Family Vs. Community

From an old thoughtful post by TGGP, [quoting Steven Pinker]:

Every political and religious movement in history has sought to undermine the family. The reasons are obvious. Not only is the family a rival coalition competing for a person’s loyalties, but it is a rival with an unfair advantage: relatives innately care for one another more than comrades do. They bestow nepotistic benefits, forgive the daily frictions that strain other organizations, and stop at nothing to avenge wrongs against a member. Leninism, Nazism, and other totalitarian ideologies always demand a new loyalty “higher” than, and contrary to, family ties. So have religions from early Christianity to the Moonies […]

Successful religions and states eventually realize they have to coexist with families, but they do what they can to contain them, particularly the most threatening ones. The anthropologist Nancy Thornhill has found that the incest laws of most cultures are not created to deal with the problem of borther-sister marriages; brothers and sisters don’t want to marry to begin with. Although brother-sister incest may be included in the prohibition and may help to legitimize it, the real targets of the laws are marriages that threaten the interests of the lawmakers. The rules ban marriages among more distant relatives like cousins, and are promulgated by the rulers of stratified societies to prevent wealth and poewr from accumulating in families, which could be future rivals.

This fits with my interpretation of the World Values Survey as saying that the two main dimensions distinguishing cultural values today is (1) wealth and (2) “families and personal relations” versus “larger community health and threats.” I suggested:

The central Asia history of invasion after invasion is deeply ingrained in their culture, while island and geographically peripheral cultures were less obsessed by it. It is ironic that the cultures like Russia with values focused on competing against other communities lost the last big community conflict, the Cold War.  Have China, Korea, Japan, etc. learned their lesson about over-centralization, enough to win the next big conflict?

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  • Erik

    TGGP:s post is almost entirely a quote, in particular the section you quote. You should perhaps indicate so.

    • Yeah, when I was reading it, I was thinking, “Hm, this can’t be TGGP, this sounds like Pinker in How the Mind Works…” Turns out I was right.

  • Khoth

    The situation in medieval europe described in the link has an interesting conflict. The secular rulers did want to marry cousins, to keep power in the family, and it was the would-have-been-elites in the church trying to stop it. The mingling of church and many states made things quite weird though.

    It seems like the secular rulers won out in the end though – at least in the UK, it’s legal (but considered creepy) to marry your cousin. Interesting that turned out different in the US.

  • Matthew Kehrt

    @Khoth I went to write a post about how cousin marriage is legal in most of the US, but WP tells me that it is legal in only 20 states, and that it is unique in the “Western world” in making cousin marriage illegal. I (an American) am a little baffled by this. I was mostly unaware this taboo existed.

    See has some of the history of US attitudes on this; apparently, historically it was due to concerns about offspring, rather than moral concerns which had previously prohibited things like marrying one’s former wife’s sister.

  • Don’t know about this particular circumstance, but I think it’s fair in general to signal TGGP’s high level of influence over you and other academic bloggers (and high level of insightful criticism).

  • “Every political and religious movement in history has sought to undermine the family. ”

    By the way, this seems transparently untrue to me, it’s too absolutist a statement.

  • Indy

    I think the claim is exaggerated. A History of incest laws would probably invalidate it fairly quickly. And the first incest laws were almost certainly codifications of taboos, and not “legal cover” for attempts at social engineering and disruption of wealth concentration. What a typically modern and distorting lens in which to look at the past!

    And, if anything, excepting the ideologically-driven totalitarian states, the expansions of incest-categories in modern laws serve either merely to reflect evolving and expanding relative-sexual taboos, with specious claims about “new scientific evidence of the risk of genetic disease” being used as cover. The evidence from human history seems to indicate that the medical risks must be rare and slight.

    First cousin marriage was common throughout history in a wide-variety of societies with different cultures and religions. It is still widespread, especially in Muslim countries. If I recall correctly, genetic studies in Iraq and Pakistan reveal particularly intense familial intra-marriage.

    It is so widespread, in fact, that it is now an increasingly common legal inquiry to determine whether marriages carried out abroad, which would have been illegal under state incest laws, will nevertheless be recognized when these couples immigrate. So far, the answer seems to be a special-exception “yes” so long as the marriage is old enough and especially if there are children. On the other hand – there is no good consensus authority on what to do if an immigrant leaves the country to marry their cousin or half-sister and brings her back to the US.

