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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Remove the Taboo

This article, “The Negative Survival Value of Taboos” by samvaknin, provides much to think about.

Most taboos – especially those appertaining to sex and food – have clear survival value: coprophagia and cannibalism may be fatal and pedophilia and incest can have a deleterious effect on the quality of the gene pool.

When I read that, I thought we were going to see another attempt to justify denial of marriage equality based on “deformity” scare. But things got better.

But taboos are creatures of their time. Their longevity and resistance to rational reappraisal are counter-productive as far as the human species and individuals are concerned.

As circumstances change and our knowledge of Nature expands, all taboos should be subjected to revision and rigorous scientific perusal: … If we destigmatize incest, will its victims be less traumatized?

Even though the author uses “victim” here, we later see a recognition that there is a difference between child abuse and consenting behavior between adults. And we should do anything to help children who are abused by the very people who are supposed to protect them.

In contemporary thought, incest is invariably associated with child abuse and its horrific, long-lasting, and often irreversible consequences. But incest is far from being the clear-cut or monolithic issue that millennia of taboo imply. Incest with minors is a private – and particularly egregious – case of pedophilia or statutory rape. It should be dealt with forcefully. But incest covers much more besides these criminal acts.

Incest is the ethical and legal prohibition to have sex with a related person or to marry him or her – even if the people involved are consenting and fully informed adults. Contrary to popular mythology, banning incest has little to do with the fear of genetic diseases. Even genetically unrelated parties (a stepfather and a stepdaughter, for example) can commit incest.

The writer returns to the genetic issue.

Moreover, the use of contraceptives means that incest does not need to result in pregnancy and the transmission of genetic material. Inbreeding (endogamous) or straightforward incest is the norm in many life forms, even among primates (e.g., chimpanzees). It was also quite common until recently in certain human societies – the Hindus, for instance, or many Native American tribes, and royal families everywhere. In the Ptolemaic dynasty, blood relatives married routinely. Cleopatra’s first husband was her 13 year old brother, Ptolemy XIII.

Nor is the taboo universal. In some societies, incest is mandatory or prohibited, according to the social class (Bali, Papua New Guinea, Polynesian and Melanesian islands). In others, the Royal House started a tradition of incestuous marriages, which was later imitated by lower classes (Ancient Egypt, Hawaii, Pre-Columbian Mixtec). Some societies are more tolerant of consensual incest than others (Japan, India until the 1930′s, Australia). The list is long and it serves to demonstrate the diversity of attitudes towards this most universal practice.


It is a thought-provoking article. It is time to remove all taboos that prevent consenting adults from sharing love, sex, and marriage.
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