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.

Now it would no doubt be very interesting if, by some means or other, we could discover how such matters came about, but it seems to me absolutely inconceivable that we should ever be able to do so. Even if we accept the idea that the Darwinian process of natural selection is a universal causal mechanism which has produced, by a continuous sequence of small changes, all the biological phenomena that are either now observable or are recorded in the fossil record (and there are highly competent professional scientists who are entirely sceptical of any such possibility), there would still be an indefinitely large number of ways in which the process might have operated so as to produce the present state of affairs. To imagine, as Fox’s book suggests (and as the writings of Robert Ardrey suggested earlier), that, by an exercise of pure reason, we can work out what this process was, and why things happened as they did, is pure moonshine. I cannot prove to you that any of Fox’s speculations about the remote or more recent past are erroneous, but I can say that, without exception, they seem to me wholly implausible. I therefore regard his book as a waste of time. But where does incest come into it? As Fox himself makes clear in an extensive section entitled ‘Notes and Bibliography’, the bulk of the book is a pastiche ‘of various things I have written on this theme since 1959’. As he has not paid any attention to what his critics have said in the past, the deficiencies of the argument are the same as they were before, but it reads quite well. Sociobiologists, most of whom seem to be quite exceptionally naive about matters anthropological, will probably be favourably impressed, but it does not seem likely that the book will make any new converts among anthropologists proper.

Fox’s approach to the incest theme is to assume that the English-language concept corresponds in some way to an isolate category which is of universal significance. By implication, he then restricts the category to its narrowest possible sense as referring to hetero-sexual intercourse of three types only – mother/son, father/daughter, brother/sister – but leaves it somewhat vague as to whether the ‘father’ in the father/daughter pair is the biological father or just the recognised mate of the mother.

If we reduce the ‘incest’ concept to this skeletal form, then ‘incest prohibitions’ seem to occur everywhere in one form or another. There have been societies where men could marry their full sisters, and other societies where sexual relationships between father and daughter were considered unimportant, but there doesn’t seem to be any society which actually approves of a sexual relationship between mother and son.

It also seems to be the case that, whatever the formal rules, incestuous relationships always occur. Fox makes this point but believes, without any real evidence, that the incidence of incest is always low. If this is the case, then, in principle, there could be only two reasons: either most people do not want to commit incest anyway (Westermarck’s theory), or most of those who would like to commit incest are deterred from doing so, either by subconscious repression (Freud’s theory) or because of fear of the consequences of doing so (common-sense theory).

Fox is, in general, a supporter of the Westermarck view, though he claims, not very convincingly, that he has been able to square this with a modified version of Freud’s doctrine. He dismisses the common-sense view that sanctions might have something to do with it by drawing a specious parallel between incest and murder. ‘We need not assume that we have laws against murder because we all have murderous natures, but only because some murder occurs and we don’t like that.’ He ignores the fact that the question of whether the killing of other men is frequent or infrequent palpably depends upon circumstance and is heavily influenced by issues of legitimacy. In wartime, it becomes a virtue to kill an enemy. And, as Fox knows very well, there are many societies in which institutions such as headhunting and feud make it very difficult to distinguish between lawful and unlawful homicide and in which, in the outcome, the rate of killing is very high.

This is not a quibble. I believe that the basic fallacy in Fox’s argument, in so far as it concerns incest rather than other matters, stems from his isolation of heterosexual incest as a ‘thing in itself’ and his marked failure to relate this kind of sin/crime to other sexual ‘offences’ such as homosexuality, rape, bestiality, adultery, prostitution, general fornication. A satisfactory social ‘theory’ about sexual behaviour needs to take account of the whole spectrum of approved and prohibited relationships and of the range of very varied sanctions (rewards as well as punishments) which operate across the total field.