  • This isn’t accurate. First cousin marriage isn’t illegal in much of the US for example. Moreover, some historic religions have been fine with first cousin marriages. Sephardi Jews for examples were often ok with them until this century.

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  • A few moths to a year ago, there was a post about the tension between community and family – the author pointed out that one of the reasons for the success of Western civilization in general, and the Anglosphere in particular, is a better than in most societies balancing between the competing demands. Unfortunately, I cannot remember who wrote it; I think it likely to have been Derbyshire or Steve Sailer, but I am not even sure of that much.

  • Douglas Knight

    Yes, family vs community is an important conflict, but I don’t think this passage sheds much light on it.

    “Religious movement” is an ambiguous term. I would guess that most religions contain ancestors as part of a continuum of gods; and are quite pro-family. Maybe this equilibrium evolves over centuries and “movements” temporarily upset it. I think it’s a lot more reasonable to compare “religious movements” to ideologies than to compare religions. But Pinker(?) is definitely talking about established religions, which means I think he’s confused in reading Mount. All of this seems way too focused on Christians.

  • Erik is correct. I am quoting from Steve Pinker’s “How the Mind Works”.

    Speaking of medieval taboos, did it strike anyone else as weird in Hamlet where the brother of the late-king marrying the queen was considered incestuous? That shouldn’t indicate any more relatedness than the original marriage, but apparently this was a real issue that Henry VIII used as justification for one of his divorces.

    Indy, I think you are overlooking the importance of how weak the genetic risks are. People previously used functionalist explanations of incest-taboos, but now we know they don’t quite fit. You are treating norms as a sort of independent exogenous variable, when we should be asking why particular norms arise.

    It is quite true that cousin-marriage is common in a number of Muslim countries (including Iraq). Samuel Huntington argued that Muslims tend to have U-shaped loyalties: strong identification with the clan or ummah, weak identification with the state. States in the Muslim world have a hard time obtaining the loyalty of their populace, and often rest (as in Iraq or Syria) on the clan of the ruler. Cosanguinity is highly anti-correlated with democracy across countries. Part of the problem with many Muslim countries is that not all cousin marriages are created equal and theirs tend to be parallel (father’s brother’s daughter marries said father’s son is the usual form) rather than cross-cousin.

    • The phrase you want is “inversely correlated”; “anti-correlated” means the same as “uncorrelated”.

      • My examples are correlated with authors named Zhang, but it seems to me anti-correlated is used (rightly or wrongly) the way TGGP used it: (you can read the abstracts of these papers online).

        Nature 450, E-E8 (15 November 2007) “Brief Communciation Arising” “Anti-correlation of summer/winter monsoons?”, De-er Zhang & Longhua Lu.

        Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 34, L12713,2007. “Anticorrelated multidecadal variations between surface and subsurface tropical North Atlantic”, Rong Zhang.

  • Khoth

    For brother-sister incest the medical risks are significant, and that form of incest is pretty universally condemned.

    For cousins, the risks are much lower, and it seems like it is allowed by many (most?) cultures. Rather than ask “Why is cousin marriage not allowed where it’s forbidden?”, it’s probably better to ask “Why is cousin marriage not allowed in culture X at time period Y?” For the USA, the wikipedia article Matthew posted upthread does imply that it was from (perhaps misguided) concerns about health.

  • i’m sort of wondering how the humans in the stone age would have approached incest–i know there was a study of children who were nonrelated but raised as if they were family, i think in a kibbutz, and they tended to see the kids they were raised with who were non-relatives as like brothers and sisters, and didn’t want to mate with them. i wonder if the stone age groups were anything like this–you would maybe be raised in close knit quarters with people who maybe were likely to be relatives like uncles and cousins as well as brothers, and i think i’ve read tribal childcare tended towards the communal, so you might expect people from a group to look towards other groups to find mates if they see those they were raised with as unattractive–i suppose tendency could be good or bad for your native groups power, i suppose, if the marriages focused outward favored expanding political power to your group–my brother and my male cousins maybe marry and become high ranking types in other tribes, or it could be bad in the sense the women might introduce dominating males from other groups into your group. i suppose as a check against entrenched power, it might be a good mechanism that people not to want to mate with people they were raised in close quarters with, since it seems to invite novelty into power-structures. not sure if i have the picture right, of course, but thought i’d throw it out there.

