Saturday, January 12, 2008

On Incest

The twins who married suggest the human mind is a blank slate. They were attracted to each other, not knowing they were twins. Therefore, blank slaters would argue, the incest taboo is culturally determined, not pre-programmed. On the other hand, the anti-slaters would point to the Westermarck Effect. Children raised together acquire an aversion to sexual contact with each other. This happens even if they are not biologically related. The incest taboo is thus pre-programmed in that, from birth, we are inclined to reject sexual contact with those with whom we are raised. This would explain the universality of the taboo - always a problem for the blank slaters. On the face of it, the blank slaters, having been in the ascendancy since Hitler discredited old hereditarian views, are now on the run. Both on the left and the right people accept there is such a thing as 'human nature', an idea that the old left found repugnant since it seemed to compromise the possibility of progress. However, in the course of the fallout from my Edward O.Wilson interview, I noticed some resurgence both on the right and the left of blank slateism. There seems to be a new revulsion at the idea of any pre-programming. I don't share this revulsion; in fact, I find it distinctly odd. But explaining exactly why would take another post and it's Saturday and I need a swim.

12 comments:

  1. If the aversion is pre-programmed in us, why is there a taboo?

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  2. Peter is right. Taboos exist because we DO WANT TO DO THE TABOOED THING. There's no taboo on eating garbage -- no need. However, there are a lot of taboos on sexual contact with those we're raised with because we will NATURALLY first become attracted to the ones we see every day and love. C'est simple.

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  3. i find the tabula rasa idea most amusing and obviously incorrect but i can't say why it's wrong or the Jesuits will kill me or at least get cross with me.

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  4. blank slate is an absolute therefore I expect it is the wrong assumption.

    well, I don't know about taboos but I believe it might be true that it is not unlawful to have sexual relations with one's grandmother - providing she's not dead. while you're in the library maybe you could verify it.

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  5. oh, I'm bloody confused, Bryan, not difficult I know. Does the second part of your theory contradict the first part? It doesn't. The programming assumed in Westermarck is aversion to sexual relations with children raised together. The twins in this case were not raised together. It would support the theory, no?

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  6. I'm inclinded to agree with Peter and Susan. It makes perfect sense. What about other sexual taboos?

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  7. Why is it either/or? Maybe there's a biological taboo that can be activated by environmental association ie I think there's a type of insect that's harmless, but has black and yellow markings that resemble a wasp's, so the harmless insect can to some degree deter predators by this biological fiction: the predator has a biological instinct to remain alive/healthy, an instinct activated by the biological fiction that the harmless insect is a wasp, so the predator shies away.

    By the same token, you might have a biological desire to avoid incest, an aversion activated when you introduce a non-biological sibling and sufficient ongoing familiarity creates the biological fiction that they are related to you.

    Selection must surely have created some degree of biological aversion to incest, otherwise inbreeding would have been genetically ruinous by now. The process has to balance two parameters: sameness and difference. Too much sameness gives you inbreeding and stagnation, too much difference gives you no reproduction at all, because beyond a certain point different genes won't be sufficiently compatible for reproductive purposes (we can't, for example, mate with sheep).

    Selection will incrementally move the system towards an approximate middle ground between those parameters, although some grey zone will presumably persist, hence the case in the papers.

    Nature won't have needed the biological aversion ON ITS OWN to be overwhelmingly powerful, because most siblings in nature grow up with each other and that environmental proximity would normally activate/reinforce the biology to have the aversive effect. In the absence of environmental proximity, the biological aversion might not be sufficiently powerful on its own to deter incest.

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  8. Michael Smith, your intellect shimmers. I agree with most of what you say; it's certainly not either/or, but I believe you will find that taboos do not exist for behaviors no one has any desire to engage in. Incest is certainly genetically ruinous (though if you read the Bible, everyone and her brother seem to be closely related; in fact, I've always wondered about Adam & Eve's kids -- they musta married each other!). But I digress.

    Homosexuality is also a taboo, because it is procreatively ruinous. This is in answer to your q., Neil.

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  9. ...sufficient ongoing familiarity creates the biological fiction that they are related to you.

    Which would explain why affairs in offices and integrated militaries are almost unheard of and priests, teachers and stepfathers never exploit their charges.

    My, but we do love our genetics and biology, don't we? Folks, siblings are a sideshow here. The prohibition is about retraining male predatory behaviour against female dependants. Incest is the equivalent of throwing a nuclear bomb into a family. The problem with all this reducting to genetic selection and environmental causes is you can't qualitatively separate a father destroying his daughter from siblings playing doctor.

    The theory that there is a natural law that transcends cultures and faiths does not necessarily imply genetic pre-programming or unconscious behavioural teflon shields. And BTW, if nature "selected" against incest, doesn't that imply that there was once lots of incest around that got weeded out in the fitness lottery?

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  10. freedom to prosperJanuary 13, 2008 2:45 pm

    Lots of people are in fact drawn to taboo behaviour because it is taboo now we have the internet we can see just how many millions are drawn to what some people might find offensive.

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  11. MS ...sufficient ongoing familiarity creates the biological fiction that they are related to you...

    PB ...Which would explain why affairs in offices and integrated militaries are almost unheard of and priests, teachers and stepfathers never exploit their charges...

    Peter, surely there's a big difference between the degree of ongoing familiarity which exists between siblings on the one hand and Co-workers on the other? Siblings tend to live virtually in each others pockets for decades and have a much higher degree of non-physical intimacy than the other cases you mentioned.

    PB ...And BTW, if nature "selected" against incest, doesn't that imply that there was once lots of incest around that got weeded out in the fitness lottery?...

    Peter, I didn't say Nature selects against incest, I said

    Selection must surely have created SOME DEGREE of biological aversion to incest,

    As I subsequently said, the process is selecting between two parameters and tending towards the middle: it wants to avoid the undue sameness produced by incest but it also wants to avoid the extreme of too little sameness, because that means no reproduction at all (sort of anti-incest if you like).

    It wasn't exactly the case in the past that there was "lots of incest" but the earliest reproduction was the asexual reproduction of single-celled organisms ie cloning, when the organism split in half. That is, in a sense, the purest form of incest isn't it? The system has moved away from that to some degree, indicating that degree of aversion to 'incest'.

    Considering the totality of life on earth, the SYSTEMIC aversion to incest isn't absolute, because, as I said, there are two parameters, not one. The other parameter wants to maintain enough genetic similarity to allow reproduction to exist at all. If you consider the system of life as a whole, there is a probabilistically distributed spectrum between relatively homogenous single-celled organisms reproducing incestuously on the one hand, and highly diverse species which can't mate with each other at all, on the other.

    SB...but I believe you will find that taboos do not exist for behaviors no one has any desire to engage in...

    Susan, people certainly want to have sex, it's just that incest is
    problematic, therefore the taboo tries to prohibit it. It's not, I think, the incest people desire, it's the sex. The taboo just seeks to keep it 'legal'. Even those people who fancy a bounce with an attractive sibling are not, in my opinion, desiring incest, they're desiring transgressive pleasure. The reasons for that are another story.

    SB...Michael Smith, your intellect shimmers...

    Actually Susan, I think that's just my mirror balls...(if you'll forgive the puerile British humour).

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  12. It doesn't occur to anyone that BOTH SIDES ARE RIGHT??

    YES - it's a blank slate. And YES - There is an instinct. These are not contradictory.

    The blank slate is filled in by the Westermarck Effect and by social convention, and at such a deep level that it qualifies as instinct. One does not preclude the other.

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