On The Origins of Sexual Prohibitions

In the latest issue of the New Left Review, Jack Goody has a review of Maurice Godelier’s Métamorphoses de la Parenté, about which he says:

There has never been a book that adequately covers the range of human kinship and domestic organization. This is as near as anyone has got.

Those of us who struggle over French will have to wait for an English translation. Till then, however, Goody’s review gives us a taste of things to come, while taking Godelier to task on a number of issues.

Of particular interest is Godelier’s discussion of primate societies, which he uses to critique his former teacher, Lévi-Strauss, who argued that the “the prohibition of incest … saw the original passage from nature to culture defining human society as such.”

Among the discoveries that have made short work of Lévi-Strauss’s story of the foundations of society have been the findings of primate studies, to which Godelier devotes a sensitive and imaginative chapter. What these have shown is that both chimpanzees and bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees in the Congo), our nearest biological relatives, already live in ‘societies’ that exhibit a kind of sketch of human constraints: young females find sexual partners outside their immediate natal group, while young males must wait their turn until adults are willing to yield partners to them. Enforcing at once cooperation and hierarchy, these patterns appear to be the product of mechanisms of natural selection, though they coexist with homosexual pleasures among males and females alike, less obviously attributable to the same functions. The passage from nature to culture with homo sapiens thus cannot have been a sudden, discontinuous transformation, but must have been more evolutionary in nature. The critical novelty in human society, Godelier argues, is that males assume a parental role, something unknown among these primates, where only mothers look after children—fathers being unaware of their connection with them.

Where does this leave the taboo on incest? Rather than insisting that it is ubiquitous—in face of the facts of history, which show that brother–sister, father–daughter and mother–son relations have in some societies, such as Ancient Egypt or Achaemenid Persia, not only not been prohibited, but even enjoined—Godelier suggests that what is actually universal is something simpler. The sexual drive is fundamentally asocial: notoriously no respecter of rules, it even particularly delights in breaking them. Hence for society to be possible at all, it must be constrained. Any society requires therefore the existence of some sexual prohibitions as such. These, however, can take any number of different forms. If taboos on incest are far the most common of these, that is because they guard the door to the parenting unit that distinguishes human from primate societies:

There nowhere exists a society where the individual is authorized to satisfy all his sexual desires (and so also fantasies). And it is always at the threshold of the social units within which men and women cooperate to bring up children, whether or not they have given birth to them, that the most extreme forms of sexual permissiveness have been halted.

More complex is the critique of Godelier’s French/Althusserian focus on religion and ideology over Goody’s own British focus on the economic and political.

Can the contrast between the Jewish practices of close marriage in the Old Testament, and the multiplication of prohibitions in early European marriage by Christianity, be simply explained by differing theological attitudes to desire? Given the formidable extent of the debt of Christian to Jewish religion, it seems unlikely. I have attempted a more concretely based explanation, pointing to the interests of the Church in channelling wealth away from kinship groups to the ecclesia. The requirements of building a ‘great organization’ appear to offer a more plausible logic for the banning of seven degrees of consanguinity than fears of the doubling up of original sin.

I have to admit that while I studied some of the classics on kinship in college (and even high school!), my graduate training largely ignored the subject. Goody attributed the decline in interest to the increasing technicality with which the subject has been treated, and lavishes praise on Godelier for making the subject come alive again. I’m eagerly awaiting the English translation of this book.

(Via Antti Leppänen)

4 thoughts on “On The Origins of Sexual Prohibitions

  1. Feminists have rehabilitated the (grotesquely sexist, if you read for example the first chapter of the Elementary Structures of Kinship, but nevertheless important) work of L-S in this way for some time already: saying that what is important is not the “incest taboo” (which can easily be shown to be a non-starter) but his insight that society and culture are predicated on *rules*. It doesn’t matter what the “first rule” is (L-S argued, unsuccessfully it is now clear, for the incest taboo) what matters is that moment at which rules that do not have their explanation in biological/environmental/immediate contextual circumstances become perduring (which is to say distributed across a community and transmitted across generations).

  2. Some thoughts:

    I’m a bit dubious about this whole question of “what inaugurates humanity”—it seems so inextricably culture/value bound: regulating sex—didn’t Freud or some other eminent Victorian say something like that. What about the first time someone returned (or gave) a gift, or the first time someone killed for honor rather than immediate material gain? Seems best to think about the idea of a “human” as an ideal type, and think about what sorts of definitions gives us the most analytic purchase. (That said, i like Ozma’s “rules in general” idea, even if I strongly suspect that were we to invent a time machine and try to do the research we would have a hard time identifying when exactly “people” (or whatever you want to call them) were acting in terms of a rule.

    Ideas about the “fundamental asocial-ness” of the sex drive also make me a bit suspicious. As I read Annette Weiner, seduction is the metaphor and model of all social relations in the Trobriands. And maybe the fact that the sex drive “even particularly delights” in breaking rules should be a clue here: isn’t rule-breaking, resistance, and rebellion as culturally structured and variable as order?

    Oh and wait, this business of the father’s not knowing paternity—isn’t that the basis of Hawaiian kinship terminology according to Morgan? Actually, Trobrianders are also said not to recognize paternity, so perhaps Godelier’s scheme can be rescued if we don’t consider them human. And the male parental care thing—isn’t that an argument Desmond Morris made in The Naked Ape? (He called it pair-bonding; it explains why human breasts “mimic” buttocks.)

    On a less sarcastic note: why should we assume that the behaviors that result in what we call “incest avoidance” in apes are somehow the product of natural selection, while the behaviors involved in what we call “homosexuality” in apes are not? Perhaps these behaviors are the product of the same generalized capacities for social learning. There is a whole revolution going on in biology, where it is becoming clear that one can’t really talk about the evolution of “traits” without understanding something about the ontogeny of those traits—the whole distinction between “instinctual” and “learned” behavior is exploded in this work, as as is the Dawkins-Wilson et al idea that evolution is primarily about the genome. The authoritative work on this is Developmental Plasticity and Evolution by Mary Jane West-Eberhard.

    by Comet Jo

  3. Hey Comet Jo,
    actually I totally agree with you, both about developmental plasticity (in the evo-devo relationship I definitely believe devo is where it is at) and about the difficulty of drawing a bright line — on the basis of anything — between humans and other animals. However, I think if we *are* going to look for the origins of the special features of human society/culture, using L-S’s idea about the importance of rules is a good place to start (how you’d ever find that in the physical or archaeological record is another question….)

  4. Though it says nothing about incest, you might take a look at Stephen Mithen’s latest book, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body. Mithen details a fair number of “stages” between apekind and humankind, placing something like music before language in the process — a move suggested by the sainted Darwin himself. Note that I’ve got a vested interest in that argument since I’ve made it myself, in Beethoven’s AnvilL Music in Mind and Culture.

    There are all sorts of rules and they need not be expressible in language.

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