  • Leicht

    ” Every political and religious movement in history has sought to undermine the family”

    And the most powerful & successful engine of that movement has been compulsory government (‘public’) schooling.

    Even in free and enlightened 21st Century America, 95%+ of the population is ripped away from the family in their most formative years for establishment-directed “education” (indoctrination).

    The history of the drive for public schooling and compulsory attendance in this and other countries clearly shows a deliberate scheme to coerce the mass of the population into a mold desired by the “Establishment”. Recalcitrant minorities were to be forced away from family & ethnic cultures into a majority mold; all citizens were to be inculcated in the civic virtues, notably and always including obedience to the ruling national institutions, including the dominant religion.

    From the start of American history, the desire to mold, instruct, and render obedient the mass of the population was the major impetus behind the drive toward public schooling. In colonial days, public schooling was used as a device to suppress religious dissent, as well as imbue virtues of obedience to the ruling government.

    One of the most common uses of compulsory public schooling was/is to oppress national ethnic and linguistic minorities or colonized peoples—to force them to abandon their own language and culture on behalf of the language and culture of the ruling groups. The English in Ireland and Quebec, and nations throughout Central and Eastern Europe and in Asia—all dragooned their national minorities into the public schools run by their masters.

    Public schools are inherently anti-family, by design.

    • Tracy W

      What evidence do you have that public schooling has been successful in reaching the ends you describe?
      Over the 20th century we have seen many social changes that would have horrified many of the Establishment at the start of the 20th century. For example, the Civil Rights Movement, leading eventually in a black guy being elected President of the USA, the second wave of feminism, resulting in women being elected leaders of countries as diverse as the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and India, the gay movement, leading to homosexuality being legalised and the current battle over same-sex marriage, or the neoliberal revolution deregulating markets and questionining Keyneisan orthodoxy. If public schools were intended to incalculate citizens in obedience then they’ve been rather massive failures at it.

      In Colonial times, well the Americans revolted against the British, so they don’t appear to have been particularly inoculated by obedience then. And funnily enough, the US is typically more religious than other Western countries, despite most other Western countries teaching Christainity in schools while it’s forbidden in the USA (arguably, because religions in the USA don’t have government support, they have to be on their toes more in keeping people faithful).

      Please note I don’t dispute what the aims were of public schools, I just dispute your claim about what public schools actually do achieve.

  • quanticle

    The central Asia history of invasion after invasion is deeply ingrained in their culture, while island and geographically peripheral cultures were less obsessed by it.[snip]

    Have China, Korea, Japan, etc. learned their lesson about over-centralization, enough to win the next big conflict?

    I see a couple of issues with this statement. First, isn’t Japan an island nation? Yet Japan has as much, if not more, of a group focus than China or Korea, despite almost never having its core territory invaded. Yet Japanese society is almost as centralized as Chinese society, even though China has been invaded many more times than Japan has. Sure, Japanese culture has opened up recently. However, I’d argue that’s because of increased trade with the West (particularly America), not because of any innate force originating from inside Japan.

    Second, I don’t see the future conflict as being East Asia vs. N. America + Europe. I see the future conflict as being Asia vs. Africa. North America and Europe just don’t have the resources for sustained war (especially modern mechanized warfare, which is especially resource and manpower hungry). Asia and Africa, on the other hand, have the requisite resources, manpower, and authoritarian governments to wage large scale offensive war. The only thing missing is industrialization, and Asia is rapidly catching up in this regard.

  • It is not clear that Nancy Thornhill has a valid point – but “Royal Incest” does appear to be a real phenomenon.

  • I should have mentioned before that I agree Pinker is being too absolute. Not that I know of strong counter-examples, but I don’t think he knows there are none either.

    Wiktionary defines anticorrelated to mean “negatively correlated”, which I think is the better phrase to use, forming a symmetry with “positively correlated”.

    Mike Kenny, you are referring to the Westermarck effect, which Pinker also discusses. Your point about exogamy has been used as an explanation for why humans & whales have menopause.

    Leicht, that was fairly explicitly the reason for mandatory public education in America (based on the Prussian model). You may also be surprised to know that the Ku Klux Klan was a major booster of it, along with the separation of church & state, for nativist reasons.

    Good point about Japan, quanticle.

    My impression was that royal incest was mostly between cousins. It also appears that the Westphalian model of related royalty had previously appeared in bronze age mesopotamia.