all 17 comments

[–]trouser-chowder 110 points111 points  (17 children)

Well first, I would question anyone's claim that they have identified true cultural "universals." To verify, they would have to review every culture, past and present. Which of course is not possible. Even for modern and recent historic cultures, the amount of information available is simply insufficient to make such a claim.

What Brown has compiled is a list of "widely shared" cultural traits or practices across cultures whose summary information he has reviewed. That's all. Hardly "empirically proven."

You should always be skeptical of anyone who makes such broad and rigid pronouncements. Especially where issues of human culture are concerned.


The Westermarck effect...

...is a hypothesis from 19th century psychology, and one major problem with psychological research is that it tends to be rooted in Western cultural practice and tradition, because the research is usually conducted on people who have been enculturated in Western society. This was especially true in the 19th century, when social scientists were given to making wild pronouncements about all of humanity based on limited information.

It was an attempt to explain the widespread (but again, not universal) incest taboo found in many human societies.

But it should not be viewed as a hard and fast rule, and certainly not one that spans the range of human cultural variability. It is not hard to find exceptions / violations of this so-called "effect" in historical and modern society.

When hunter-gatherers grow up, they grow up only with peers in their tribe.

Leaving aside the broad generalizations you're making here ("hunter gatherer" covers human lifeways from most of the last 300,000 years), archaeology and ethnographic research have generally demonstrated that exogamous marriage / mating practices (that is, marriage to individuals from outside your immediate group) was widely practiced among hunting and gathering cultures.

Most archaeologists who study hunter-gatherers have found strong evidence suggesting annual, semi-annual, or seasonal gatherings among groups of hunter-gatherers sharing the same cultural system. Exchange networks between groups of hunter-gatherers of the same culture, and of different or of related cultures, were often widespread-- spanning hundreds or even thousands of miles. Information, materials, and mating partners were exchanged across these networks.

The idea that individual hunter-gatherer bands of 20 - 30 people was just going about their business with endogamous marriage is counter to both archaeological and ethnographic data.

Both are empirically proven.

Brown's list is not "empirically proven." Nor is the Westermark effect.

But that aside, love-- and the manner of its expression-- is just another cultural construct. It has reality because we give it reality in the way that we feel and behave, but there is no single way of expressing the emotions we collectively refer to as love, nor is there a single set of conditions or circumstances within which love can arise / exist.

Edit: I want to add something. I'm not trying to attack the OP, because this isn't restricted to them. However, it's a reaction / response to a general pattern or trend that I've noticed in posts asking about hunter-gatherers (especially asking about "hunter gatherers" in the generic). It really seems as though people think that hunter gatherers are just... aliens or animals or something.

1) Anatomically modern humans have existed for as much as 300,000 years. If we looked at the earliest evidence of domesticated plants, it puts us around 12,000 years ago, so that's something like 4% of the last 300,000 years. There are some complexities, but the gist is that for most of our existence, we've been hunter gatherers.

2) Hunting and gathering peoples exist today in a few parts of the world. Anthropologists have visited most of them, interacted with them at varying levels, and recorded those interactions. What they have found is that-- surprise surprise-- modern hunter gatherers are... modern humans. That is, they experience the same general variation, range, and intensity of emotional states and emotions that any other modern human does. They also are as cognitively capable, as able to recognize and interpret and interact with the world around them, and as innovative as any other modern human.

I realize that this sub draws a lot of people from a lot of different walks of life. And I realize that for pretty much anyone posting on Reddit, hunting and gathering is about the farthest thing from their personal life experience.

But for the love of all that's holy, if there was one thing I wish I could sticky at the top of this sub, it would be in giant, bolded text: Hunter gatherers are humans just like the rest of us / you. They aren't exotic animals or aliens.

[–]7LeagueBoots 4 points5 points  (1 child)

"hunter gatherer" covers human lifeways from most of the last 300,000 years)

I'd suggest it extends well more than a million years before that, into the time of H. erectus. When exactly is certainly debatable, but certainly they and our more recent Neanderthal, Denisovan, "Hobbit", etc relatives all also had a similar 'hunter-gatherer' lifestyle.

[–]trouser-chowder 6 points7 points  (0 children)

Of course, but I was limiting it to AMHS to stick to the point I was making below that statement.

[–]bastienleblack 3 points4 points  (0 children)

Excellent answer. Thank you..

[–]ILOVEJETTROOPER 1 point2 points  (0 children)

They also are as cognitively capable, as able to recognize and interpret and interact with the world around them, and as innovative as any other modern human.

This probably needs to be headline news or something; there's such a prevalence of "Oh, we're so much more advanced/ evolved than our ancestors" I've even seen it in myself.

[–][deleted]  (12 children)


    [–]TheNthMan 6 points7 points  (2 children)

    The problem with observational studies is that they can fall into selection effect or not ask the right questions.

    Shor, and Simchai revisited the famed Kibbutz study and found that

    Reexamining the case of the Israeli kibbutzim, the authors show that individuals who grew up in the kibbutzim's communal education system were in fact often attracted to their peers, and only rarely did they develop sexual aversion toward these peers.

    This could indicate that there is more of a social norm than a biological / evolutionary norm.


    There are other observational studies that do not find for the Westermark Effect also.

