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Durkheim vs. Westermarck: an uneven match







Edvard Westermarck was at the turn of 20th century a direct competitor of Émile Durkheim. Durkheim was the pioneer of French sociology whereas Westermarck was the first professor of sociology in the UK. They competed with each other both directly and indirectly and were interested in same questions, especially concerning family and moral theory. They had many common points: passion for sociology, interest in anthropology, the so called comparative approach. But where Durkheim was interested in empire-building and academic power, Westermarck was much more of a lone wolf type. Nowadays Westermarck is practically forgotten outside of Finland whereas Durkheim is still one of the three main classics in sociology. Yet, when one compares Westermarck and Durkheim’s debates, it becomes clear that Westermarck was right and Durkheim was wrong in practically every issue. This is especially true with respect of the theory of incest avoidance. Westermarck’s theory is now universally accepted whereas Durkheim’s theory was not only wrong, it revealed that one of the books on which his reputation is based, the Formes élementaires de la vie réligieuse, was based on a series of misleading claims. Yet Westermarck is forgotten and Durkheim is universally seen as a great theorist. In the end, some possible explanations are discussed.




Durkheim vs Westermarck: an uneven match[1]








There is a misleading notion following the famous Kuhnian idea that in natural sciences paradigmatic revolutions in the form of complete changes take place from time to time. As many authors have pointed out, this is not true. In the natural sciences, the development is typically cumulative and the changes are either major advances or small retreats from positions shown to be false.  It is actually the social sciences which jump from paradigm to paradigm, without much systematics, and can even return to old paradigms without any problems. This is only natural if we think that sociology is a more or less non-cumulative scientific endeavor, where different parallel constructions and interpretations of the reality may freely compete with each other. It is quite OK to return to classics from time to time, and to speak of standing on the shoulders of giants. But what if we ask: is there anything that remains from what the classic actually propounded? I.e. was he mistaken or not in his claims about society?  This is a question, which normally is quite uninteresting when “paradigm” is synonym for fashion, but in the case we are actually interested in accumulation of sociological knowledge, it becomes highly relevant


This question got new relevance for me when I read the debate between Edvard[2] Westermarck and Emile Durkheim concerning family, morality and incest taboo. Presently, the situation is highly unequal.  In comparison to Durkheim, Westermarck does not exist in contemporary (Anglo-American, not to speak of French) sociology.  Yet in the beginning of the century, Westermarck was the better known, much more widely read of the two. Today, Durkheim is one of the towering classics of sociology, his books have been translated even to Finnish, and he is the obligatory reference in any sociological textbook. In a fairly recent and rather representative textbook (Fulcher and Scott 1999), Durkheim is mentioned on more than 100 pages whereas Westermarck is not mentioned at all. London School Economics does not refer to Westermarck as their first professor of sociology. (Only L.T. Hobhouse, who was appointed at the same time, is mentioned in its official web history).  Even Frazer is still nowadays mentioned with respect whereas Westermarck is considered as somebody who only belongs to history: Google scholar gave 400 hits to Westermarck and 5500 to Frazer in September 2005. The Finnish text book on classics of sociology (Gronow, Noro & Töttö 1996) has an extensive discussion on Durkheim and even on Spencer (whose views are all but forgotten, and rightly so, only the label Social Darwinism sticks), but nothing on Westermarck. A revival of Westermarck, if we can speak of such a thing, is restricted to the field of evolutionary psychology, one of whose main forerunners he was.


Yet, the paradox is that Westermarck seems to have been right in all the questions where he and Durkheim had differing views. This is what I shall try to discuss in this article. Partly my claims are questions in dispute: most social scientists would disagree with me. But in other cases it is undisputable that Durkheim was mistaken and Westermarck not. So how come Durkheim is still the great classic in sociology, whereas Westermarck who was for a long time much more prominent than Durkheim during his time and survived Durkheim by 20 years, is not?[3]



Rival founders of sociology



The complicated relationship between Durkheim and Westermarck began to interest me when I happened to read Durkheim’s long article on incest in Année Sociologique (1897) to see what he says about Westermarck’s theory and found that Westermarck is mentioned only in a short dismissive footnote. Why was this so?

Westermarck and Durkheim were contemporaries (Durkheim was four years older) and in many ways competitors, but on the other hand, allies in the advancement of a new discipline, sociology. Westermarck was appointed docent in sociology in 1896 at the University of Helsinki. He became the first lecturer of sociology in England in the University of London (London School of Economics) in 1904 (his first course in sociology is much praised and the Sociology department of LSE celebrated the inauguration of sociology in 2005)  and professor in 1907 on the strength of his History of the human marriage (1891), published almost simultaneously with Durkheim’s first major works. Durkheim published his PhD thesis, Division du travail social in 1893 (Westermarck’s thesis was published four years earlier) and Les régles de la methode sociologique in 1895 or the same year as Westermarck’s History of human marriage appeared in French. Durkheim became full professor in sociology in 1906, one year earlier than Westermarck (1907)  

In France, sociology had received a first university chair in the early 1890’s, which went to René Worms, a competitor of Durkheim.  Institut internationale de sociologie, to which Westermarck was invited immediately upon its establishment, was founded by Worms in 1894. Durkheim disparaged the IIS as a collection of amateurs and founded his own society, Société de Sociologie de Paris in 1895. (This professionalisation happened ten years earlier than in England.)

