Re: Single cause theories

Harriet Whitehead (whitehea@WSUNIX.WSU.EDU)
Sat, 22 Apr 1995 09:12:36 -0700

I want to concur with Nick that Levi-Strauss's theory regarding the
incest taboo (sometimes spoken of as the "alliance theory") is too clever
by half. As I recall, L-S places the incest taboo at "beginning of
culture" because it sets in motion the kind of group alliances that spin
out wider social orders and save family units from the autarky of social
isolation. The "I'll give you my sister if you give me yours" move, he
also views as involving intellectual processes fundamental to culture
such as recognition of self v. other, nature v. culture (binarism in
other words). Of course one might point out that if some move involves
the intellectual processes crucial to culture, then some prior move must
be invoked to give people these intellectual processes, so the whole ball
begins to unravel a bit there. L-S also depicts animal populations as
devoid of incest avoidance. This idea has been overturned; true, animals
don't have "rules" and perhaps in most cases don't have anti-incest
sentiments, but there will be processes among the social animals that
result in incest avoidance - e.g. driving one gender or other of the
maturing youth out of the band/herd. L-S ignores the biogenetic reasons
why incest might be selected against (admittedly a controversial area),
and finally, he discounts the recurrent findings of sexual aversion
between persons raised together from early childhood. Oddly, his point
about the way in which social exchange overcomes autarky would still be
good even if other causes of incest-avoidance were accepted!

Harriet Whitehead
Anthropology WSU