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Incest taboo

Incest taboo

Overview
An Incest taboo is any cultural
Culture
Culture is a term that has many different inter-related meanings. For example, in 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of 164 definitions of "culture" in Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions...

 rule or norm that prohibits practices of sex
Sex
In biology, sex is a process of combining and mixing genetic traits, often resulting in the specialization of organisms into a male or female variety . Sexual reproduction involves combining specialized cells to form offspring that inherit traits from both parents...

ual relations between relatives. All human cultures have norms regarding who is considered suitable and unsuitable sexual and/or marriage
Marriage
Marriage is a social union or legal contract between people that creates kinship. It is an institution in which interpersonal relationships, usually intimate and sexual, are acknowledged in a variety of ways, depending on the culture or subculture in which it is found...

 partners, and usually certain close relatives are excluded as possible partners. However, there is little agreement among cultures, about which types of blood relations are permissible partners and which are not.
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Encyclopedia
An Incest taboo is any cultural
Culture
Culture is a term that has many different inter-related meanings. For example, in 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of 164 definitions of "culture" in Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions...

 rule or norm that prohibits practices of sex
Sex
In biology, sex is a process of combining and mixing genetic traits, often resulting in the specialization of organisms into a male or female variety . Sexual reproduction involves combining specialized cells to form offspring that inherit traits from both parents...

ual relations between relatives. All human cultures have norms regarding who is considered suitable and unsuitable sexual and/or marriage
Marriage
Marriage is a social union or legal contract between people that creates kinship. It is an institution in which interpersonal relationships, usually intimate and sexual, are acknowledged in a variety of ways, depending on the culture or subculture in which it is found...

 partners, and usually certain close relatives are excluded as possible partners. However, there is little agreement among cultures, about which types of blood relations are permissible partners and which are not. In many cultures certain types of cousin relations are preferred as sexual and marital partners, whereas others are taboo
Taboo
A taboo is a strong social prohibition relating to any area of human activity or social custom that is sacred and or forbidden based on moral judgment, religious beliefs and or scientific consensus. Breaking the taboo is usually considered objectionable or abhorrent by society...

. In other cultures relations between clan
Clan
A clan is a group of people united by actual or perceived kinship and descent. Even if lineage details are unknown, clan members may be organized around a founding member or apical ancestor. The kinship-based bonds may be symbolical, whereby the clan shares a "stipulated" common ancestor that is a...

-members are excluded, even when no traceable genealogical relations exist, while members of other clans are permissible irrespective of the existence of blood ties. Many cultures allow sexual and marital relations between aunts/uncles and nephews/nieces. In some cultures brother-sister marriages have been practiced by the elites with some regularity. This poses the question of the origin of the incest taboo as a cultural universal, and the question has often been framed as a question of whether it is based in nature or nurture.

One line of explanation sees the incest taboo as a cultural implementation of a biologically evolved preference for sexual partners with whom one is unlikely to share genes, since inbreeding
Inbreeding
Inbreeding is the reproduction from the mating of two genetically related parents. Inbreeding results in increased homozygosity, which can increase the chances of offspring being affected by recessive or deleterious traits. This generally leads to a decreased fitness of a population, which is...

 may have evolutionarily detrimental outcomes. As it is difficult to explain how organisms would recognize individuals with whom they share genes, the most widely held hypothesis proposes that the so-called Westermarck effect
Westermarck effect
The Westermarck effect, or reverse sexual imprinting, is a hypothetical psychological effect through which people who live in close domestic proximity during the first few years of their lives become desensitized to later sexual attraction. This phenomenon was first hypothesized by Finnish...

, discourages adults from engaging in sexual relations with individuals with whom they grew up. The existence of the Westermarck effect has achieved some empirical support.

Another school argues that the incest prohibition is a cultural construct which arises as a side effect of a general human preference for group exogamy
Exogamy
Exogamy is a social arrangement where marriage is allowed only outside of a social group. The social groups define the scope and extent of exogamy, and the rules and enforcement mechanisms that ensure its continuity. In social studies, exogamy is viewed as a combination of two related aspects:...

