Incidence of Incest

Edmund Leach

  • The Red Lamp of Incest: A Study in the Origins of Mind and Society by Robin Fox
    Hutchinson, 271 pp, £7.95, January 1981, ISBN 0 09 144080 7
  • Betrayal of Innocence: Incest and its Devastation by Susan Forward and Craig Buck
    Penguin, 154 pp, £1.95, February 1981, ISBN 0 14 022287 1

A part from the flaming scarlet with which the word ‘Incest’ is picked out on the covers of both these books, they do not have much in common, but the theme has a perennial fascination and they will doubtless both sell well. I am personally more attracted by Susan Forward’s modestly presented case-histories than by Robin Fox’s pretentious fantasies, but there is more meat for discussion in the latter’s argument, so let us start there.

Once, long ago, Robin Fox was trained as a British social anthropologist. He has published two excellent monographs in that field, one of them quite recently, as well as a short but useful textbook on anthropological kinship theory (somewhat strangely described in the blurb of this book as a ‘classic work’), but the attitude which he has adopted towards the work of his professional colleagues in recent years has been distinctly ambivalent. In this book, he complains that, as Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers, he is ‘one who is stuck with a professional label for administrative purposes’.

He is, in fact, best-known as one of a group of authors who have been made a very profitable exploration of the border zone between journalism and serious human ethology. These authors include Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, Desmond Morris and E.O. Wilson. The present work is dedicated to the memory of Robert Ardrey, so the reader should know what to expect.

The radical difference between social anthropology and the kind of thing offered by Fox needs to be spelled out since Fox quotes extensively from the social anthropologists, implying that their statements support his own speculations. This is in no way the case. Social anthropologists concern themselves with the behaviours and ideas of present-day living peoples. They take pride in what they call ‘research by participant observation’. They like to be able to observe at first hand the matters which they describe and to be able to discuss their interpretations with the actors whom they have observed. Social anthropologists have a great respect for serious history and for the findings of archaeology, though they will often challenge the interpretations which the archaeologists themselves place upon their evidence. But they are entirely scornful of what they refer to as ‘conjectural history’ – that is to say, of the sweeping generalisations concerning social evolution which were so fashionable at the end of the last century and which have now reappeared dressed up in jargon borrowed from the sociobiologists.

Fox and his friends start off from the diametrically opposite position. Like the pre-Copernican astronomers, who ‘knew’ as a fact of divine revelation that all heavenly bodies must move in perfect circles, so that the task of astronomy was simply to explain how the observed facts could be squared with this predetermined axiom, the sociobiologists (as interpreted by Fox) know from first principles that absolutely everything in the biological and sociological world came about as a direct consequence of Darwin’s principles of natural and sexual selection, modified to take account of the developments of genetic theory that have occurred during the past fifty years or so. The task of the scholar journalist is then to speculate about how these fundamental principles, operating over the past five million years of human evolution, served to generate the characteristics of the human species which we can now observe. In the outcome, the authors concerned write about ‘origins’ – the origin of language, the origin of ‘marriage’, the origin of incest taboos, and so on.

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