In attempting to answer the essay questions posed both by this tutorial and Robin Fox in his book Kinship and Marriage (1967 ch 2), I have divided the essay to deal with each question seperately in attempting to explain the incest taboo, why it exists and why it is so universally frowned upon. As you shall see, it is both highly controversial and difficult to categorise.
Reasons why intrafamilial sex would be disastrous.
Amongst the popular theories discussed by Robin Fox (1967 ch 2), the following were highlighted and suggested ahead of others.
That the existence of the incest taboo allows for widened social relations and the prevention of confusion and conflict in the family as well as the prevention of inbreeding. The reason the incest taboo widens social relations is that it prevents incestuous sexual relations which would result in unbreakable ‘bonds’ between the participating members resulting in an insular family unit.According then to Robin Fox (1967 ch 2), the reason this theory is unsubstantial is due to the direct contradiction between it and the theory that ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ as well the high occurence of father – daughter incest with no ‘dire consequences.
Robin Fox (1967 ch 2) continues further to rebutt the ‘family confusion’ theory by saying that the only confusion which would result is in arranging titles, the humanistic roles would still continue unaffected, ie, a woman will still be the mother of her child despite the fact that her child’s father is her own.
Finally, it is the inherited belief of the genetic laymen that the products of inbreeding are retarded monsters, yet this trend is not always the case and is certainly not seen in many animals.
Thus it could be said that there is inconclusive evidence to support such a theory without bounding to conclusions.
Thus, none of these arguments can explain why the incest taboo was instituted and why it exists today without applying concsious insight or jumping to conclusions.(Robin Fox, 1967: 57 – 59)
Reasons why people are motivated to avoid incest.
It would appear that people tend to avoid incest at all costs – some are even horrified by the very thought of it. And, no doubt that even if it was proved that incest had no damaging genetic traits, people would certainly not begin to practice it. Fox (1967: 60 – 61) supplies and rejects two theories. The first being that familiarity breeds contempt. The contradiction of the theory of the narrow social relations theory. It states simply that people brought up in close familiarity with each other will have their sexual appetites blunted.
However, if this was entirely true, then why would prohibitions exist? As shall be discussed later though, there is large portion of truth hidden in this theory. The second theory supplied says that we all have incestuous desires within us that we repress. It is decidely Freudian in its origin and claims that in the primevial times, the young males killed the elder male to get to the females, but having one that and racked by guilt, they renounced the females and so began the suppressal of incest through guilt. The situation depicted is unlikely due to the general lack of clarity surrounding the lifestyles of our ancestors, but it must be acknowledged that this theory too is getting closer to the origins. (Robin Fox, 1967: 61)
Reasons why society forbids incest and punishes offenders.
Why society forbids incest is very closely related to the previous two parts of the essay and the general feeling of repulsion at the idea, but if this is so, as discussed earlier, why the need to punish? It becomes apparent that there is significant variation between societies and their rules, a relaxed society may merely frown upon the act of incest while other societies may kill offenders. Thus, we get the situation where individuals may obey this command out of fear of the punishment while another avoids the practice purely out of moral choice. (Robin Fox, 1967: 62)
So the explanation of the incest taboo offered by Robin Fox (1967: 71 – 76) is both complex and intriguing and follows these lines. Similiarly to Freud’s theory, the origins of incest taboo can be traced back to primevial times. Humans were faced with a problem. Like in some animals, the dominant male would not allow the younger, but now sexually mature, offspring to get to the females. But, unlike animals, despite the younger males being sexually mature, they were still vulnerable and needed protection and so the dominat male could not drive the youths out as seen in some animals.
The answer came simply and naturally. A short life expectancy of about 35 years was as common as the late puberty at 15 years. Due to the relatively large spaces between childbirths, the later matured child and the norm being a single litter, siblings were of vastly differing ages. The result of these occurences meant that for the now sexually mature male, his mother was too old and his sisters to young to breed with – thus early hominids couldn’t perform incest and had to mate out, to mate at all. Our ‘instincts’ felt today about incest are merely the inherited habits from primevial days.
This however, is not the only theory available on this broad topic. As expressed earlier, and in Keesing and Strathern (1998: 229), familiarity breeds contempt where sibling bonds seem to block sexual attraction and in China where poor families transferred young daughters to other homes to be future wives proved to make very unsatisfactory wives. The discovery too of psychobiological obstacles to mating between siblings and parents and offspring in many mammalian species including primates casts incest prohibition into a new light. (Keesing and Strathern, 1998: 229)
So we can see that the almost universal avoidance of incest has as much to do with cultural and social preference as it does with our very human development from primevial times, and no doubt, has more is learnt about our origins, the more we will discover in incest taboo debate.