But in any case Fox’s judgment that ‘when left to their own devices, human beings commit very little incest’ is just a private hunch; so also is Susan Forward’s exactly contrary view: ‘in essence, because Freud could not believe that so much incest was going on, he assumed that it wasn’t ... Therapists are (now) beginning to realise that, unless there is strong evidence to the contrary, all incest reports should be considered valid.’ For what it is worth, however, Fox takes the view that the circumstances in which incestuous activity is likely to become attractive to the parties concerned are always rather exceptional, and that the form of the rules and the sanctions which support them don’t make much difference to the actual incidence of incestuous affairs.

What does make a difference, according to Fox, is the way siblings of opposite sex are brought up in early childhood. If boys and girls are jumbled up together and treated as equivalent, then a ‘Westermarck’ effect comes into operation. The familiarity of intense physical interaction generates a positive sexual aversion. The rules about sibling incest are lax, but incest seldom occurs because boys and girls who have been brought up together in this way do not arouse one another sexually. If, on the other hand, boys and girls are segregated by sex but nevertheless brought up in close propinquity, then we have a ‘Freudian’ effect. Relationships between the individual siblings of opposite sex are marked by strong (repressed) desire, which is matched in the society at large by sexual obsessions and fierce sanctions – the so-called ‘horror’ of incest.

In defence of his neo-Westermarck theory, Fox cites just the same evidence which he has given in earlier papers, making a great song about the sexual aversion which is sometimes said to develop between age mates of opposite sex in orthodox forms of the Israeli kibbutz.

He also cites the superficially rather more convincing evidence provided by Wolf’s account of the sim-pua relationship among the Taiwan Chinese. Fox ignores the fact that what Wolf reported was based on hearsay, not observation, and that very similar institutions, which are widespread in many parts of South East Asia, have been more closely described.

The essence of the matter is that the parents of a young boy adopt, in infancy, a girl who is destined to become the boy’s wife. While they are children, the pair are treated as if they were siblings. Wolf reported that his male informants expressed dislike of marriages of this sort. Fox sees this as a demonstration of the Westermarck effect. Well maybe, but how can one tell? The girls in question are rated as servants and, from the parents’ point of view, this is a ‘cheap’ way of getting a son married; from the boy’s point of view, a wife obtained by more normal procedures is far more prestigious. My point is that there are a variety of reasons why such marriages might be viewed with disdain, but Fox ignores all possibilities other than his own preferred explanation.

Examples of real-world ethnography of this sort scarcely take us beyond the first fifty pages of Fox’s book. After that, we move into the world of sociobiological fantasy: how it all began among our primeval ancestors way back in the dawn of time. Fox’s general point here is that aspects of human culture which have a universal or near-universal distribution, among which he includes incest taboos and certain elementary forms of marriage alliance, occur as they do because a ‘tendency’ to adopt such cultural forms is encoded in our genetic make-up. Thirty-five years ago Lévi-Strauss engaged in rather similar speculations. How did it all begin? What is the break/bridge between animality and humanity? For Lévi-Strauss, the ultimate marker of humanity was the possession of language, but the crucial distinction between human Culture and Nature was the occurrence in Culture of incest taboos and marriage exchanges (‘alliance’).

It seems probable that the Parisian sage would now put it rather differently, but Fox’s theory is Lévi-Strauss’s original doctrine turned inside out. It is not that we have incest taboos and marriage alliances because we are human, but rather that we are human because we are genetically-predisposed to have incest taboos and contract marriage alliances.

The development of language is still recognised as one of the markers of emergent humanity, but comes rather low in Fox’s list of priorities. It forms the subject-matter of his penultimate chapter (‘The Matter of Mind’), which is certainly the least satisfactory in the whole book. Elsewhere the bulk of his argument is taken up with inventing circumstances in remote antiquity which would have favoured the survival of proto-men who possessed the postulated innate ‘tendencies’ towards an aversion to mating with close kin. Those who like Just-So Stories will be impressed.

