Friday, November 05, 2004

Questions to Make Religious Conservatives Cringe

Here are some questions that came to mind as I drove to work today, brought on by hearing on the radio about a new gay-themed movie called “Brother to Brother.” I present them in the same order I thought of them.

1. Given that the primary function of the incest taboo is to prevent mating between people who are too similar genetically, should adult gay incest be considered okay?

2. Assume the answer to the question above is “yes.” Would the answer change if new genetic engineering techniques allowed members of the same sex to have a biological child?

3. Bonus question. If the hypothetical genetic engineering technique worked only through the combination of whole chromosomes contributed by the same-sex parents, what sex possibilities would be available for the offspring?

I will post my answers in the comments section.


Glen Whitman said...

My answers:

1. A qualified yes. While avoiding birth defects is the main function of the incest taboo, I suspect anyone who wishes to have an incestuous relationship (whether or not it could lead to children with birth defects) probably has some psychological issues, assuming they grew up in a family relationship with their desired partner. Still, what’s the harm? If they wish to indulge their psychoses, let them.

2. No, because the genetically problematic offspring could not result accidentally from sexual intercourse.

3. A female-female couple could only have female children, because they only have X chromosomes to contribute. A male-male couple could have both male and female children, because both have X’s and Y’s to contribute.

Anonymous said...

Boy, you sure know how to hit on controversial topics!

In my view, whether incest is morally "OK" absent reproductive issues has entirely to do with whether the participants regret it or not. Although I have no direct experience in this area (rather wish I did...) I have heard of many cases of same-sex incest where both participants were quite enthusiastic about it. Often, one or both participants were heterosexual and went on to a hetersexual marriage. I know of nothing similar among opposite-sex relatives, although it's entirely possible that they just don't talk about it.

In practice, the universal taboo against sibling incest doesn't appear to hold nearly as strongly when it comes to same-sex affairs. Beyond the "taboo" on homosexuality itself, there doesn't seem to be much of a taboo when it comes to whether or not there is a family relationship. In some cultures, ritualized father-son relationships are the norm.

I also question the notion that sibling marriages actually lead to genetic problems. I have seen little hard evidence to back it up. The taboo may have origins that are more social than biological, though perhaps no less universal than genetics would imply.

On a purely personal note: I have had recurring incest dreams involving pretty much every member of my family at one point or another. The same-sex incest dreams are as wonderful as any erotic dream can be. The opposite-sex incest dreams are screaming nightmares that leave me in a cold sweat, with my heart pounding. I think that might have more to do with just my own sexual orientation; I think it reflects a fundamental difference between the two situations that might well work just the same way for heterosexuals.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a religious conservative but I'm still cringing. Dear lord!

As much as I think that people with incestuous desires have major pyschological problems, I'd have to say 'yes' to 'they can actually do what they want.' Although, isn't incest illegal by law? or is it only if a minor is involved or affected by it (ie: mom and brother are going at it)?

I know that incest is taboo everywhere now, but how did that come about? In the biblical days, them folks mated with whomever they chose and sometimes it was with their sisters or mothers, and even daughters. I guess you can argue the main reason for incest was b/c they needed as many people in their tribe to protect themselves from invaders, or there just simply weren't anyone else to procreate with. And it seems that procreation was the main purpose.

But when did the incestuos practice end? Was it when there were enough people at one point to branch off to cousins and then to distant cousins to finally neighbors?
And at what point did people all of a sudden decide that it was perverse to mate with your sister, mom, daughter, and cousin? The taboo couldn't have all of a sudden just surface.

Was it when Jesus 2000 years ago finally address them and specifically said not to sleep with mom? B/c in the old testament, there are stories peppered with incest. But it's weird b/c books like samuel and even genesis mentions the taboo, although in the pentetech (sp) books, they seem to have allowed it at some point.
But that reminds me that in Levitivus, a book of series of laws, (some of them just crazy) actually forbids the practice of incest.


Anonymous said...
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Glen Whitman said...

The incest taboo has arisen independently in many different civilizations. I'm pretty sure (though I can't offer support) that it's been around since before written history, definitely before the origin of Christianity. And the reason seems pretty clear: societies with the taboo produced more healthy children and fewer birth defects, while societies without the taboo did the reverse. Those with the taboo therefore spread, while those without it disproportionately died out (or were absorbed into societies with the taboo).

Of course, there has to be an exception to the taboo in cases where the population is too small for mating to occur without incest. But even in prehistoric times, I suspect there were enough people around to make the taboo workable. Indeed, the taboo probably worked to make sure that clans and tribes that were otherwise isolated nevertheless exchanged members from time to time.

