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Rethinking Incest Avoidance: Beyond the Disciplinary Groove of Culture-First Views


The Westermarck Effect posits that intimate association during childhood promotes human incest avoidance. In previous work, I articulated and defended a version of the Westermarck Effect by developing a phylogenetic argument that has purchase within primatology but that has had more limited appeal for cultural anthropologists due to their commitment to conventionalist or culture-first accounts of incest avoidance. Here I look to advance the discussion of incest and incest avoidance beyond culture-first accounts in two ways. First, I shall dig deeper into the disciplinary grooves within cultural anthropology that make attractive the view that incest has a naturalness to it that is countered only or primarily by explicit social rules, such as taboos. Second, I further explore the emerging, post-conventionalist view of incest avoidance in a more positive vein by elaborating on the nature of the Westermarckian mechanism and how it relates to such explicit social rules and our innate biological endowments. One general aim here is to overcome the bifurcation between perspectives that are seen as biological and those seen as cultural, preempting or countering the claim that rejecting culture-first accounts entails a form of biological reductionism, a general aim I have pursued in related publications on bioessentialism about kinship.

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Correspondence to Robert A. Wilson.

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Wilson, R.A. Rethinking Incest Avoidance: Beyond the Disciplinary Groove of Culture-First Views. Biol Theory (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13752-019-00338-2

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  • Clinical reality of incest
  • Incest avoidance
  • Innate rules
  • Kinship
  • Nativism
  • Phylogenetic argument
  • Primatology
  • Westermarck Effect