, which arises because intermarriage between groups construct valuable alliances
Alliance theory
The Alliance Theory is the name given to the structural method of studying kinship relations. It finds its origins in Claude Lévi-Strauss's Elementary Structures of Kinship , and is opposed to the functionalist theory of Radcliffe-Brown...

 that improve the ability for both groups to thrive. According to this view the incest taboo is not necessarily a universal, but is likely to arise and become more strict under cultural circumstances that favour exogamy over endogamy, and likely to become more lax under circumstances that favor endogamy. This hypothesis has also achieved some empirical support.

Researching the incest taboo


Modern anthropology developed at a time when a great many human societies were non-literate, and much of the research on incest taboos has taken place in societies without legal codes, and, therefore, without written laws concerning marriage and incest. Nevertheless, anthropologists have found that the institution of marriage, and rules concerning appropriate and inappropriate sexual behavior, exist in every society. The following excerpt from Notes and Queries, the most well-established field manual for ethnographic research, illustrates the scope of ethnographic investigation into the matter:
As this excerpt suggests, anthropologists distinguish between social norms and actual social behavior; much social theory explores the difference and relationship between the two. For example, what is the purpose of prohibitions that are routinely violated (as for example when people claim that incest is taboo yet engage in incestuous behavior)?

It should be further noted that in these theories anthropologists are generally concerned solely with brother–sister incest, and are not claiming that all sexual relations among family members are taboo or even necessarily considered incestuous by that society. These theories are further complicated by the fact that in many societies people related to one another in different ways, and sometimes distantly, are classified together as siblings, and others who are just as closely related genetically are not considered family members.

Moreover, the definition restricts itself to sexual intercourse; this does not mean that other forms of sexual contact do not occur, or are proscribed, or prescribed. For example, in some Inuit societies in the Arctic, and traditionally in Bali
Bali
Bali is an Indonesian island located in the westernmost end of the Lesser Sunda Islands, lying between Java to the west and Lombok to the east...

, mothers would routinely stroke the penises of their infant sons; such behavior was considered no more sexual than breast-feeding.

It should also be noted that in these theories anthropologists are primarily concerned with marriage rules and not actual sexual behavior. In short, anthropologists were not studying "incest" per se; they were asking informants what they meant by "incest," and what the consequences of "incest" were, in order to map out social relationships within the community.

This excerpt also suggests that the relationship between sexual and marriage practices is complex, and that societies distinguish between different sorts of prohibitions. In other words, although an individual may be prohibited from marrying or having sexual relations with many people, different sexual relations may be prohibited for different reasons, and with different penalties.

For example, Trobriand Islanders prohibit both sexual relations between a woman and her brother, and between a woman and her father, but they describe these prohibitions in very different ways: relations between a woman and her brother fall within the category of forbidden relations among members of the same clan; relations between a woman and her father do not. This is because the Trobrianders are matrilineal; children belong to the clan of their mother and not of their father. Thus, sexual relations between a man and his mother's sister (and mother's sister's daughter) are also considered incestuous, but relations between a man and his father's sister are not. A man and his father's sister will often have a flirtatious relationship, and, far from being taboo, Trobriand society encourages a man and his father's sister, or the daughter of his father's sister to have sexual relations or marry.

Instinctual and genetic explanations


An explanation for the taboo is that it is due to an instinctual, inborn aversion that would lower the adverse genetic
Genetic
Genetic may refer to:*Genetics, in biology, the science of genes, heredity, and the variation of organisms**Genetic, used as an adjective, refers to heredity of traits**Gene, a unit of heredity in the genome of an organism...

 effects of inbreeding
Inbreeding
Inbreeding is the reproduction from the mating of two genetically related parents. Inbreeding results in increased homozygosity, which can increase the chances of offspring being affected by recessive or deleterious traits. This generally leads to a decreased fitness of a population, which is...

 such as a higher incidence of congenital birth defects. This theory was first proposed by jurist Henry Maine, who did not have knowledge of modern genetics, but who did draw on his observations of animal husbandry. Since the rise of modern genetics, belief in this theory has grown. Some anthropologists reject this explanation.