One important difference between Westermarck and Durkheim was that the latter was an empire builder who gathered followers, fought for academic power, tried to annihilate his enemies and competitors, whereas Westermarck was more of the lone-wolf type who lived many years in isolation in Morocco and shared his time between England, Finland and Morocco. In Finland he had some prominent followers but in England only a few direct students. For instance, Bronislaw Malinowski was his student, but went on to become more of a follower of Durkheim (precisely like his Finnish student Lagerborg). He later opposed directly Westermarck’s views on reproduction, for example (see Franklin 2005), denying that reproduction would have anything to do with the biological facts connected to it.


On the other hand, one thing that unites these two scholars is that they worked enormously and continuously. The sheer volume of their production is mind-boggling. In addition to his books, Durkheim produced a continuous flow of reviews and comments and filled the Année Sociologique himself with material (reviews and articles on various subjects). Only the fact that he died young (at 59) prevented him from producing his great and conclusive work on morality, in opposition to Westermarck, who published his Origin and Development of Moral Ideas in 1906. As to Westermarck, his ability to work was even more impressive. He lived to almost 80 and continued to work until the end, participating in debates in the 30’s concerning his own work. In fact, Westermarck lived to see the rise of the “new anthropology” which eclipsed the comparative method and even reacted to this change by developing some sort of joint approach, where both intensive case studies and the broad comparative perspective could be combined (see Westermarck 1927 and Westermarck’s speech to Mauss, in Lagerborg 1953, 19-20).


Westermarck’s “comparative method” based on extensive reading of secondary sources  is nowadays considered obsolete, being based on armchair research, containing innumerable and disparate facts taken out of context and being seemingly devoid of any theory. The criticism about “armchair research” is mistaken as he did do extensive field research starting in 1890’s, including learning Arabic and spending much more time with his informants than was usual among ethnographers at that time. Later, he also takes some distance from his comparative approach. (Westermarck 1927, Lagerborg 1953, C.Wright Mills.)


It is also a mistake to say that Westermarck’s books were devoid of theory and a mistake to say that the collections of facts were completely disparate: as Westermarck himself notes, he took great care to group his evidence in contextually relevant categories and not jump haphazardly from one piece of information to another. And he was very critical concerning “case studies” where the results were based on only one tribe or place of study and generalized from there (Westermarck 1921, 21, Sarmaja, MS), as often happens in sociology (and with Durkheim).


Westermarck has also been described as being engaged in useless speculation about the “origins” of moral sentiments and family formations, which is judged as something impossible - although not by his contemporaries and not by Durkheim, who had the same ambition.


Perhaps the main reason for the eclipse of Westermarck must be related to the fact that he was a Darwinist and based his theories on natural selection, and empirical assumptions about human nature. The three major names in his first book on the History of Human Marriage were Darwin, Spencer and Wallace. If you don’t understand Darwinism, then the rest becomes an incoherent collection of materials. Westermarck was thus an early evolutionary psychologist who was interested in the psychological explanations of human nature and especially in the role of emotions in sociology. In this he followed on the footsteps of Adam Smith, although Westermarck’s main inspiration came from early anthropology (in his late major work on ethical relativism, the debt to Smith is very emphatic, 1932 It is difficult to understand why G.E.Moore’s Ethics, whose views Westermarck shows to be quite wrong and irrelevant, has survived, instead of Westermarck).


Durkheim, on the other hand was the foremost representative of a more autonomous (exclusive) theoretical (“scientific”) sociology, but he did engage in empirical research, which was still theoretically directed and conceptual.  One of his most famous dictums is the requirement that social should be explained only by social. This is broader than we now understand, because for Durkheim biologically determined social behaviors were also social facts.


On the other hand, for Durkheim, emotions had only a weak relationship to anything sociologically interesting. Consequently, he did not think much of Westermarck’s approach, often referring to him in footnotes or only indirectly. One reason was certainly the typically French way of leaving direct competitors unmentioned (this continues even today).  In his book on the methods of social sciences, Westermarck is only referred to indirectly, but at least one chapter looks like a polemic against Westermarck. According to Durkheim, he wrote his critique before reading Westermarck, but this appears to be untrue: the critique is so clearly directed against what Westermarck had written. Note that Westermarck did the same thing in his revised edition of the History of Human Marriage, where in the opening chapter he mentions the absurd school of thought which wants to explain social facts by social facts, but does not name Durkheim (Westermarck 1921; see below).


