Thinking about Incest: The Whole Shebang

While I was hoping to write up a little more on incest, incest avoidance, and related issues, other matters have called for my attention, and so I think that will be all the posts in the Thinking about Incest series, at least for the forseeable future. Sigh. So here are the 11 posts in this series, collated for your viewing pleasure. As you’ll see from the titles, this is mostly about the Westermarck Effect, the phenomenon of genetic sexual attraction (made prominent through “reunion” cases of incestuous desire), and views of incest within the social sciences.

1. Forbidden Love

2. Genetic Sexual Attraction and incest

3. Westermarck, Fritzl, and incest

4. Getting more explicit about the Westermarck Effect

5. Just how encompassing IS the Westermarck Effect?

6. Westermarck on parental love

7: A Westermarckian cluster

8: Primate evidence and anthropology

9: Avoidance and taboo

10: Rules, rules, rules

11: Saving the Viennese witchdoctor

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Thinking about Incest 9: Avoidance and Taboo

Suppose that some version of the Westermarck Effect exists, so that intimate childhood association inhibits sexual attraction later in life. What is the relationship between such an effect, and the social rules and conventions in place constituting incest taboos? One of the in-house disputes amongst those adopting a biosocial approach to inbreeding, incest, and incest avoidance focuses on just this question. Continue reading

Thinking about Incest 8: Primate Evidence and Anthropology

In the last post, I introduced a “Westermarckian cluster” of views about incest and its avoidance, the first two of which were:

  1. incest avoidance is widespread in the nonhuman animal world, including amongst nonhuman primates
  2. humans and their closest primate relatives alike have a natural psychological aversion to incest that plays a causal role in both incest avoidance and, in the case of humans, incest taboos

and which I want to take up in this post. In earlier posts (like Thinking about Incest 5), I have spelled out more precisely how I think 2. should be understood, and here I want to focus on 1. I draw chiefly on three recent reviews of the relevant primate literature: the comprehensive review of Andreas Paul and Jutta Kuester, “The Impact of Kinship on Mating and Reproduction” (in Chapais and Berman, Kinship and Behavior in Primates, 2004), and the more succinct summaries of Anne Pusey “Inbreeding Avoidance in Primates” (in Wolf and Durham, Inbreeding, Incest Avoidance, and Incest Taboos, 2005) and Bernard Chapais, Primeval Kinship: How Pair-Bonding Gave Birth to Human Society (2008).

Primatology is a relatively young discipline, with study of the nature and structure of primate societies being undertaken systematically only in the past 40 years. Since then, documentation of the rarity of reproductive sex and mating between at least some close relatives has provided strong evidence for the existence of one or more mechanisms facilitating this outcome. One of those mechanisms relates intimate association during the pre-reproductive years of at least one member of a dyad to later sexual preferences and behavior during the reproductive years of an individual, i.e., it is just the sort of mechanism posited by Westermarck. Continue reading

Thinking about Incest 7: A Westermarckian Cluster

In past few posts in this series, I have tried to stay close to the view of what the Westermarck Effect is that focuses on sexually mature sibling incest avoidance and the idea that intimate childhood association produces it, but that also suggests that Westermarck himself flips between that view and one that is much broader in its range, applying to other family dyads as well. Time now to step back from micro-details to take a look at the larger cluster of views of which this “effect” is a part.

There are at least five such views in play here. The first of these, a claim about certain kinds of rules and practices—taboos—has been long accepted. It says that Continue reading

Thinking about Incest 6: Westermarck on Parental Love

In the last post on Thinking about Incest, I left off by introducing attachment as a possible mechanism for the Westermarck Effect. While so far as I know, Westermarck did not discuss attachment under that heading, in Chapter 17 (“The Killing of Parents, Sick Persons, Children, Feticide”) of volume 1 of The Origin and the Development of the Moral Ideas (1906), Westermarck says several interesting things about parental love, and the relationship between habit, custom, and morality. In discussing infanticide amongst “uncivilized races” and “the lower savages”—the language here a reminder of Westermarck’s immersion in the academic culture of his day—(p. 402), he says Continue reading

Thinking about Incest 4: Getting more Explicit about the Westermarck Effect

In previous posts in this series, I talked about genetic sexual attraction, incest, and some current characterizations of the Westermarck Effect. In this post, I want to offer a preliminary sharpening of the Westermarck Effect, based just on those previous characterizations. The most natural reading of them might give us something like this as an expression of the effect named for Westermarck:

if two individuals are intimate childhood associates, having been raised together for a number of years from early in life, then those two individuals will have a psychological aversion to sexual relations to one another and/or will lack erotic feelings for one another, and will, as a result, avoid incestual behaviors with one another when they are sexually mature.

This formulation makes intimate childhood association, however it is spelt out precisely, a sufficient condition for a cluster of attitudes, feelings, and behavior avoidances. It can also be read as making both predictions—from childhood facts to claims about adulthood—and retrodictions—from adulthood facts to claims about childhood–about attitudes, feelings, and behavior avoidances in particular individuals, and to posit a causal chain linking early life experiences to those attitudes, feelings, and avoidances. Continue reading

Thinking about Incest 3: Westermarck, Fritzl, and Incest

The first pair of posts in this series looked at genetic sexual attraction, or what I suggested might be called adult reunion-mediated GSA, or ARMGSA. Simply lumping that together with other incest-related phenomena isn’t that productive, though I think that ARMGSA does tell us something important about incest, sexual attraction, and social taboos. To get to that, I want to go a bit slowly through a view that was mentioned in the previous posts, “the Westermarck Effect”. What is this, and what does it have to do with incest?

Edward Westermarck was a Finnish thinker whose 1891 tome The History of Human Marriage, published when he was in his late 20s, began a career of publishing long, wide-ranging books on marriage, sex, and the origins of morality. Westermarck is most often remembered for a particular view he held about the relationship between early childhood association and sexual attraction, a view often named the Westermarck Effect. There are various characterizations of this effect and its relationship to incest. Here are four taken from one recent collection that adopts a biosocial approach to incest, Arthur Wolf and William Durham’s Inbreeding, Incest, and the Incest Taboo: The State of Knowledge at the Turn of the Century (Stanford University Press, 2004), a book whose core message is that despite the fact that Westermarck’s views have been widely dismissed until recently, he was more right than wrong about childhood association and sexual attraction: Continue reading