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:Apparently, incest was permitted and even encouraged at various points in history as a method of conserving and consolidating wealth.
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.
Métamorphoses de la parenté ends with a panorama of transformations in kinship today, which focuses principally on the West, where the changes under way are the most dramatic. Historically, Godelier maintains, humanity has exhibited a certain evolutionary tendency in its alliance systems, from a common ‘Dravidian’ starting-point, whose changes have been irreversible, but not (so far) unilinear—a pattern he surmises is likely to hold in the future too. Humans, however, are the only species co-responsible with nature for their own evolution. In the past they rarely acknowledged their own role in creating rules of kinship, but now they can scarcely do otherwise, as laws and customs governing relations between and within the sexes are in full mutation, with the spread of single parenting, homosexual marriage, artificial insemination and the prospect of cloning all now crowding onto the public agenda. In the last lines of his book Godelier reiterates that ‘what separates human beings definitively from primates, their cousins in nature, is that they not only live in society but can and must produce society in order to live’. It is one of the underlying messages of this work that in confronting the unexpected in that task today, the sang-froid of the anthropologist is needed.
Passing to the extent of taboos on brother–sister unions, Godelier notes that for many years French scholars, under the influence of Lévi-Strauss, disregarded the evidence that such interdictions were not to be found in Ancient Egypt or Persia. Different kinds of ‘close marriage’, indeed, were characteristic of much of the Mediterranean area before the coming of Christianity. But although he spells out the way such patterns undermine any idea of the universality of incest prohibitions as conventionally understood—in Persia not only brother–sister, but father–daughter and even mother–son coupling was sanctioned—he attributes such ‘exceptions’ essentially to local cosmogonies, in which selected humans could imitate the conduct of gods. In royal families, this would have been one element of the situation. But there were more terrestrial considerations as well. Godelier cites Herrenschmidt’s report of a Persian tale as late as the eleventh century ad, in which a mother says to her daughter: there is no one in Iran worthy of you except the prince Virou, your brother. Conservation of rank was certainly important in such cases. But in Ancient Egypt, as Keith Hopkins has shown, brother–sister marriages extended throughout the population. What needed to be conserved was not just rank, but property. For this was a society in which the status of women was high, and women possessed their own goods through the dowry. Irrigated land was extremely valuable, and many were involved in the conservation of differentiated property.From New Left Review.
‘Close marriage’ of this kind was thus not simply a matter of the continuity of the group, as Godelier implies. A paradigmatic case can be found in Ancient Israel, when the daughters of Zelophehad were given the right to inherit from their father if he had no male heirs, but at the same time told they must marry within the clan, so the property would not be dispersed. It was the same with the epikleratic marriages of Ancient Greece, where an heiress had to marry within the kin group, to a father’s brother’s son—as in the contemporary Arab world. Close marriage conserves both rank and property, in a way often seen as ‘incestuous’ in other systems. From the Bronze Age onwards, in my view, stratified urban societies attempted to preserve the status not only of sons but of daughters, by means of a dowry which allocated sisters part of the parental wealth (rarely equal to that of their brothers). There was thus a general tendency in these societies to marry into the same wealth or status group, even occasionally into the same family.
The article at Wikipedia on the incest taboo reviews some of the theories as to why the incest taboo has been more or less universal:
One theory suggests that the taboo expresses a psychological revulsion that people naturally experience at the thought of incest. Most anthropologists reject this explanation, since incest does in fact occur. Alternatively, the taboo itself may be the cause of this psychological revulsion.Wikipedia.
Another theory is that the observance of the taboo would lower the incidence of congenital birth defects caused by inbreeding. Anthropologists reject this explanation for two reasons. First, inbreeding does not lead to congenital birth defects per se; it leads to an increase in the frequency of homozygotes. A homozygote encoding a congenital birth defect will produce children with birth defects, but homozygotes that do not encode for congenital birth defects will decrease the number of carriers in a population. If children born with this type of heritable birth defect die (or are killed) before they reproduce, the ultimate effect of inbreeding will be to decrease the frequency of defective genes in the population. Second, anthropologists have pointed out that in the Trobriand case a man and the daughter of his father's sister, and a man and the daughter of his mother's sister, are equally distant genetically. Therefore, the prohibition against relations is not based on or motivated by concerns over biological closeness.
Finally, Claude Lévi-Strauss has argued that the incest taboo is in effect a prohibition against endogamy, and the effect is to encourage exogamy. Through exogamy, otherwise unrelated households or lineages will form relationships through marriage, thus strengthening social solidarity.
I always enjoyed the very mytho-fantastic speculations of Freud on the origins of the incest taboo
One day the brothers who had been driven out came together, killed and devoured their father and so made an end of the patriarchal horde. United, they had the courage to do and succeed in doing what would have been impossible for them individually. (Some cultural advance, perhaps, command over some new weapon, had given them a sense of superior strength). Cannibal savages as they were, it goes without saying that they devoured their victim as well as killing him. The violent primal father had doubtless been the feared and envied model of each one of the company of brothers: and in the act of devouring him they accomplished their identification with him, and each one acquired a portion of his strength. The totem meal, which is perhaps mankind's earliest festival, would thus be a repetition and a commemoration of this memorable and criminal deed, which was the beginning of so many things - or social organisation, of moral restrictions and of religion. . . .From Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo (1913).
In order that these latter consequences may seem plausible, leaving their premises on one side, we need only suppose that the tumultuous mob of brothers were filled with the same contradictory feelings which we can see at work in the ambivalent father-complexes of our children and our neurotic patients. They hated their father, who presented such a formidable obstacle to their craving for power and their sexual desires; but they loved and admired him too. After they had got rid of him, had satisfied their hatred and had put into effect their wish to identify with him, the affection which had all this time been pushed under was bound to make itself felt. It did so in the form of remorse. A sense of guilt made its appearance, which in this instance coincided with the remorse felt by the whole group. The dead father became stronger than the living one had been - for events took the course we often see them follow in human affairs to this day. What had up to then been prevented by his actual existence [p.205] was thenceforward prohibited by the sons themselves, in accordance with the psychological procedure so familiar to us in psychoanalysis under the name 'deferred obedience'. They revoked their deed by forbidding the killing of the totem, the substitute for their father; and they renounced its fruits by resigning their claim to the women who had now been set free. They thus created out of their filial sense of guilt the two fundamental taboos of totemism, which for that very reason inevitably corresponded to the two repressed wishes of the Oedipus complex. Whoever contravened those two taboos became guilty of the only two crimes with which primitive society concerned itself.