The increase in frequency of birth defects often attributed to inbreeding results directly from an increase in the frequency of homozygous alleles inherited by the offspring of inbred couples. This leads to an increase in homozygous allele frequency within a population, and results in diverging effects. Should a child inherit the version of homozygous alleles responsible for a birth defect from its parents, the birth defect will be expressed; on the other hand, should the child inherit the version of homozygous alleles not responsible for a birth defect, it would actually decrease the ratio of the allele version responsible for the birth defect in that population. The overall consequences of these diverging effects depends in part on the size of the population. In small populations, as long as children born with inheritable birth defects die (or are killed) before they reproduce, the ultimate effect of inbreeding will be to decrease the frequency of defective genes in the population; over time the gene pool will be healthier. In larger populations, however, it is more likely that large numbers of carriers will survive and mate, leading to more constant rates of birth defects.

The Westermarck effect
Westermarck effect
The Westermarck effect, or reverse sexual imprinting, is a hypothetical psychological effect through which people who live in close domestic proximity during the first few years of their lives become desensitized to later sexual attraction. This phenomenon was first hypothesized by Finnish...

, first proposed by Edvard Westermarck
Edvard Westermarck
Edvard Alexander Westermarck was a Swedish-speaking Finnish philosopher and sociologist. Among other subjects, he studied exogamy and the incest taboo....

 in 1891, is the theory that children reared together, regardless of biological relationship, form a sentimental attachment that is by its nature non-erotic. Melford Spiro
Melford Spiro
Melford Elliot Spiro is an American cultural anthropologist specializing in psychological anthropology. He is known for his work on the Westermarck effect, and for his studies of the kibbutz. He has conducted fieldwork among the Ojibwa, on Ifaluk atoll in Micronesia, in Israel, and in Burma...

 argued that his observations that unrelated children reared together on Israeli Kibbutzim nevertheless avoided one another as sexual partners confirmed the Westermarck effect. Joseph Shepher in a study examined the second generation in a kibbutz and found no marriages and no sexual activity between the adolescents in the same peer group. This was not enforced but voluntary. Looking at the second generation adults in all kibbutzim, out of a total of 2769 marriages none were between those of the same peer group. However, according to a book review by John Hartung of a book by Shepher, out of 2516 marriages documented in Israel, 200 were between couples reared in the same kibbutz. These marriages occurred after young adults reared on kibbutzim had served in the military and encountered tens of thousands of other potential mates, and 200 marriages is higher than what would be expected by chance. Of these 200 marriages, five were between men and women who had been reared together for the first six years of their lives which would argue against the Westermarck effect. A study in Taiwan of marriages where the future bride is adopted in the groom's family as an infant or small child found that these marriages have higher infidelity and divorce and lower fertility than ordinary marriages. A result which was argued to be consistent with the Westermarck effect.

Another approach is looking at moral objections to third-party incest. This increases the longer a child has grown up together with another child of the opposite sex. This occurs even if the other child is genetically unrelated. Humans have been argued to have a special kin detection system that besides the incest taboo also regulates a tendency towards altruism
Altruism
Altruism is a concern for the welfare of others. It is a traditional virtue in many cultures, and a core aspect of various religious traditions, though the concept of 'others' toward whom concern should be directed can vary among cultures and religions. Altruism is the opposite of...

 towards kin.

