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Incest/Inbreeding Taboos

Historical Review, Nature Versus Nurture, Incest/inbreeding Harm, Sibling Marriage And Human Isolates

The incest taboo is one of the oldest and most perplexing mysteries encountered by students of human society. Historically, western scholars believed that the incest taboo—long proposed as a cultural universal—is vital to understanding the human condition. Thus, interest in the incest taboo has an extensive history.

Although the incest taboo varies in meaning by society, it is frequently an important rule of prohibition, commonly encompassing religious sanctions, and usually forbidding sexual contact between particular categories of relatives and family members. Closely related to the incest taboo are the rules of exogamy that usually prohibit marriage between the same categories of kin forbidden by incest rules (Murdock 1949). Typically included in the taboo are nuclear (parents and children) and immediate (e.g., grandparents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and first cousins) family members. In societies composed of unilineal descent groups (e.g., lineages, clans, and moieties), the incest rule often includes all or most of a person's descent (kinship) group. This includes distantly related individuals to which an actual genealogical connection cannot be made (Murdock 1949). A thorough understanding of the incest taboo necessarily recognizes this rule as an important part of a larger system of sexual regulations. In turn, these sexual regulations are an important component of the extensive normative structure regulating family, marriage, and kinship systems, and ultimately the larger society.

There are many cross-cultural variations in the incest taboo. Whereas it appears that most societies have some sort of incest prohibition, the rule is not strictly universal. Likewise, many societies deem the incest taboo extremely serious, whereas other groups view the taboo more casually. Sanctions for taboo violations reflect a similar cross-cultural diversity. In some societies, members simply express disapproval or distaste when incest occurs, as might be expected in the presence of bad manners. In other communities, the act of incest is considered horrifying or unthinkable, and transgressors may be put to death or expelled from the society. In many instances, the incest taboo is intricately entwined with religious tenets and proscribes supernatural sanctions against violators or against the society as a whole. In technologically advanced societies scientific explanations have commonly replaced religious beliefs, and religious sanctions have been replaced by legal penalties and concerns about genetic harm to progeny.

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Social Issues