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Wolf, William H. No cover image. Read preview.


Synopsis Is inbreeding harmful? Are human beings and other primates naturally inclined to mate with their closest relatives? Why is incest widely prohibited?

Why does the scope of the prohibition vary from society to society? Why does incest occur despite the prohibition? What are the consequences? After one hundred years of intense argument, a broad consensus has emerged on the first two questions, but the debate over the others continues. That there is a biological basis for the avoidance of inbreeding seems incontrovertible, but just how injurious inbreeding really is for successive generations remains an open question.

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Nor has there been any conclusion to the debate over Freud's view that the incest taboo is necessary because humans are sexually attracted to their closest relatives- a claim countered by Westermarck's argument for the sexually inhibiting effects of early childhood association. This book brings together contributions from the fields of genetics, behavioral biology, primatology, biological and social anthropology, philosophy, and psychiatry which reexamine these questions.

Turner; Alexandra Maryanski Routledge, Read preview Overview. East; Donald F. Are such penalties enforced by authority, or are they believed to ensure automatically by all action of supernatural force? Is there any correlation between the severity of the penalty and the nearness of the blood-tie of the partners in guilt?

Should children be born as the result of incestuous unions, how are they treated? Are there any methods, ritual or legal, by which persons who fall within the prohibited degrees and wish to marry can break the relationship and become free to marry? 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.

Inbreeding, Incest, and the Incest Taboo: The State of Knowledge at the Turn of the Century

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.

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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, [12] and between a woman and her father, [13] 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.

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. 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. 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.

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.

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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. However, in larger populations, it is more likely that large numbers of carriers will survive and mate, leading to more constant rates of birth defects.

The biological costs of incest also depend largely on the degree of genetic proximity between the two relatives engaging in incest. This fact may explain why the cultural taboo generally includes prohibitions against sex between close relatives but less often includes prohibitions against sex between more distal relatives.

The Westermarck effect , first proposed by Edvard Westermarck in , is the theory that children reared together, regardless of biological relationship, form a sentimental attachment that is by its nature non-erotic. This was not enforced but voluntary. Looking at the second generation adults in all kibbutzim, out of a total of marriages, none were between those of the same peer group. These marriages occurred after young adults reared on kibbutzim had served in the military and encountered tens of thousands of other potential mates, and marriages is higher than what would be expected by chance.

Of these 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.

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. One objection against an instinctive and genetic basis for the incest taboo is that incest does occur.

For example, there is equal genetic relation between a man and the daughter of his father's sister and between a man and the daughter of his mother's sister, such that biologists would consider mating incestuous in both instances, but Trobrianders consider mating incestuous in one case and not in the other. 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, it is argued that the prohibition against incestuous relations in most societies is not based on or motivated by concerns over biological closeness.

Steve Stewart-Williams argues against the view that incest taboo is a Western phenomenon, arguing that while brother-sister marriage was reported in a diverse range of cultures such Egyptian, Incan and Hawiian cultures, it was not a culture-wide phenomenon, being largely restricted to the upper classes. Stewart-Williams argues that these marriages were largely political their function being to keep power and wealth concentrated in the family and there is no evidence the siblings were attracted to each other and there is in fact some evidence against it for example, Cleopatra married two of her brothers but did not have children with them, only having children with unrelated lovers.

Stewart-Williams suggests that this was therefore simply a case of social pressure overriding anti-incest instincts. Stewart-Williams also observes that anti-incest behaviour has been observed in other animals and even many plant species many plants could self-pollinate but have mechanisms that prevent them from doing so. Psychoanalytic theory —in particular, the claimed existence of an Oedipus complex , which is not an instinctual aversion against incest but an instinctual desire—has influenced many theorists seeking to explain the incest taboo using sociological theories.

His argument begins with the claim that the incest taboo is in effect a prohibition against endogamy , and the effect is to encourage exogamy.

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Through exogamy, otherwise unrelated households or lineages will form relationships through marriage, thus strengthening social solidarity. 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. 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? He argued that, in "primitive" societies, marriage is not fundamentally a relationship between a man and a woman, but a transaction involving a woman that forges a relationship—an alliance—between two men. This theory was debated intensely by anthropologists in the s.

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?

Some anthropologists argue that nuclear family incest avoidance can be explained in terms of the ecological, demographic, and economic benefits of exogamy. Here, the avoidance between men of an age-set and their daughters is altogether more intense than in any other sexual avoidance. 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.

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.