The Power of Taboos

Freud insists that  “taboo is older than gods”; but to me that raised more questions than it answered. Does he mean that a certain set of taboos such as incest and cannibalism were around that long, or taboos in general? Are there taboos shared across all cultures? What about taboos that are unique to specific cultures? Is there an evolutionary benefit to having these taboos? Are we born with these internal limits or do we learn them?

Some of the common taboos, such as incest, cannibalism, and murder have a clear evolutionary advantage. If we are born without an aversion to incest, many inbreeding birth defects would occur and most likely those who do not have this aversion would die out. Pretty much all cultures have these two taboos of incest and cannibalism, although there are some differences in cultures on the degree of separation to be considered incest. Since these taboos have an evolutionary advantage to them, it makes sense that they would be a commonality between all cultures. This leads to the question of if we are born with internal limits or if we learn them from our environment. If taboo is a internal limit inside you and “radiate a genuinely aversive power”, then how can taboos be environmental and cross-cultural? To me it seems like taboos have to be constant through history and across borders to have the profound effect of creating this strong internal limit. However, if we go by the definition most people go by, the difference in “taboos” between different cultures would point to the idea that taboos are mostly learned from the environment, with a few exceptions of universal cultural taboos such as incest, cannibalism, and murder. To answer the nature vs. nurture debate of taboos, I think it depends on what definition of taboos you use.

It can also be argued that taboos will become more prominent and less so depending on the circumstances at hand. Although, I would argue that the taboos are always around lurking in shadows waiting to make an appearance. What is considered right is whatever society thinks is “right”, concerning taboos, at any given time. Many people seem to believe that no taboo is eternally true and that morality is different for each society or culture. However, there are ethical taboos that seem to be innate to human nature as discussed before, such as incest and cannibalism, showing that these taboos are always prominent. Many of the other rules that most people consider taboos such as genocide, suicide, adultery etc. vary across cultures and time periods. These types of taboos are only around for however long they work in the given situation and if they don’t work, they are either altered or they disappear. There are times when even the eternal taboos such as incest are no longer taboos. The most interesting case of this I find is the case of the Habsburg dynasty in Spain, where incestual relationships eventually led to the demise of the line of kings. At this time, incest was not a taboo, especially in royal families where they wanted to keep their blood pure. It could also be speculated that if a group had limited possibilities for procreation, such as a small society, the incest taboo could be dropped. But is this dropping of taboos a type of transgression? Do the kings that have these incestuous relationships have to overcome an internal limit to have relations with their sisters?

Bringing it back to the ideas of Tim Dean, is the “transgression” of anti-gay legislation a real transgression?  The crossing of taboos  (as defined by most people), requires that the transgressors have to cross “one’s own internal limits”, but the people who “transgress” this type of legislation are born without internal limits to this so called taboo, therefore effectively proving that this is not really “transgression” and the “threat of punishment” is simply external, in the form of a law, proving that it is not taboo either.




Filed under Week 6: Stein, Barnes, Dean, Wittig

2 responses to “The Power of Taboos

  1. Really interesting post, ACT. I was also fascinated with Dean’s “The Erotics of Transgression” and wrote about similar themes in my post, “The Transience and Authenticity of Transgression.” If you haven’t already, I’d really suggest “Purity and Danger” by Mary Douglas–she talks about the functions taboo play in society and how they are culturally formed (rather than being innate).


  2. Lea

    I’m really interested in your commentary about taboos (such as incest and cannibalism) that are also connected to evolutionary advantages. I wonder: are most or all taboos contributing to an evolutionary advantage by limiting acts or institutions that would otherwise harm “progress” (which, of course, is quite challenging to define)? It seems from the examples we have discussed that there is indeed a link, though I had never thought about this potential link previously. – LGT

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