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

Thinking about Incest 11: Saving the Viennese Witchdoctor

If social conservatives bridle and high school students snicker at the sound of Freud’s name, the reaction of intellectuals is hardly more sophisticated. They almost divide into two exclusive and exhaustive groups: those who read “Freud” as “fraud” and those who read it as “joy” (its meaning in German). Patricia Kitcher, Freud’s Dream: A Complete Interdisciplinary Science of Mind (MIT Press, 1992), p.4.

One of the more simultaneously entertaining, puzzling, and frustrating parts of the anthropological literature on incest and the Westermarck Effect is the back-and-forth between those defending, and those attacking, Freud’s views of incest, childhood sexuality, and spelling out their relationship to the Westermarck Effect. Freud and Westermarck themselves were clearly at odds, and we have seen much to suggest the basis for that tension.

For Freud (like Levi-Strauss), incest taboos mark a firm line between animal nature and human civilization: animals, and our own animal side (aka “the id”, amongst other things), are incestuous, a nature whose tensions for family life gives rise to the need for incest taboos. This is part of a broader view of the pervasiveness of sexuality in the human condition, Continue reading

Thinking about Incest 10: Rules, rules, rules

One way in which the Westermarck Effect might be conceptualized is in terms of E.O. Wilson and Charles Lumsden’s idea of an epigenetic rule. Such rules are, in their words, “genetically determined procedures that direct the assembly of the mind …[that] comprise the restraints that the genes place on development (hence the name ‘epigenetic’)”. I’ve never taken this idea very serious, in part because they suggest that these are the bridge between human nature and morality in general, and in part because of the “genetically determined” bit. But let’s put that aside for now, and think about the Westermarck Effect as an innate constraint not on the mind per se but on how we direct our behavior. What we have so far is something like this:

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.

  • offspring will show the same resulting aversion to any parent by whom they were raised via the same or a similar childhood association mechanism.
  • parents will show the same resulting aversion to any offspring they have raised via an attachment mechanism.

But we want to put this more simply. Maybe: Continue reading

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 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 5: Just How Encompassing IS the Westermarck Effect?

As characterized so far in previous posts, the scope of the Westermarck Effect seems quite narrow in that it is directly concerned only with something like sibling incest, and then only with that for siblings raised together. However, there are a number of places where Westermarck himself suggests a much more general account of what the effect named in his honour covers. At the end of ch.14 of A History of Human Marriage (all reference here to the 3rd edition) Westermarck says:

The home is kept pure from incestuous defilement neither by laws, nor by customs, nor by education, but by an instinct which under normal circumstances makes sexual love between the nearest kin a psychical impossibility. An unwritten law, says Plato, defends “as sufficiently as possible”, parents from incestuous intercourse with their children, brothers from intercourse with their sisters … ‘nor does even the desire for this intercourse come at all upon the masses’”. (Westermarck, History, p.319; bold italics mine) 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

Thinking about Incest 1: Forbidden Love

Yesterday, the CBC ran the story Forbidden Love, on sexual feelings between genetically-related individuals, including mothers and sons, brothers and sisters, who have been separated from very early in life and reunited as adults. (thanks to Matti for keeping me up to speed.) Over the last month or so, during my day job I have been focused on stuff on incest and incest avoidance, in part through reading and reviewing Bernard Chapais’s recent book Primeval Kinship: How Pair-Bonding Gave Birth to Human Society (Oxford 2008), and through trying to figure out just what it was that Edward Westermarck was meant to have hypothesized about childhood associations, just over 100 years ago. And I’ve been thinking about posting on this at What Sorts. So let’s start with the Forbidden Love story from the CBC site, which begins as follows:

hand-holding-istock-2Two weeks after Sally reunited with her biological son, she began to have sexual feelings for him. “This is feeling really bizarre, but I think I’m falling in love with this person,” she recalls thinking. Sally, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, had given up her son for adoption when she was 16, but vowed as she cradled the little boy swaddled in a blanket that she would someday, somehow become part of his life again. She never imagined that their reunion some 30 years later would lead to a sexual relationship.

After their first meeting, the two found themselves spending more and more time together. “We kind of gave ourselves permission to do more hugging,” said Sally in an interview with CBC’s The Current. Eventually, it progressed into a sexual relationship.

“I do remember the night we did and it was amazing … the most amazing thing I’ve ever experienced,” Sally says. “He said, ‘I’ve finally found the most perfect person in the world for me in every way and she turned out to be my mother.'”

Sally’s not alone in feeling a deep attraction to a blood relative upon meeting as adults for the first time. Read the full story at CBC’s website. There are also audio files from CBC’s The Current with interviews with Sally and others. I’ll blog on this in the next few days, and follow up with other posts as the will wills.