One objection against an instinctive and genetic basis for the incest taboo is that incest does occur. Anthropologists have also argued that the social construct "incest" (and the incest taboo) is not the same thing as the biological phenomenon of "inbreeding." In the Trobriand case a man and the daughter of his father's sister, and a man and the daughter of his mother's sister, are equally distant genetically. Biologists would consider mating incestuous in both instances, but Trobrianders consider mating in one case incestuous and in the other, not. Anthropologists have documented a great number of societies where marriages between some first cousins are prohibited as incestuous, while marriages between other first cousins are encouraged. Therefore, the prohibition against incestuous relations in most societies is argued not based on or motivated by concerns over biological closeness. Other studies on cousin marriages have found support for a biological basis for the taboo. Also, current supporters of genetic influences on behavior do not argue that genes determine behavior absolutely but that genes may create predispositions that are affected in various ways by the environment including culture.

The incest taboo and exogamy


The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss
Claude Lévi-Strauss
Claude Lévi-Strauss was a French anthropologist and ethnologist, and has been called, along with James George Frazer, the "father of modern anthropology"....

 developed a general argument for the universality of the incest taboo in human societies. His argument begins with the claim that the incest taboo is in effect a prohibition against endogamy
Endogamy
Endogamy is the practice of marrying within a specific ethnic group, class, or social group, rejecting others on such basis as being unsuitable for marriage or other close personal relationships. A Greek Orthodox Christian endogamist, for example, would require that a marriage be only with another...

, and the effect is to encourage exogamy
Exogamy
Exogamy is a social arrangement where marriage is allowed only outside of a social group. The social groups define the scope and extent of exogamy, and the rules and enforcement mechanisms that ensure its continuity. In social studies, exogamy is viewed as a combination of two related aspects:...

. Through exogamy, otherwise unrelated households or lineages will form relationships through marriage, thus strengthening social solidarity. That is, Lévi-Strauss views marriage as an exchange of women between two social groups. This theory is based in part on Marcel Mauss
Marcel Mauss
Marcel Mauss was a French sociologist. The nephew of Émile Durkheim, Mauss' academic work traversed the boundaries between sociology and anthropology...

's theory of The Gift
The Gift (book)
The Gift is a 1923 short book by the French sociologist Marcel Mauss and is best known for being one of the earliest and most important studies of reciprocity and gift exchange.Mauss's original piece was entitled Essai sur le don...

, which argued
It is also based on Lévi-Strauss's analysis of data on different kinship
Kinship
Kinship is a relationship between any entities that share a genealogical origin, through either biological, cultural, or historical descent. And descent groups, lineages, etc. are treated in their own subsections....

 systems and marriage
Marriage
Marriage is a social union or legal contract between people that creates kinship. It is an institution in which interpersonal relationships, usually intimate and sexual, are acknowledged in a variety of ways, depending on the culture or subculture in which it is found...

 practices documented by anthropologists and historians. Lévi-Strauss called attention specifically to data collected by Margaret Mead
Margaret Mead
Margaret Mead was an American cultural anthropologist, who was frequently a featured writer and speaker in the mass media throughout the 1960s and 1970s....

 during her research among the Arapesh. When she asked if a man ever sleeps with his sister, Arapesh replied "No we don't sleep with our sisters. We give our sisters to other men, and other men give us their sisters." Mead pressed the question repeatedly, asking what would happen if a brother and sister did have sex with one another. Lévi-Strauss quotes the Arapesh response:
By applying Mauss's theory to data such as Mead's, Lévi-Strauss proposed what he called alliance theory
Alliance theory
The Alliance Theory is the name given to the structural method of studying kinship relations. It finds its origins in Claude Lévi-Strauss's Elementary Structures of Kinship , and is opposed to the functionalist theory of Radcliffe-Brown...

. In "primitive" societies, he argued, marriage is not fundamentally a relationship between a man and a woman, it is a transaction involving a woman that forges a relationship—an alliance—between two men. His Elementary Structures of Kinship takes this as a starting point and uses it to analyze kinship systems of increasing complexity found in so-called primitive societies, that is, those not based on agriculture, class inequalities, and centralized government.

