Oyama taboo ontogeny

On the subject of taboos, Susan Oyama has a discussion of taboo in The Ontogeny of Information.

The topic is canalization, and Oyama discusses the ideas of Harold Fishbein, in his book, Evolution, Development and Children's Learning. Fishbein discusses behavior as more or less genetically determined, invoking canalization as a mechanism leading to more rigid genetic control over behavior. Oyama points out that this is a backward reading of Waddington, whose concept of canalization was not about genetic control but instead more closely similar to developmental robusticity.

At length, Oyama comes to Fishbein's discussion of incest avoidance, in which he argues that the lack of mother-son incest in many primates is a biological reason why Freud was wrong about the development of the incest taboo in human societies.

Since [Fishbein] equates incest taboos, which sould seem a peculiarly human phenomenon involving certain types of forbidden conduct, with a simple absence or infrequency of behavior in other primates, one wonders why he seems to find the chimpanzee and macaque data more damning to Freud's ideas than the human pattern itself. That is, if relative frequency of various kinds of matings is given equivalent motivational significance in all the species under consideration, then infrequent mother-son copulation in humans surely counts against Freud at least as much as infrequent mother-son copulation in chimps... (Oyama 2000:112-113).

I would suggest that the point of the primate comparison is that the frequency of the behavior in humans alone is insufficient to falsify Freud's idea that the mother-son attraction is an aspect of human nature, which human societies suppress. If presumably non-taboo-bearing hominoids also lack mother-son mating, then the idea that such a desire is part of human nature would seem false on phylogenetic grounds.

But I included the first part as context for the next paragraph, which I think is fairly important:

The problem, of course, comes from impoverishing the concept of taboo, which has to do not with frequency of events per se but with their meaning. But this is precisely the kind of impoverishment that is necessary to this kind of "biological" reasoning. There is a persistent playing with levels of analysis in such treatments. Distinctions between the level of individual motivation and that of institutions or customs are ignored as the social, the cultural, and ultimately the psychological are collapsed to the biological. At the same time, a new level is created -- a phantom plane of genetic reality, which is not observed as such but deduced (or assumed). From this perspective, the observation of living, breathing animal-machines is of value only insofar as it gives access to the ghostly forms and causal agencies within them (Oyama 2000:113).

It seems to me that the real problem is identifying appropriate units of reductionism for cultural entities and behaviors. For the most part, biologists, psychologists, and anthropologists are all alike in treating "culture" as a single level phenomenon interpolated between "human biology" (or "human nature") and human behavior.

This leads to two interpretive approaches. In one, anything that is manifested in behavior that is not easily explicable in terms of genetic adaptation is consigned to "culture". In this perspective, culture is the inexplicable residue of biological evolution. Moreover, it is viewed as coming complete with its own evolutionary system -- a full epicycle upon the biological evolution that governs everything else. In this interpretation, culture is a bit like "consciousness" -- humans may be adapted to it, but we have a lot of trouble saying just what "it" is or how that adaptation has come about. But its essence is informational: culture is a layer of information that comes between genes and behavior.

The other approach holds that culture just is behavior. To be sure, not every behavior qualifies; the behavior has to be patterned among individuals in certain ways to be "cultural". But it exists just to the extent that individuals can perceive and act on patterns in behavior. The individual's role in culture is purely reactive in this view: individuals behave in cultural ways because their environment is patterned in cultural ways, not because they necessarily have special genetic adaptations to culture. We might term this a "constructivist" view, in that the individual's behavior is constructed by cultural patterns, rather than being merely conditioned on cultural information. Culture is a single layer in this view also -- a layer of environment that individuals perceive and act within.

Both these accounts of culture are essentially similar. They differ as to the locus of culture -- does it exist within individuals or societies? But they agree about the structure of culture -- it exists as a "complex whole". Thus, they do not lend themselves easily to reductionism, explaining in part why holistic interpretation is applied so broadly within cultural analysis.

It is within this context that the "meaning" of taboos has such importance. The "meaning" implies certain obligations on the part of individuals who detect violation of taboos. It implicates those individuals in enforcement not only because the taboo behavior is amoral, but because the taboo explicitly links morality to other kinds of undesirable or repugnant natural and supernatural consequences. Explaining a taboo against incest avoidance is at a different level than explaining incest avoidance itself.

The problem is that taboos and other cultural phenomena are themselves generally confined to a single "phantom plane" of explanation. Cultural phenomena and entities must exist insofar as they clearly shape behavior. We generally recognize that they have complex histories that may themselves be intrinsically interesting. But their role in shaping the development of individual behaviors is formless -- individuals either pass through a "cultural filter" or they take in "cultural information", but in either case all of culture is drunk from the same well.


Oyama S. 2000. The Ontogeny of Information. Second edition. Duke University Press, Durham NC. Amazon