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A feeling of aversion

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Training Handout

Why do Humans Have an Incest Taboo?

Most people in most societies have a deeply embedded aversion to incestuous sex.

We mean here something other than child sexual molestation, but we mean heterosexual sex, consensual or otherwise, between mother-son (as in Œdipus), father-daughter (as in Electra or Myrrha) or brother-sister (as in Zeus and Hera), regardless of age.

As with many things in our current society, which overemphasizes so called scientific explanations, especially biological, many of us tend to think that the incest taboo has a biological origin, and exists as a protective trait caused by our evolution.  No.

When two close relatives have sex which produces an offspring, there is no disease or degeneration directly resulting as many people would imagine.

There is only an intensification of already existing characteristics.

Recessive genes may be more likely to manifest.

The effect is little different over generations from cousin marriage, and that is and has been, practised in hundreds of cultures world wide.

If the factor that is emphasized is negative or fatal, as with the royal families of Europe (the disease, Hǽmophilia), then it will appear in due course.

The strong negative feelings we have about incest is nowhere near any minor revulsion we feel for cousin mating, and biology is insufficient to explain the degree of revulsion.

If we look at all our primate cousins, we find that incest is practised one way or another by all of them, except us.

We suspect, therefore, that the taboo goes back to somewhere around the very origins of humankind, the origins of human culture.

We see the origin of culture as having something to do with the use of tools (sophisticated and complicated tools, as other primates use simple tools) and language (sophisticated and complicated languages, as other primates use simple forms of language).

We now suspect that the three traits, tools, language, and the incest taboo, are all related to each other and related to the origin of humanity.

The incest taboo requires that we must exchange mates between groups, and that exchange was required for us to communicate and develop our tools (increasing our likelihood to survive, thrive and reproduce).

Early "families," based upon the taboo, were part of those which developed culture, technology and co-operation, and survived while our close cousins (the Neanderthals?) did not.

Families, in their various forms, appear to be among our earliest social institutions –– and communities were among the various institutions which developed as extensions of those families, necessitated by the incest taboo, strengthened by technology and made possible by complex language.

While the taboo appears to be the closest thing we have to a universal social institution, another argument for its early appearance in human society, there are a few cases where it is not only allowed, but prescribed.

Brother sister incest was practised among the royal families of people such as in Tahiti and in early dynasty Egypt.

The latter were African aristocracies, and parts of the practice may also have been the origin of West African matriliny by trans Saharan migrations.

In the known cases of brother sister marriage among kings and queens, it is explained by the huge degree of hierarchy, and the considering of the kings and queens as god-like or above the natural human level.

Among the gods, incest was practised without moral outcry, and so it was a way to set the royalties of those societies as well above and apart from commoners.

It is not necessary for you to believe this argument.

You do need to be aware of it, and be able to show that you have learned about it.

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Last update: 2011.05.22

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