud, Frazer, Malinowski, and Lévi-Strauss—and most everyone else—was that it was “self-evident” that we all want to commit incest, otherwise why are there . . .

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