The Incest Tabu as a Universal Trait


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Defines Incest tabu; Contrasts it with rule of exogamy; Explains and evaluate three explanations of the incest tabu: inbreeding, lack of sexual interest, sexual jealousy

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The Incest Tabu as a Universal Trait

  1. 1. The Incest Tabu as a Universal Cultural Trait Some Explanations and Their Shortcomings
  2. 2. Incest Tabu and Exogamy <ul><li>Definition: A rule that forbids copulation between two persons of defined relationships </li></ul><ul><li>There are two types of incest:: incest among primary kin , that is within the immediate family, and </li></ul><ul><li>Incest among secondary kin, that is, among kin outside the immediate family. </li></ul><ul><li>Incest is often confused with marriage </li></ul><ul><li>The incest tabu is a rule that forbids sexual behavior between kin. </li></ul><ul><li>Exogamy is a rule that forbids marriage between persons of defined relationships </li></ul>
  3. 3. The Emotional Power of the Incest Tabu: Lot and His Daughters <ul><li>In the biblical story of Lot’s family’s departure from Sodom/Gomorrah, which God has destroyed, the wife looks back and turns into a pillar of salt (upper graphic). </li></ul><ul><li>Believing they are the only humans left in the world, Lot’s daughters induce him (with wine) to impregnate them (lower graphic). </li></ul><ul><li>Lot’s older daughter founds Moab, and his younger daughter founds the Ammonites. </li></ul><ul><li>Incest is one justification cited by the ancient Israelites to exterminate both the Moabites and the Ammonites. </li></ul><ul><li>The controversy includes the factuality of Lot’s incestuous act with his daughters, which Muslims and some Christians deny happening. </li></ul>
  4. 4. Incest Tabu: Primary Kin <ul><li>Incest tabu among primary kin exists within the nuclear family, that is, between father and daughter, mother and son, and brother and sister. (upper left) </li></ul><ul><li>Exceptions: Sibling incest (and marriage) was allowed in Egypt under the pharaohs (lower left), Inca in South American Andes and Hawaiians </li></ul><ul><li>Even then, such incest was allowed only within the royal lineage to ensure its “purity.” </li></ul><ul><li>Other exceptions included peasants in Egypt under the Romans </li></ul><ul><li>Otherwise, the incest tabu applied to nuclear families in the world’s cultures. </li></ul>
  5. 5. Incest Tabu: Secondary Kin <ul><li>Definition: All kin beyond that of the immediate family </li></ul><ul><li>Tabu among secondary kin varies by culture. </li></ul><ul><li>Among Anglo-Americans, the tabu applies to first cousins. </li></ul><ul><li>There are gray areas: in this scene from Ararat (upper left) these step-siblings do not have the same set of parents: a parent of one is not the parent of the other. </li></ul><ul><li>Among the Navajo, all people of the same clan may not mate (or marry) </li></ul><ul><li>On the other hand, a brother and sister within the same lineage may not mate, but a man is expected to marry a woman connected to him through his mother’s brother, father’s sister, or both (lower right) </li></ul>
  6. 6. Incest Tabu and Exogamy: Differences <ul><li>As already mentioned, the incest tabu prohibits sexual behavior between persons of defined relations </li></ul><ul><li>Exogamy prohibits marriage between persons of defined relations </li></ul><ul><li>For example, among the Arunta of Australia: </li></ul><ul><li>Marriage to mother mother’s brother’s son’s daughter alone is permitted; the marriage is exogamous involves 2 patrilineages </li></ul><ul><li>However, sexuality is allowed outside the primary kin, including couples not permitted to marry. </li></ul><ul><li>Hence the importance of the distinction between incest tabu and rule of exogamy. </li></ul>
  7. 7. Incest Tabu and Exogamy: Significance of Differences <ul><li>In additions, the explanations for the incest tabu tend to be biological or psychological: </li></ul><ul><li>Inbreeding theory, which posits that people fear the effects of inbreeding. </li></ul><ul><li>Lack-of-interest/revulsion theory, which posits that siblings who have grown up together are indifferent or disgusted with the idea (Westermarck originated that hypothesis). </li></ul><ul><li>Sexual competition theory, which posits that in-family sex would create jealousy (Freud is best known for this hypothesis) </li></ul><ul><li>Explanations for exogamy are sociological or political, namely that marriage creates alliances between groups or strengthens already existing ties. </li></ul>
  8. 8. Why Incest Tabus? <ul><li>The short answer is that no one really knows why incest tabus and are so widespread among cultures. </li></ul><ul><li>There are many explanations, but each explanation has its shortcomings. </li></ul><ul><li>We do know that animals of other species also avoid inbreeding: those that are large, slow to mature, long-lived, and intelligent. These need explanation but are beyond the scope of this course. </li></ul><ul><li>There are also counterexamples where incest is allowed, and sometimes mandated: royal incest and brother-sister marriage in Roman Egypt, already mentioned. </li></ul>
