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Taboos


Introduction

When I was a little boy, my friends and I used to wonder why our society had a taboo on nudity. To us, it seemed rather arbitrary. We could see no harm in it. We wondered if perhaps there were some societies on earth that had an eating taboo, where everyone had to eat in private.

This essay is a continuation of my childhood musings. Here I attempt to discover the roots of the taboos, how did they get started, are they still necessary?

The Taboos

Taboo Original Purpose Continuing Necessity
cannibalism
  • to prevent passing of diseases.
  • to discourage killing others for food.
Some societies eat the dead as part of funeral rituals, however diseases such as Kuru are easily passed that way.
cross dressing
  • to keep male and female rôle s distinct.
With the emancipation of women, there is no need for this taboo any longer.
defecation
  • to ensure people wandered off away from the encampment to defecate.
Modern day McDonald’s restaurants in Los Angeles place the toilets in the middle of the room where there is no privacy at all. They use the taboo to discourage any washroom use, presumably to reduce the costs of cleaning and upkeep. With modern plumbing, the taboo is no longer needed.
eating beef
(Hindu)
  • to prevent people from killing their dairy herds in lean times.
India, where this taboo is in place, is now overrun with cows. It no longer makes sense to never to kill them or never to prevent them from breeding. However, generally avoiding meat does make sense on ecological grounds.
eating pork
(Muslim, Jewish)
  • to protect from trichinosis.
With modern inspection and proper cooking, this is no longer a danger.
eating shellfish
(Jewish)
  • to prevent people from getting food poisoning or dinoflagelate (red tide) poisoning.
With modern monitoring of water quality and refrigeration, shellfish are no longer that dangerous to eat.
homosexuality
  • to ensure all males are available for parenthood.
  • discouraging promiscuous homosexuality (as opposed to monogamous homosexuality) prevents disease.
Now the planet is overpopulated, the taboo is obsolete. Safe sex procedures greatly reduce the risk of promiscuous sex. Closeted homosexuality may have been a way of allowing alpha males to breed more and gay beta males less, while still using the gay beta males to raise the children. In most other mammal species only a small number of males sire the next generation.
incest
  • To prevent accumulation of recessive genes which causes genetic defects to manifest.
With better birth control, this taboo could be relaxed, so long as no breeding were attempted. Eventually genetic engineering could make this taboo obsolete.
intergenerational sex
  • to ensure both parents live long enough to raise any children produced.
People live much longer now so there is less problem. The issue of informed consent still applies.
interracial sex
(miscegenation)
  • to ensure races stay distinct.
  • to assert white superiority.
This has been dropped except in backwaters like rural Alabama.
interspecies sex
(bestiality)
  • to ensure diseases are not passed between species.
  • to maximise procreation
  • to assert human superiority.
Now the planet is overpopulated, the taboo is obsolete. Condoms could prevent disease in the same way as with humans. The issue of informed consent still applies, though the notion of informed consent is a bit silly given that all animals manage to give or refuse it with body language.
nudity
  • To ensure everyone has clothing. Someone violating the taboo is automatically provided with clothing.
  • Attempt to reduce jealousy. Without clothing arousal is easy to detect.
Many societies do without it. We have clothing optional beaches and resorts.
pedophilia
  • to protect children from physical and psychological damage.
  • To prevent children from having children before they are mature enough to care for them.
The average age of puberty was 18 in the 1800s. Today it is 13. Sexual desires start gradually developing somewhat ahead of puberty. It might make sense to look for technology to delay puberty back to its more natural time. This would give children more time to mature emotionally before being hit by the hormone onslaught of puberty. We tend to lump into one basket adults to succumb to the seductions of horny 15 year olds with adults who predate on 8 year olds. With better birth control, I see no reason for continuing the taboo against post-puberty sex.

Summary

It terrifies people to even think about taboos, much less question their necessity. Many taboos of our ancestors are now much weaker: homosexuality, swearing, attending church, sex outside marriage, single parent families.

Once the reason for a taboo no longer holds, it is only a matter of time before it is relaxed. This can feel very threatening to people still holding the taboo. Once it is relaxed, the ancestors who were holding it look ridiculous and uptight.

The transition as any taboo is relaxed is awkward. The old guard feel threatened. The taboo was conditioned at a very early age. It is thus not subject to logical analysis. The new guard are impatient to get on with the change to a more rational approach.

Even though I suggest that many of the taboos I mention above are obsolete, I personally will feel very uncomfortable if someone starts trying to relax some of them.


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