This is all in the tradition of Freud’s Primal Horde as fantasised in Totem und Tabu (1913), but Fox’s approach to his complex subject-matter is simplistic in a variety of other very old-fashioned ways. For some obscure reason, which I have never properly understood, the Australian Aborigines, who are, in fact, organised in ways which are quite atypical of what social anthropologists have learned to expect of ‘savages’ in other parts of the world, have repeatedly been held up to our admiration or contempt as the prototype example of primitive man. This was the case with Freud as it was with Frazer, and even, more surprisingly, Lévi-Strauss. And here we go again. Fox, of course, has no idea how those first men really behaved, but a ‘synthetic’ account of an Australian kinship system is made to fill the gap.

I commend to the attention of my anthropological colleagues Fox’s account of such a system (see the footnote to page 156) along-side the sources from which this ‘synthesis’ has been derived (cited at page 250). One can admire the thoroughness with which Fox accumulates bibliographies: unfortunately he does not seem to find time to read what they contain.

Betrayal of Innocence is a very different sort of affair. Susan forward, who is on the staff of a Californian Psychiatric Hospital, is ‘a licensed clinical social worker specialising in intensive group psychotherapy and the training of mental health professionals in the treatment of incest’. Her co-author Craig Buck is described simply as ‘a freelance writer and journalist living in Los Angeles’. This is Forward’s book. It is short, factual and to the point. It is entirely concerned with contemporary (mostly white) American society. The case-histories are ones of which Forward has had direct personal experience.

Unlike Fox, Forward believes that incestuous behaviour is very common. She reckons that more than ten million Americans have been participants in an incestuous relationship of one kind or another. ‘It is a fact of life that has involved at least one out of every 20 Americans.’ Apart from a very short and very bad Chapter Two, which is devoted to anthropological theories, she avoids speculation and sticks to what she knows.

She takes a much broader view of her central topic than does Fox. Her chapter headings include ‘Grandfather-Granddaughter Incest’, ‘Mother-Daughter Incest’ and ‘Father-Son Incest’. She is mainly concerned with cases where the younger member of the dyad is the ‘victim’ of ‘aggression’ by the elder. The ‘problem’ of Incest from this viewpoint is closely allied to those which are otherwise discussed under the headlines ‘sexual abuse of young children’ and ‘rape’. Forward does not suggest that all forms of incestuous relationship lead to psychological traumas, but the patients with whom she has to deal are individuals suffering from such traumas.

With striking honesty of purpose, she opens her book with the declaration that she herself was just such an individual, having suffered from years of adult guilt because, at the age of 15, she had enjoyed the sexual advances of her father. She is her own first case-history. After that, apart from the lamentable Chapter Two, her book consists of a further selection of case-histories selected according to the nature of the dyad involved: father-daughter, mother-son, brother-sister and so on. I myself find the accounts both interesting and persuasive. The difficulty, of course, as with all arguments about incest, is to judge the value of the evidence. Did it really happen like that, or are the therapist’s notebooks just a record of her patient’s neurotic fantasies? Specialists in the field will probably take different views on this issue. In one case, for example, the patient’s account of what she had suffered at the hands of her grandfather at the age of six was given under hypnosis.

But I am not sure that this really matters very much. Fantasies as well as facts can make people ill. What this book shows is that whatever may (or may not) be our genetic pre-dispositions, the particular set of constraints (legal and moral) which surround the concepts of ‘incest’, ‘rape’, ‘paedophilia’, ‘homosexuality’ in contemporary American society result in vast areas of social and psychological distress. It may be that some of the ‘tawdry secrets of the family’ described in this book would seldom be encountered outside California, but only some. English readers should not smugly imagine: ‘That couldn’t happen here.’

I do not think that forward’s first-hand observations lend much support to Fox’s grandiose speculations. Rather they suggest that the incidence and consequences of incest taboos are very much a reflection of the social attitudes of the enveloping society, and that the variety of such social attitudes is so great that speculation about a genetic basis for the whole range of possible restraints is hardly worth while. But financially profitable argument about these matters is likely to continue into eternity. Although most genetic predispositions are very much more complicated than Fox’s argument would allow, we are certainly all predisposed to be fascinated by sex.