World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Incest taboo

Article Id: WHEBN0000054746
Reproduction Date:

Title: Incest taboo  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Ethnology, Taboo, Marriage, Incest, Alliance theory
Collection: Anthropology, Incest, Interpersonal Relationships, Kinship and Descent, Sociobiology, Taboo
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Incest taboo

An incest taboo is any cultural rule or norm that prohibits sexual relations between closely related persons. All human cultures have norms that exclude certain close relatives from the categories of persons who are suitable or permissible sexual or marriage partners, and which are taboo. However, different norms exist among cultures as to which blood relations are permissible as sexual partners and which are not. The sexual relations between related persons which are subject to the taboo are called incestuous relationships.

Some cultures proscribed sexual relations between clan-members, even when no traceable biological relationship exists, while members of other clans are permissible irrespective of the existence of a biological relationship. In many cultures, certain types of cousin relations are preferred as sexual and marital partners, whereas in others these are taboo. Some cultures permit sexual and marital relations between aunts/uncles and nephews/nieces. In some instances, brother-sister marriages have been practiced by the elites with some regularity. Parent-child and sibling-sibling unions are almost universally taboo.[1]

It entered the mainstream American media as a topic in the 1970s.[2]


  • Source of taboo 1
  • Researching the incest taboo 2
    • Instinctual and genetic explanations 2.1
    • Sociological explanations 2.2
      • The incest taboo and exogamy 2.2.1
      • Incest and endogamy 2.2.2
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • Bibliography 5

Source of taboo

Debate about the origin of the incest taboo has often been framed as a question of whether it is based in nature or nurture.

One 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 may have detrimental outcomes. The most widely held hypothesis proposes that the so-called Westermarck effect 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.[3]

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, which arises because intermarriage between groups construct valuable alliances that improve the ability for both groups to thrive. According to this view the incest taboo is not necessarily 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.[4] The following excerpt from Notes and Queries (1951), 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, mothers would routinely stroke the penises of their infant sons; such behavior was considered no more sexual than breast-feeding.[6][7]

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,[8] and between a woman and her father,[9] 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.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11]

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 effects of inbreeding such as a higher incidence of congenital birth defects (see article Inbreeding depression). Since the rise of modern genetics, belief in this theory has grown.[12][13][14][15] 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.[16] 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.[17] Besides recessive genes there are also other reasons why inbreeding may be harmful such as a narrow range of certain immune systems genes in a population increasing vulnerability to infectious diseases (see Major histocompatibility complex and sexual selection). Children born of close relatives have decreased survival.[14][15] Many mammal species, including humanity's closest primate relatives, avoid incest.[3]

The Westermarck effect, first proposed by Edvard Westermarck in 1891, is the theory that children reared together, regardless of biological relationship, form a sentimental attachment that is by its nature non-erotic.[18] Melford Spiro argued that his observations that unrelated children reared together on Israeli Kibbutzim nevertheless avoided one another as sexual partners confirmed the Westermarck effect.[19] 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.[20] 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.[21] 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.[22]

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.[15] Humans have been argued to have a special kin detection system that besides the incest taboo also regulates a tendency towards altruism towards kin.[23]

One objection against an instinctive and genetic basis for the incest taboo is that incest does occur.[24][25][26] 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.[27] Other studies on cousin marriages have found support for a biological basis for the taboo.[28][29][30] 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.[31]

Sociological explanations

Psychoanalytic theory, in particular the claimed existence of an Oedipus complex which instead of instinctual aversion against incest argues for instinctual desire, has influenced many theorists seeking to explain the incest taboo using sociological theories.[3]

The incest taboo and exogamy

The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss 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, and the effect is to encourage exogamy. 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's theory of The Gift, which argued

that exchange in primitive societies consists not so much in economic transactions as in reciprocal gifts, that these reciprocal gifts have a far more important function than in our own, and that this primitive form of exchange is not merely nor essentially of an economic nature but is what he aptly calls 'a total social fact', that is, an event which has a significance that is at once social and religious, magic and economic, utilitarian and sentimental, jural and moral.[32]

It is also based on Lévi-Strauss's analysis of data on different kinship systems and marriage practices documented by anthropologists and historians. Lévi-Strauss called attention specifically to data collected by Margaret Mead 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:

What, you would like to marry your sister? What is the matter with you anyway? Don't you want a brother-in-law? Don't you realize that if you marry another man's sister and another man marries your sister, you will have at least two brothers-in-law, while if you marry your own sister you will have none? With whom will you hunt, with whom will you garden, who will you visit?[33]