As for all those Biblical stories about brothers marrying sisters, etc., I imagine that's an artifact of the Biblical belief that all of humanity had to arise from two ancestors, Adam and Eve, and later had to start from a very small pool again after the great flood. In reality, humanity arose gradually from a prior population of hominids, with the human traits gradually spreading in the population until speciation occurred.

Anonymous said...

No judgement to a post two above but your last paragraph of incestuous dream confessionals were more than i wanted to read. =)

Regarding your comment:
'I also question the notion that sibling marriages actually lead to genetic problems. I have seen little hard evidence to back it up. The taboo may have origins that are more social than biological, though perhaps no less universal than genetics would imply.'

As for your comment, read Glen's post on the unwitting social problem of incest when last names were banned. There will be some discussion about the biological defects caused by these unions.
Title: What's in a Name? Ask Mongolians

Anonymous said...

Actually, another main function of the incest taboo is to avoid introducing complications such as sexual jealousy, adultery, etc., into blood relations. If a "normal" relationship goes bad, it can be very easy to sever all ties between the two parties, but if the parties are blood relations, then such severance is not possible without major disruptions to the family structure. In that sense the incest taboo is a manifestation of risk aversion with respect to relationships.


Anonymous said...

I guess this question is for Tom Bell. Suppose you are the offspring of an incestuous relationship then are you entitled to compensation? For example, if you came out retarded can you sue (do you have to prove the incest was a direct cause)? What if you are more or less "normal," but feel stigmatized, can you sue for emotional distress? Suppose you feel normal but you are a carrier for something like hemophilia that can affect subsequent generations, then what? Do you have a duty to inform your mate that your parents were closely related? Can you provide (some of) the legal demensions to the incest issue? Btw, good going, Glen, to keep pushing our buttons! I expect a (semi-humorous?) paper from you on the economics of taboos any day now!!

-Planned Parenthood

Anonymous said...

If genetics is the primary consideration, then I'd agree with you. I would say that a larger issue is one of conflict of interest and the integrity of the family. If brother-brother and sister-sister relationships become subject to the same pressures as romantic relationships, the odds increase that such relationships will end in a catastrophic falling-out.
My libertarian streak still says let consenting adults manage their own bedroom business-- the "traditional family" is something of an illusory notion of stability anyway, especially once childhood is over.
As a matter of fact I'd favor this relationship over polygamist relationships, which are often marked by extreme male dominance.
Nonetheless, by "okay", I would go for "not criminal", rather than "state sanctioned, with tax breaks".

As for #2, if genetic engineering is that far advanced perhaps it could also give a good answer as to the likelihood of genetic defects in that offspring, which would hopefully tip the scales one way or another in answer to the question.

Steven Horwitz said...

Just a quick comment to agree with those emphasizing the social aspect of the incest taboo rather than the genetic one. Today, at least, we can handle the possibility of genetic problems, and I'm not even convinced it was that big a deal back in the day. The real problem today is the psychological role confusion that it creates. As family has taken on a strong psycho-emotional meaning in the industrial era, when it's been largely drained of its economic meaning, the sorts of relationships we have with siblings and parents are deeply emotional but very differently so than romantic ones. To the extent that sibling/parent relationships are important and meaningful even in adulthood, attempting to mix them with romantic ones can and often will create a deep social-psychological confusion.

This is not a reason to outlaw them, but it might explain why the taboo persists (and why thinking about it makes us feel so "icky"), even though the genetic issues are not the problem they've been made out to be.

Anonymous said...

The incest taboo appears to be at least partly instinctive. Research with wild chimps bears that out anyway. See:

Title: Female reproductive strategies, paternity and community structure in wild West African chimpanzees.
Authors: Gagneux, Pascal
Boesch, Christophe
Source: Animal Behaviour; Jan99, Vol. 57 Issue 1, p19, 13p, 4 charts, 1 graph

Abstract: Examines female reproductive strategies and paternity and community structure in wild West African chimpanzees. Variations of female mate choice; Finding that females actively seek mating partners outside their social unit; Permanent adolescent dispersal; Avoidance of incest with home group males and inbreeding; Male gene flow between communities.

Jason B.

Anonymous said...

On whether or not the offspring of incest are likely to have birth defects, I think it's pretty apparent that they are more likely to. If you've ever done any research on buying pure-bred dogs, I think you'd be pretty scared to have a child with someone any more closely related than, say, a cousin or second-cousin. Most breeds have a list of things that are common problems, and the more closely related the parents, the more of those problems the dogs have.