This theory was debated intensely by anthropologists in the 1950s. It appealed to many because it used the study of incest taboos and marriage to answer more fundamental research interests of anthropologists at the time: how can an anthropologist map out the social relationships within a given community, and how do these relationships promote or endanger social solidarity? Nevertheless, anthropologists never reached a consensus, and with the Vietnam War
Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was a Cold War-era military conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. This war followed the First Indochina War and was fought between North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, and the government of...

 and the process of decolonization
Decolonization
Decolonization refers to the undoing of colonialism, the unequal relation of polities whereby one people or nation establishes and maintains dependent Territory over another...

 in Africa, Asia, and Oceania, anthropological interests shifted away from mapping local social relationships.

Some anthropologists argue that nuclear family incest avoidance can be explained in terms of the ecological, demographic, and economic benefits of exogamy.

While Lévi-Strauss generally discounted the relevance of alliance theory in Africa, a particularly heinous concern for incest is a fundamental issue among the age systems of East Africa. Here the avoidance between men of an age-set and their daughters is altogether more intense than in any other sexual avoidance. Paraphrasing Lévi-Strauss's argument, without this avoidance, the rivalries for power between age-sets, coupled with the close bonds of sharing between age mates, could lead to a sharing of daughters as spouses. Young men entering the age system would then find a dire shortage of marriageable girls and extended families would be in danger of dying out. Thus by parading this avoidance of their daughters, senior men make these girls available for younger age-sets and their marriages form alliances that mitigate the rivalries for power.

Incest and endogamy


Exogamy between households or descent groups is typically prescribed in classless societies. Societies that are stratified—that is, divided into unequal classes—often prescribe different degrees of endogamy
Endogamy
Endogamy is the practice of marrying within a specific ethnic group, class, or social group, rejecting others on such basis as being unsuitable for marriage or other close personal relationships. A Greek Orthodox Christian endogamist, for example, would require that a marriage be only with another...

. Endogamy is the opposite of exogamy; it refers to the practice of marriage between members of the same social group. A classic example is India
India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

's caste system, in which unequal castes are endogamous. Inequality between ethnic group
Ethnic group
An ethnic group is a group of people whose members identify with each other, through a common heritage, often consisting of a common language, a common culture and/or an ideology that stresses common ancestry or endogamy...

s and races also correlates with endogamy. Class, caste
Caste
Caste is an elaborate and complex social system that combines elements of endogamy, occupation, culture, social class, tribal affiliation and political power. It should not be confused with race or social class, e.g. members of different castes in one society may belong to the same race, as in India...

, ethnic and racial endogamy typically coexists with family exogamy and prohibitions against incest.

An extreme example of this principle, and an exception to the incest taboo, is found among members of the ruling class in certain ancient states, such as the Inca, Egypt, China, and Hawaii; brother–sister marriage (usually between half-siblings) was a means of maintaining wealth and political power within one family. Some scholars have argued that in Roman-governed Egypt this practice was also found among commoners, but others have argued that this was in fact not the norm.

Further reading

  • Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1969 The Elementary Structures of Kinship revised edition, translated from the French by James Harle Bell and John Richard von Sturmer. Boston: Beacon Press
  • George Homans and David M. Schneider
    David M. Schneider
    David Murray Schneider was an American cultural anthropologist, best known for his studies of kinship and as a major proponent of the symbolic anthropology approach to cultural anthropology. He received his B.S. in 1940 and his M.S. from Cornell University in 1941...

    , Marriage, Authority, and Final Causes: A Study of Unilateral Cross-Cousin Marriage
  • Rodney Needham
    Rodney Needham
    Rodney Needham was one of the leading British social anthropologists.Born as Rodney Phillip Needham Green, Needham changed his name in 1947,the same year he married Claudia Brysz....

    , Structure and Sentiment: A Test Case in Social Anthropology
  • Arthur P. Wolf and William H. Durham (editors), Inbreeding, Incest, and the Incest Taboo: The State of Knowledge at the Turn of the Century, ISBN 0-8047-5141-2