By applying Mauss's theory to data such as Mead's, Lévi-Strauss proposed what he called

  • 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
  • David M. Schneider, Marriage, Authority, and Final Causes: A Study of Unilateral Cross-Cousin Marriage
  • Rodney Needham, 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


  1. ^ The Tapestry of Culture An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, Ninth Edition, Abraham Rosman, Paula G. Rubel, Maxine Weisgrau, 2009, AltaMira Press. ISBN 9780759111394. p.101
  2. ^ Philip Nobile, “Penthouse,” December, 1977, p. 117, “Incest: The Last Taboo”.
  3. ^ a b c Inbreeding, Incest, and the Incest Taboo: The State of Knowledge at the Turn of the Century, Arthur P. Wolf and William H. Durham (Editors), Stanford University Press, 2004, ISBN 978-0804751414. Introduction
  4. ^ Marvin Harris 1997 Culture, People and Nature: An Introduction to General Anthropology 7th edition Longman pp. 250, 253
  5. ^ A Committee of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 1951 Notes and Queries on Anthropology. 6rh edition. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, Ltd. p. 113–114
  6. ^ Briggs, Jean Louise Never in anger: portrait of an Eskimo family 1970 Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.)
  7. ^ Gregory Bateson, Steps to an ecology of mind: collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology preface by Mark Engel 1972 Chandler, San Francisco 112–115
  8. ^ Bronislow Malinowski 1929 The Sexual Life of Savages in North-West Melanesia: An Ethnographic Account of Courtship, Marriage and Family Life Among the Natives of the Trobriand Highlands, British New Guinea Boston: Beacon Press 389, 392
  9. ^ a b Bronislaw Malinowski 1929 The Sexual Life of Savages in North-West Melanesia: An Ethnographic Account of Courtship, Marriage and Family Life Among the Natives of the Trobriand Highlands, British New Guinea Boston: Beacon Press 384
  10. ^ Bronislaw Malinowski 1929 The Sexual Life of Savages in North-West Melanesia: An Ethnographic Account of Courtship, Marriage and Family Life Among the Natives of the Trobriand Highlands, British New Guinea Boston: Beacon Press 450–451
  11. ^ Bronislaw Malinowski 1929 The Sexual Life of Savages in North-West Melanesia: An Ethnographic Account of Courtship, Marriage and Family Life Among the Natives of the Trobriand Highlands, British New Guinea Boston: Beacon Press 449–450
  12. ^ Alexander, Richard 1977 "Natural Selection and the Analyusis of Human Sociology" in The Changing Scenes in the Natural Sciences, 1776–1976 pp. 283–337 Academy of Natural Science Special Publication 12
  13. ^ Bittles et al. 1991 "Reproductive Behavior and Health in Consangueneous Marriages" in Science 2(52): 789–794
  14. ^ a b Bittles, A. H.; Neel, J. V. (1994). "The costs of human inbreeding and their implications for variations at the DNA level". Nature Genetics 8 (2): 117–121.  
  15. ^ a b c Lieberman, D.; Tooby, J.; Cosmides, L. (2003). "Does morality have a biological basis? An empirical test of the factors governing moral sentiments relating to incest". Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 270 (1517): 819.  
  16. ^ Livingstone, Frank B. 1969 "Genetics, Ecology, and the Origins of Incest and Exogamy" in Current Anthropology 10: 45–62
  17. ^ Thornhill, Nancy, ed. 1993 The Natural History of Inbreeding and Outbreeding. Chicago: UNiversity of Chicago Press
  18. ^ Westermarck, Edvard A. (1921). The history of human marriage, 5th edn. London: Macmillan
  19. ^ Spiro, M. (1965). Children of the Kibbutz. New York: Schocken.
  20. ^ Shepher, J. (1971). "Mate selection among second generation kibbutz adolescents and adults: Incest avoidance and negative imprinting". Archives of Sexual Behavior 1 (4): 293–307.  
  21. ^ Hartung, John 1985 "Review of Incest: A Biological View by J. Shepher in American Journal of Physical Anthropology 67: 167–171
  22. ^ Wolf, A. 1995. Sexual attraction and childhood association: a Chinese brief for Edward Westermarck. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  23. ^ Lieberman, D.; Tooby, J.; Cosmides, L. (2007). "The architecture of human kin detection". Nature 445 (7129): 727–731.  
  24. ^ 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. 17