  9. 9. Inbreeding Explanations: Background <ul><li>The background to inbreeding theory is that in mating, each parent contributes half of the genes to their offspring. </li></ul><ul><li>Alleles are a variation to a genetic trait: blood cells, eye color, and billions of others. </li></ul><ul><li>Alleles are dominant or recessive </li></ul><ul><li>Deleterious genes are usually recessive, and become manifest (phenotypes) when two of them are inherited by the same individual </li></ul><ul><li>For example, hemophilia occurs when two genes for the condition are inherited. </li></ul>
  10. 10. Inbreeding Explanation: Basic Argument <ul><li>According to this hypothesis, fears of inbreeding deters incest </li></ul><ul><li>Birth defects: Mental and physical disabilities, which afflicted Charles II of Spain from the close breeding of royal families. </li></ul><ul><li>Inbreeding tends to lead to lower intelligence, such as Down syndrome. </li></ul><ul><li>Sometimes, there are multiple anomalous characteristics, such as affected Mohammed Kalid, a Lebanese, here embraced by his grandmother.. </li></ul><ul><li>Parallel cousin marriage—marriage of the offspring of two brothers—is common throughout the Middle East </li></ul><ul><li>There are three problematic assumptions; that individuals of a culture have the sexual facts of life straight, that they attribute the defect to inbreeding, and that they do not copulate and/or marry close kin. </li></ul>
  11. 11. Inbreeding Hypothesis: Accuracy of People’s Knowledge of Reproduction <ul><li>For this theory to be valid, peoples of a culture must have accurate knowledge of reproduction; this is often not so. </li></ul><ul><li>To Rapan (Easter) Islanders: woman is fertile during menstruation when in fact, ovulation renders her fertile. </li></ul><ul><li>Among the Trobriand Islanders, males had no role in childbirth, only water spirits did. So women avoided water. </li></ul><ul><li>Other folk explanations may explain childbirth (witchcraft, evil spirit in womb) </li></ul><ul><li>For example, Tarahumara women avoided this man, a shaman thought to prevent births </li></ul><ul><li>The defect may not show up for generations, long after the incest has taken place. </li></ul><ul><li>Widespread cross-cousin marriage that also entail inbreeding: evidence is mixed. For example, Chagnon’s team did not report any birth defects despite generations of cross-cousin marriage. </li></ul>
  12. 12. Lack-of-Interest Explanation <ul><li>According to Edward Westermarck, close kin do not mate for lack of interest or revulsion against idea </li></ul><ul><li>Familiarity breeds contempt--or boredom </li></ul><ul><li>For example two ethnographers, Milford Spiro and Yonina Talmon studied independently the marriage pattern of the young at an Israeli kibbutz (collective farm) </li></ul><ul><li>Both observed that marriage rarely occurs within the same kibbutz </li></ul><ul><li>Both came to the same conclusion: growing up together makes for uninteresting company in the same farm (e.g., these children in 1936) </li></ul>
  13. 13. Lack of Interest Explanation: Shortcomings <ul><li>This is where alternative explanations need to be considered. </li></ul><ul><li>Most late teenagers leave kibbutz to join the army--both males and females are drafted. (left) </li></ul><ul><li>It is after they leave the kibbutz that the young adults start courting and thinking about marriage. </li></ul><ul><li>So it is hardly surprising that few young adults married within the kibbutz </li></ul><ul><li>Exceptions also need explanation: Why was there brother-sister marriage in Roman Egypt. </li></ul><ul><li>There is a logical question: If you are not going to marry a sibling or kibbutz mate anyway, why do you need a tabu against brother-sister copulation or marriage? </li></ul>
  14. 14. Sexual Competition Explanations <ul><li>Sexual jealousy disrupts family relations </li></ul><ul><li>According to Freud, children at five have a an Oedipus (boys) or Electra (girls) complex in which a child is sexually attracted to the opposite sex parent and develops a rivalry with the same-sex parent. </li></ul><ul><li>Others suggest jealousy occurs without all that Freudian baggage </li></ul><ul><li>But you have to explain marriages with multiple partners; are they jealous? </li></ul><ul><li>Polygyny (one man marries 2 or more women (as with these Nigerian women, upper left) is widespread in Africa and elsewhere. </li></ul><ul><li>Fraternal polyandry (as here at a wedding in Nepal—two brothers marry one woman, lower left) is less frequent but still significant. </li></ul>
  15. 15. Incest <ul><li>We have already seen that the first sociological constant is the incest tabu, which prohibits sexual relations between primary (nuclear family) and secondary kin. </li></ul><ul><li>We have also examined the distinction between incest tabus and rules of exogamy: one forbids sex within a kin group, the forbids marriage within the same group. </li></ul><ul><li>Every culture sets limits on sexuality in some way. </li></ul><ul><li>Biological or psychological factors are used to explain the incest tabu. </li></ul><ul><li>Alliance theories, as we will see, explain rules of exogamy. </li></ul><ul><li>Incest tabu explanations address inbreeding, lack of interest, and jealousy; all three explanations are deficient in some way. </li></ul>