Doing What Comes...Culturally

by Dan Laskin

Quickie reading list

To get a feel for how anthropology can inspire, enrich, excite, and provoke, Suggs recommends the following: More...

Suggs Stats


Lingo (and more)

Lingo: Kulturbrille
The term means, literally, “cultural glasses,” and refers to the lenses through which each of us perceives the world from within the standpoint of our particular culture. It was coined by Franz Boas, the German-born social theorist who is considered the father of American cultural anthropology. If you recoil at the idea of eating, say, wriggling bee larvae, it’s because you’re wearing your Kulturbrille.

Star Wars: the Polynesian connection
Hawaiian royals married within the family—an incest-taboo variation of sorts—to consolidate their mana. The Pacific-islander term refers to a kind of power residing in things as well as people. Before scoffing, consider the modern allure of Yoda, Luke Skywalker, and Darth Vader, who summon “the force.” The word taboo, incidentally, comes from the Polynesian tabu, meaning something that should be avoided or is forbidden. Supposedly, Captain Cook brought the word back to Europe.

Scripture interruptus
Remember Onan, who was told to marry and conceive children with his brother’s widow (Genesis 38:8-10) but instead “spilled his seed on the ground” and was killed by the Lord as a result? Moralizers invoke the story to warn against the sin of self-abuse. But an anthropologist will tell you that Onan might have merely been reluctant to sire a child who, by the rules of a patrilineal system, would belong not to him but to his dead brother’s line, and who would inherit goods and rights accordingly. “Those of you who are religious should rethink some of those Old Testament stories, where you should now find new insights,” Suggs tells his students. “These are lineal-descent societies.”

Lingo: unilineal evolution
This theory posits that history has proceeded according to a necessary, inevitable progress culminating in “advanced” Western culture. Contemporary anthropologists reject the notion. “There’s limitless potential for development,” says Suggs. “The way Western Europe developed need not be the pattern for the rest of the world. Human culture is multi-lineal.”

Kissing (and non) cousins
A parallel cousin is the child of your father’s brother or your mother’s sister. A cross cousin is the child of your mother’s brother or your father’s sister. In some cultures, sex with parallel cousins falls under the incest taboo, because those cousins are in the same descent group, whereas sex with cross cousins is desirable.


It’s a sun-dappled, late-semester morning in cultural anthropology, and Dave Suggs’s students have been getting
used to the notion that you can have, say, eight fathers and eight mothers—in societies, that is, with a patrilineal-descent system. Over the past few classes, kinship diagrams have increased and multiplied on the Bailey House blackboard, as Suggs in his soft Texas twang has compared the sprawling genealogical ties common for most of humanity to our “little bitty” nuclear families.

The amiable twang makes Suggs sound like a reassuring airplane pilot, which is a good thing, because he is always flying his students directly into cognitive turbulence. His discussion of kinship, for example, included the point that in food-producing cultures, monogamy isn’t always the ideal form of marriage, in part because women and children have value as labor. And that brought the class to “bridewealth”—the token given by a new groom’s family to the bride’s, in recognition of the woman’s reproductive potential and labor value, both of which now belong to the man’s lineage.

So what’s next?

Two full classes on the incest taboo, the forbidding of sex with close relatives like mom, dad, brother, sister, or. . . . But wait. Two classes? Isn’t this something, well, marginal, not to mention obvious?

It turns out that anthropologists have written more about the incest taboo than about almost any other topic. That’s partly because the study of other cultures invariably involves understanding kinship rules, the intimate relationships that structure society, creating obligations and constraints, norms of do and don’t. And in every culture, incest is a heavy-duty don’t.

But it’s also because the field has had trouble accounting for the universality of the incest taboo. As Suggs takes the students on a tour of the major theories, their initial assumption—that it’s all a question of evolution, diversifying the gene pool, and avoiding malformed babies—falls by the wayside. Indeed, they’ve already learned about societies in which some biological first cousins are absolutely off-limits as mates while others are considered highly desirable matches, even though the pairings would be genetically indistinguishable.

There are some fascinating detours on this journey. Looking at Edward Westermark’s “aversion theory”—the idea that something inherent in human family structure makes us view incest with instinctive revulsion—Suggs notes research on Israeli kibbutzim, in which children from different families who were raised communally from an early age rarely chose to marry one another. Who knew that the kibbutz might be a natural laboratory for studying the incest taboo?

He ends with Claude Lévi-Strauss’s influential “alliance theory,” which introduces one of the odder terms of the semester—“circulating connubium”—by way of explaining how networks of foraging bands in Australia created and maintained alliances by sequentially marrying into other bands in the region. The lesson, presumably rooted in humanity’s social psyche: “Marry out or die out.”

Suggs raises doubts about all the theories. But the larger point he wants to make is that, for humankind, “biology is not destiny.” Even if “we come to culture avoiding incest”—biologically predisposed, like other species, to mate outside the close family—it’s culture that determines how the taboo works (whom we can marry, whom we can’t) and explains its universality. “The logic of the taboo is a cultural logic.”

The incest taboo, then, is a powerful example of anthropology’s stance as a discipline—the character of its insights. “It’s incredibly difficult,” says Suggs, “to get students to see the extent to which it is their nature to be cultured. What they call ‘natural’ is what we’ve culturally constructed to be called natural.”

We are creatures, yes—but creatures of culture. And that is why we won’t go to bed with any of our eight moms.

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