The Purpose of Taboo

So I get Will's point about the importance of taboos for reinforcing family solidarity; cultures without these taboos could not survive. And although Tim Lee may be on to something extending this idea to the conservative demonization of homosexuals, I can't quite see what purpose such a taboo may have served in the past. Was the worry that if too many men were attracted to other men instead of women, society wouldn't perpetuate itself? But surely no general taboo against homosexuality would be needed to sustain a society, would it? I mean, unless men are just naturally more attracted to other men than to women - which doesn't seem to be the case for any species, including humans - what is the worry? Maybe the marginal male would choose to not reproduce, thereby reducing the size of future generations? For small enough communities in fierce competition with each other, could this be enough to create the need for such a taboo?

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Wouldn't such societies need

Wouldn't such societies need only a taboo on exclusively homosexual relationships? If reproduction is the only goal, then it would be far more efficient to put a taboo on childlessness rather than on homosexuality.

The problem with that line

The problem with that line of thinking is that I can't see an ancient historical analog to having a "gay person" to hate. We associate a certain kind of flamboyant effeminacy with homosexuality now, but absent behavioral cues its not like (ala skin color difference, or facial morphology) that you can tell a gay member of your group vs. a hetero member. (no pun intended)

First you would have to explain how sexual orientation became "identity", which I'm not optimistic that anyone can do given what we know of ancient history. There was homosexual behavior but not identity.

Granted that Patri's point about the innate human tribalism that causes enmity towards "the Other" is true, I can't see a homosexuality taboo being biological. Though it pains me to say so, I'd say that it is more... urk... socially constructed than innate.

Looking too hard for reason

Looking too hard for reason in mass human behavior is a mistake. It's entirely possible that certain behaviors are perpetuated simply because removing them requires painful self-examination. People aren't very good at admitting they were wrong, and will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid acknowledging that they were wrong. More so when they were obviously and clearly wrong -- that requires acknowledging that they were stupid as well.

That's how a lot of scams function, after all. People don't want to admit to themselves that they were duped, so they convince themselves to continue supporting the scam.

The purpose of the taboo was

The purpose of the taboo was to separate the monotheist Abrahamic religions from the polytheist religions of the Roman Empire and the Levant. Even as polytheist religions were supplanted, the rule remained and was generalised.

- Josh

I think the taboo is more

I think the taboo is more against asking difficult questions about society's moral norms than about homosexuality per se. Look at the liberal taboo Pinker is talking about: you can't suggest that men and women might not have identical abilities. It has to do with societal cohesion and a commitment to values (here, of equality) more so than with the merits of any particular line of inquiry.

Joe, Childlessness hasn't

Childlessness hasn't been a possible outcome for long enough to generate a taboo. Before the 1900's there was no way beyond the "rhythm method" to avoid having a child if you didn't want one. Thus, people choosing childlessness would have to be completely abstinate, and the world knows how easy that one is...
Even now, you are starting to see some people get upset at those women who choose to be childless. Typically this is also the case because they tend to be the educated, career women who some would argue would help the species by reproducing. It's certainly not a taboo, but it is a hard thing for the childless-by-choice folks to deal with.

Brad, Actually, before the


Actually, before the 1900s there was a second way to ensure childlessness; practice homosexual sex exclusively. But in the situation that Micha described (and the one to which my comment was specifically directed) the problem at hand is failure to repopulate, or, in other words, having people who failed to at least replace themselves.

A society that advocates exclusive homosexuality for everyone will obviously have survivability problems (until technology catches up, perhaps.) But any society could approve of homosexuality or even endorse it as the highest good as long as it also incorporated a taboo on remaining childless. People would simply have to occasionally have sex with people of the opposite gender.

The 20th century conception

The 20th century conception of the "straight/gay" orientation dichotomy may be obscuring things a bit.

Speaking of classical Greece as an example, sexuality was rather fluid. SOcietally speaking there was homosexual and heterosexual *behavior* and only after a fact general inclinations (more or less likely to engage in one or the other).

So its not a case where people back in the day thought "oh, gay people. We need to get rid of them, icky," because 'gay people' in the 20th century understanding of the term didn't precisely exist (I'm sure there were people whose orientation would be primarily homosexual back in the day, but still nothign socially like the constructed sense of orientation/type these days).

Speculating further, *if* you assume that a primary orientation to homosexuality among individuals yields a greater overall "effeminacy" to those individuals, and then *if* you further presume that such 'defectors' from masculine gender roles might undermine male social control of women (by blurring the distinctions) then I suppose that a taboo against it would, ala Will's point of identity & cooperation signalling, help maintain the power relation. But, as with most sociological rumination, it's a 'just so' story at heart.

I'm sure you could spin a lot of other things looking at it from a social/institutional perspective (even, though I find it intellectually distasteful, from a feminist gender power-relations POV, as I mentioned above), rather than from a EvoPsych POV.

"Was the worry that if too

"Was the worry that if too many men were attracted to other men instead of women, society wouldn’t perpetuate itself? But surely no general taboo against homosexuality would be needed to sustain a society, would it?"