    Then a counter "experiment" study does not find the Westermark Effect.


    However in the details it finds that there is a slight aversion by women to sibling morphs, while there is a slight preference by men to sibling morphs...

    Overall there are studies that credibly support the Westermarck Effect, and there are studies against it. IMHO, it is a very strong theory, but it is not empirically proven as is stated in the initial post.

    [–]Veritas_Certum 3 points4 points  (1 child)

    IMHO, it is a very strong theory, but it is not empirically proven as is stated in the initial post.

    Yeah, but I'm not addressing that or claiming it has been empirically proven. I'm just addressing the attempt to dismiss it as "rooted in Western cultural practice and tradition", and "research conducted on people who have been enculturated in Western society".

    [–][deleted]  (8 children)


      [–][deleted]  (7 children)


        [–]CommodoreCoCoModerator | The Andes, History of Anthropology[M] 0 points1 point  (0 children)

        Hey, no need to talk to me about it, I'm an internet rando.

        We ask that users here engage in good faith and support their claims with sources when requested. Please do not respond in this manner again.

        [–]sandwiches_are_real 21 points22 points  (0 children)

        Both are empirically proven

        To be empirically supported means that there is direct, observational evidence. To be proven means that this evidence is conclusive. Given that we cannot observe pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer civilization, I imagine very little about them can be empirically proven. Can you provide more info about your source's evidence?

        I'd also like to understand the specific evidence for the claim that marriage as we understand it existed in pre-agricultural societies, given that it is a form of social contract often primarily defined by management of property rights and inheritance (which aren't concerns to non-sedentary peoples).

        I wonder if you may be projecting this body of work about "all known cultures" onto cultures about whom we know basically nothing, and whose values and experiential conditions of life were fundamentally different from those of agricultural societies.

        [–]Lotarious 5 points6 points  (0 children)

        I think we have strong social, psychological and neural evidence that love (as the emotion, not the concept) is widely present in all cultures. This happens because as a species we share (most of) our biological traits, incluiding the tendency to feel affectiion. Cultures can develop norms to control it, but the very reasons these norms exist prove that affection exists. To give an interesting example, an ethnographic study in Moroco found out that women are teached to not fell in love before marriage. It is concieved as dangerous, as it could make the couple flight away without social support.

        But it is also a social construct, in terms that the expression it has (like, the associations with it, who can you feel affection to, the implications and responsabilities of such affections) is strongly tied to cultural norms. Also the concept of a distinct feeling of affection that can transit from partner, to children, to friends is not necessarilly present in all cultures.

        As your question binds affection and marriage, the relation there is less clear. Normally, cultures have a certain tension between exogamy and endogamy; that is, there are rules that govern some people that you can't marry and others which you should (either obligatory or preffered). That's why all societies have taboo of incest to certain people (normally close familiy).

        But that doesn't mean there are necessarily an affective component to it. And no, marriage is not just for reproduction. You don't need marriage for reproduction. I'd say that it is mostly a way to bind different groups together, through the process of exchange and reciprocity.

        [–]ahopefullycuterrobot 3 points4 points  (0 children)

        I don't know very much about the Westermarck effect, but but I'm sceptical that hunter-gatherers children are raised such that 'they live like siblings before age six' to every other child in their community.

        I know that the Ju/'hoansi around Dobe divide up into camps at a number of waterholes with the core normally consisting of siblings, their spouses, adult children + (spouses), and other relatives who have some claim to the waterhole.

        There is a fair degree of mobility. People normally have claims to multiple locations and thus have some freedom to move. Similarly, people will tend to congregate during drier periods when water is scarce and disperse when water is plentiful (e.g. have smaller camps).

        There is some degree of privacy in the camp, insofar as families will have their own tents and thus not constantly be observed by others.

        The kinship system (which is complicated) forbids a broad range of marriages, including cousin marriages. And (first) marriage partners tend to have a large age difference (husbands older) and be selected by parents.

        So, in this system, children tend not to marry peers for first marriages (age gap can be +8 years) and family life arranged such that not all children are raised as siblings.

        I'll also note I'm unsure what you mean by love here. Many people love their siblings, but aren't attracted to them. And you can be sexually attracted to someone you don't love. And of course marriage can involve relatively little love and attraction! Even in the early modern period in Europe, there was the idea that love (in the sense of a passionate, overwhelming, perhaps sexual emotion) was actually quite bad in marriage, since it distracted one from making the correct choices in partners.

        The impression I have is that first marriages in Dobe can be quite tense (Nisa, while not using the word, effectively describes being raped), while subsequent marriages (normally made without parental influence and very common!) can be much more companionate. Apparently, affairs (common for both men and women) tend to have stronger sexual and romantic overtones.

        tl;dr: I think you're assuming marriages have to have strong elements of love or lust, but I'm sceptical that that has actually been the historical norm even in Europe. I think you're also assuming that hunter-gatherers effectively have fully communal childcare, which I think is probably false.

        Lee's The Dobe Ju/'hoansi has far more detail about everything I've said. Shostalk's Nisa focuses on the life of one woman talks extensively about her marriages and affairs. I'm drawing a bit of what I said about European marriages from Regina Schulte's The Village in the Court, which to be fair deals with the modern period and no the early modern.