  25. ^ Cicchetti and Carlson eds. 1989 Child Maltreatment: Theory and Research on the Causes and Consequences of Child Abuse and Neglect. New York, Cambridge University Press
  26. ^ Glaser and Frosh 1988 Child and Sexual Abuse Chicago: Dorsey Press.
  27. ^ 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. 13–14
  28. ^ Kushnick, G.; Fessler, D. M. T. (2011). "Karo Batak Cousin Marriage, Cosocialization, and the Westermarck Hypothesis". Current Anthropology 52 (3): 443.  
  29. ^ Fessler, D. M. T. (2007). "Neglected Natural Experiments Germane to the Westermarck Hypothesis". Human Nature 18 (4): 355–364.  
  30. ^ McCabe, J. (1983). "FBD Marriage: Further Support for the Westermarck Hypothesis of the Incest Taboo". American Anthropologist 85: 50–69.  
  31. ^ Confer, J. C.; Easton, J. A.; Fleischman, D. S.; Goetz, C. D.; Lewis, D. M. G.; Perilloux, C.; Buss, D. M. (2010). "Evolutionary psychology: Controversies, questions, prospects, and limitations". American Psychologist 65 (2): 110–126.  
  32. ^ 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. 52
  33. ^ 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. 485
  34. ^ 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. 492-496
  35. ^ H. Befu "Social Exchange" in Annual Review of Anthropology. Volume 6, Page 255–281, Oct 1977
  36. ^ M.G. Peletz "Kinship Studies in Late Twentieth-Century Anthropology" in Annual Review of Anthropology. Volume 24, Page 343–372, Oct 1995
  37. ^ Leavitt, Gregory 1989 "Disappearance of the Incest Taboo" in American Anthropologist 91: 116–131
  38. ^ Spencer, Paul. 1988. The Maasai of Matapato: a Study of Rituals of Rebellion, Manchester University Press, Manchester.
  39. ^ Marvin Harris 1997 Culture, People and Nature: An Introduction to General Anthropology 7th edition Longman pp. 250, 311
  40. ^ Marvin Harris 1997 Culture, People and Nature: An Introduction to General Anthropology 7th edition Longman pp. 317–318
  41. ^ Bixler, Ray 1982 "Comment on the Incidence and Purpose of Royal Sibling Incest" in American Ethnologist 9: 580–582
  42. ^ Jones, Ashley. "Incest in Ancient Egypt". 
  43. ^ Strong, Anise (2006). "Incest Laws and Absent Taboos in Roman Egypt". Ancient History Bulletin 20. 
  44. ^ Lewis, N. (1983). Life in Egypt under Roman Rule.  
  45. ^ Frier, Bruce W.;  
  46. ^ Shaw, B. D. (1992). "Explaining Incest: Brother-Sister Marriage in Graeco-Roman Egypt". Man, New Series 27 (2): 267–299.  
  47. ^  
  48. ^ remijsen, sofie. "Incest or Adoption? Brother-Sister Marriage in Roman Egypt Revisited". 
  49. ^ Scheidel, W. "Brother-sister marriage in Roman Egypt". 
  50. ^ Walter Scheidel. 2004. Ancient Egyptian Sibling Marriage and the Westermarck Effect, in "Inbreeding, Incest, and the Incest Taboo the state of knowledge at the turn of the century" Arthur Wolf and William Durham (eds) Stanford University Press. pp. 93-108


See also

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.[41] Some scholars have argued that in Roman-governed Egypt this practice was also found among commoners,[42][43][44][45][46][47][48][49] but others have argued that this was in fact not the norm.[50]

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 is the opposite of exogamy; it refers to the practice of marriage between members of the same social group. A classic example is India's caste system, in which unequal castes are endogamous.[39] Inequality between ethnic groups and races also correlates with endogamy.[40] Class, caste, ethnic and racial endogamy typically coexists with family exogamy and prohibitions against incest.

Incest and endogamy

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.[38]

Some anthropologists argue that nuclear family incest avoidance can be explained in terms of the ecological, demographic, and economic benefits of exogamy.[37]

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?[35][36] Nevertheless, anthropologists never reached a consensus, and with the Vietnam War and the process of decolonization in Africa, Asia, and Oceania, anthropological interests shifted away from mapping local social relationships.

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. Elementary Structures of Kinship His [34]

This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Hawaii eBook Library are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.