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(This proposal was later withdrawn by the committee, in spite of their own feelings on the issue, due to a large public outcry, which was mostly based on the misunderstanding that the committee was intending to legalize sexual relations between parents and their minor children, which it did not.)

I know nothing about this issue, but it seems it's probably presumptuous to pretend to be able to guess who understood or misunderstood what--short of actual surveys. (Maybe such surveys were done, though, and the author knows this.) It's also presumptuous, probably, to assume that the public outcry was due to this alleged misunderstanding. Or am I wrong? I.e., is there good, specific evidence for these things, or are they instead partisan claims? --LMS

Well, the committee insists they were misunderstood, and they can even quote several submissions made to them which show clearly that a lot of people responding to the committee's discussion paper misunderstood what the committee's position was. See the committee's final report on sexual offences. -- SJK

"Public outcry" often conveys meaningful messages. If the yellow press would scream "children in danger" while the proposal only affected adults, there's not much room for interpretation. But I was not there ... --Robbe

The claims are absolutely spot on and could be verified by anyone willing to dig up enough old Australian newspapers. I can't see that they are relevent enough in the bigger picture to be worth mentioning in a general article on incest though.

No, probably not that relevant, but it is an interesting tidbit of information nonetheless. More importantly, it shows that while some people are willing to seriously question our societies taboos (or more accurately, the legal enforcement of those taboos), such questioning tends to produce a very vocal response in opposition. There may be more examples of this than the Standing Committee of Australian Attorneys-General Model Criminal Code Law Officers Committee, which isn't very important in the grand scheme of things -- its just the only one I am aware of. -- SJK

I think there might be a wider meaning of incest than that given. Does anyone know how sociologists or anthropologists define it? The actual rules for how close is too close have varied and still do vary a lot from society to society. In some cases it applies only to blood relations, but often relatives by marriage or adoption also count.

In some societies that are ordered with clans as subdivisions of the tribe, any sex within the clan is considered incest no matter if there is any known blood relationship or not. In some matriachal societies all men must move to another clan to marry. Maybe there are some patriachal societies where the women must move to marry, i'm not sure.

Even within modern western society, their is disagreement of local laws over whether first cousins count as incest. (Christian churches usually now consider first cousins to be incest in line with Old Testament law, whatever the local law says. But this has varied in the past.)


Some biologist should add some numerical information about likelihood of birth defects after incest, say between brother and sister. Also some general information about why mixing is good would be useful. --AxelBoldt


At the level of brother and sister the probability of birth defects goes up noticeably, but not enormously if the gene pool is fairly healthy. Maybe it almost doubles. Some of the more common birth defects (hare lip etc) are probably not due to genetic causes. For first cousins, the increase is down in the noise. Inbreeding can have advantages (ask any plant or animal breeder), but breeding individuals who are not closely related also has advantages (again ask any plant or animal breeder). The best way to get a healthy population seems to involve a mixture of both.

As to why, that is a very complicated thing that is not quite fully understood yet. It would take a very knowlegeble geneticist writing a very long article to explain even what we now know.

I am not sure how this relates to incest for humans. A lot of people would not want to think about humans in these kind of terms, of deliberately breeding to improve the species. Also incest is not quite the same as inbreeding, since in most juristicions it includes various relationships without close blood relationship, and it also includes sexual relationships that do not produce children.


True, but that's just a result of confusion by priests and jurists. It's clear that the incest taboo is there because of genetic reasons.

In Germany for instance, it is legal for a sister to have oral sex with her brother, but penetration is illegal. That makes eminent sense. But the article should explain why.


Is it really clear that the taboo is for genetic reasons? The fact that most traditional versions of it are not very precise in preventing genetic trouble, should be a hint that other reasons should be considered. The genetic reasoning may well be a modern rationalisation for an old custom. It is unlikely that the ancients in the cultures where the taboo existed did the detailed and careful statistical analysis needed to show that inbreeding can increase short term genetic risk. They certainly did not have the theory needed to understand why.

For the definition of incest found in some tribes, that no sex inside the clan is allowed, there is a much more obvious explanation. It is to improve the unity of the tribe by forcing the clans to remain friendly. For other versions of the taboo it is hard for me to imagine any rational reason based on evidence available to the people who first invented it.


i haven't read anything on this in a while, but my impression is that property had lots to do with it. For example, I seem to remember that in Classical Athens, an uncle could marry a neice if she were the sole heir to her father, in order to keep the property in the family. On the otherhand, I'm pretty sure that Post-Christian Rome had a 7 degree limit, which was also held as the standard for the Franks, although they tended to look at the degrees slightly differently. Of course, this doesn't work if you look at the marriage of Louis the Pious and his son to two Welf sisters, so that Charles the Bald's maternal aunt was also his sister-in-law... Off to hunt in Herlihy and Wemple -- I think that's where I read this stuff...JHK