The problem with this reasoning is that it looks at things from the viewpoint of "society", which, as Margaret Thatcher once informed us, is nothing but a fiction. Look at the problem from the viewpoint of individuals trying to maximize their reproductive fitness and it clears itself up: a son who grows up to practice exclusive homosexuality is a total writeoff as far as his parents' genes are concerned, ergo the taboo.

Joe, I do believe there were


I do believe there were 'taboos' against that sort of thing in general through western society (remaining childless, or rather being a man that either marries and is childless or doesn't marry), though it's probably better understood as strong social norms against extended bachelorhood. As always, the more powerful you were the easier it was to transgress these social norms (or come up with public rationales as to why not). There were, of course, similar norms for women (different pressure & expectations, but an anti-childlessness norm nonetheless).

The "occasionally have sex with the other gender" sense of a *duty* to reproduce seems close to the Spartan experience and other Greek city-state/cultures where homosexual activity was far more accepted & prevalent (despite Greece being, relatively speaking, a hyper-sexist male dominated culture relative to its neighbors; or perhaps BECAUSE of its hyper-sexist orientation).

Abiola, As I was hinting


As I was hinting above, if the taboo was only aimed at exclusive homosexuals, it would seem a great social cost for a rather small proportion of the population- 3% at best, and that's in our modern state of huge population. Variance would tend to make, in some societies, the occurrence of exclusive homosexuality a strange outlier, not prevalent enough to warrant (a) a taboo and (b) continued & stringent application of the taboo.

Now, if the problem is too *much* homosexual activity (as opposed to exclusive homosexuality) in a milieu where heterosex is practiced by the individual as well, then a general taboo vs. homosexual activity may shift behavior towards heterosexuality on the margin, which I think would be a greater fitness advantage than simply snuffing out exclusive homosexuals.

Isn’t this phenomenon more

Isn’t this phenomenon more phobia than taboo? It seems to be a visceral response on the part of homophobes that is not unlike inter-racial phobias. White guys hate seeing white women with black men yet I haven’t noticed that white people are an endangered species.
Modern masculinity has lost its standards and so depends on phobia to define itself, in other words, it is what it is not.

That could be the case,

That could be the case, Marshall, but that just raises another question: is there a reason this phobia came to be so widespread? Is this phobia just a modern phenomenon, or, more likely, has it been around for hundreds if not thousands of years? I'm just wondering if there is some sort of biological or cultural evolutionary explanation.

Marshall, Yes, but where


Yes, but where would such a phobia come from? That would require an EvoPsych 'just so' story vs. a sociological one. A biological one, I don't know. As a counter anecdote, I don't have a phobia vs. gay men, but I'm also fairly secure in my heterosexuality. :)

I'm not so sure that the phobia, such as it is or may be, is necessarily biologically generated.

Hah! Jinx.

Hah! Jinx.

Let’s call it ego panic,

Let’s call it ego panic, which has a nice feel, not such a put down. Existentialism set modern man adrift, he can’t get his legs under him, needs to lean on all kinds of crap so he doesn’t end up facing his paradoxical nature directly. Knowing is so much more secure than wondering, more powerful too, just ask Bush.

I somewhat agree with

I somewhat agree with Marshall here. We have deep biases towards tribal behavior - acting very differently to those in "our group" and out of "our group". Perhaps anti-homosexual attitudes are simply an application of "hate those who are different". The question remains of why homosexuality is such a salient difference (overriding identical race, locality, etc.) But I think you need only explain why its a salient difference, not why we then hate those who are differrent, since we already know that humans like to hate those who are different.

True. I wonder if we can

True. I wonder if we can come up with an analogy that is similar enough in its deviation to homosexuality but does not receive the same level of demonization. Anal sex with women? That might not have been all that common hundreds of years ago. (But maybe harder to catch than homosexuality.) Strange dietary choices? Though that is limited by the local environment. Praying to the wrong gods? That's definitely a no-no and grounds for demonization. Left-handedness?

Well, you don't need

Well, you don't need homosexual identity to hate homosexuals. At the time the Old Testament was written, I doubt there were any gay parades, but there was certainly gay demonization.

But that's just it- the

But that's just it- the *acts* were demonized ("it is abomination"), which is quite another thing from modern demonizationof *gays* (individuals), ala Hoppe.

Why are the acts demonized absent a coherent identity to hang them on? I can understand hating an identity, but I feel a more robust theorem is needed to explain pre-identity phobia & taboo, though it could be evopsyche from a different angle.

If I had to guess, it would revolve around trying to minimize a common (and counterproductive) phenomenon, as well as signal for community, inclusion, etc; a whole host of 'positive' social benefits could come from one single "thou shalt not" prohibition on the counterproductive activity (remembering of course that counterproductive is relative and subjective).

My primary point, though, is that it is rather anachronistic to refer to "homosexuals" of 4000 years ago. They simply did not exist as either a class or identity then.

I'm not so sure most people

I'm not so sure most people are very good at distinguishing people from the acts they do, especially not before Christians popularized the "love the sinner, hate the sin" doctrine. And even now Christians don't seem particular good at practicing what they preach.