A good example of the same tactic is the long Durkheim’s article on incest in the first issue of Année sociologique. This was Durkheim’s own proprietary journal, which he edited and to a large extent even filled with articles and reviews; a model still followed by Pierre Bourdieu one century later.  There is one footnote (p.72) in which Durkheim says that for the sake of completeness, Westermarck must also be mentioned, although his idea is completely impossible. There are two exceptions to this rule of silence: the long critique by Durkheim of Westermarck’s book on Origins of Human Marriage (which was translated in French only four years after its publication in English), where Durkheim tries to demolish the thesis that human marriage has existed as long as humans (see Durkheim 1895, below). The second exception is a similar critique of the first volume of Origin and Development of Moral Ideas in Année Sociologique (in 1906).  Both can be explained by the fact that at time, Durkheim was internationally a much smaller figure than Westermarck and could thus use Westermarck to build his own reputation.


Rolf Lagerborg (1953, 17),  a close friend and relative of Westermarck’s who also had close contacts with Durkheim, informs us that the latter review was directly inspired by the bitterness felt by Durkheim that Westermarck’s book received enormous acclaim and completely eclipsed the Durkheimian approach to morals.  Westermarck was not the only one treated in this way: Weber is mentioned only a few times by Durkheim. But in Westermarck’s case their major themes were close to each other, and Durkheim had been planning to write books both on the family and on the development of morals.


Rolf Lagerborg, in his memoir of Westermarck, which was planned partly as a complement to Westermarck’s own memoirs, devotes one chapter to the relationships between Durkheim and Westermarck. (He has also written a long article “The Essence of  Morals” in 1953 about the rivalry between French and English sociology.) From it, it is clear that Westermarck disliked Durkheim intensely and tried to warn his students not to get any influences from him. Lagerborg has in his appendix a letter from Westermarck to one of his students, where he mentions very critically the Année Sociologique article.

 Lagerborg himself had very friendly contacts with Durkheim and studied under him before the First World War. This affiliation is also visible in his appraisal of Westermarck’s method and his interest in Freud, and later in behaviorism. Lagerborg had great respect for Westermarck but he clearly believed that Durkheim and the durkheimians had had the last word and were right in the end.  This was perhaps related to the fact that Lagerborg’s thesis, which was rejected in Finland, was later accepted under Durkheim’s protection in Paris and led to a friendship between Lagerborg and Durkheim. Lagerborg in his thesis (La nature de la morale 1903) also reached “independently” similar conclusions as Durkheim.  Lagerborg regretted that Westermarck had not read the critique of Durkheim so that he would have been able to correct himself (“Unfortunately Westermarck did not like reading French and he had not noticed the young Durkheim’s new ideas”, writes Lagerborg (1953, 15)) This is definitely misleading, as Westermarck had been invited to the Institut Internationale de Sociologie in 1893, and was thus in the opposing French camp. It is notable that Lagerborg had no interest in Darwin or in the theory of evolution.


In Lagerborg’s (1942, 272) later book on the public debates, he quotes Westermarck from a letter written in 1914, saying that Durkheim generalizes in an impossible way from  a very small sample, i.e. finds all forms of religious ideas and rituals from Australian totemism. Indeed, Westermarck planned to do a complete criticism of Durkheim and his school. This promise meant probably the new, completely rewritten and expanded edition of History of Marriage, where Westermarck did engage in a critique against Durkheim. (e.g. 1921, I, 17-19, 21, II, 183-185).



Durkheim’s critique of History of human marriage



Durkheim’s long critique of Westermarck: Origine du marriage dans l’espèce humaine d’après Westermarck, Révue Philosophique 40 1895, 606-623, is in many ways very interesting and still contains much that mainstream sociology still considers valid today. He begins with a very positive evaluation of the data collection and the extensive use of observations, which contrast favorably with the typical French approach to sociological research. However, there are problems connected with the method of Westermarck (by method, Durkheim means the disciplinary orientation and the logic with which he draws his conclusions.)

The first critique is that Westermarck says that “social” is defined as something that cannot be explained otherwise, i.e. that other explanations should be tried first.  Also the use of Darwinism without hesitation and almost without criticism is noted.  Durkheim criticizes Westermarck for posing “as an evident axiom that our psychic constitution and even our animal nature, that is that part of us which depends immediately of organic conditions, is also the main source of social life” (i.e. the present starting point of evolutionary psychology).


According to Durkheim, the use of Darwinism means that one bases science on a simple hypothesis, which is not a reliable approach. Neither is it certain that those qualities which humans have now, and which exist in primitive societies, have always existed -  they may be absent during periods we know nothing about; they may have disappeared and reappeared through other causes. As an argument for this, Durkheim raises the fact that bees have a highly developed social organization and birds are very faithful in marriage like humans, whereas many mammals have much less developed social institutions than humans do (this is picked from Westermarck, not Durkheim’s original knowledge). Only causal chains which are well established can assure good sociological explanations, affirms Durkheim.


Another counterargument is that there is an enormous diversity of social forms so that the kinds of explanations used by Westermarck (maternal instincts, sexual desire, instinctive horror of incest) never account for all the different forms and institutions. For example family in Rome or among the German tribes may have the same maternal love, but their family forms are completely different and in the Roman family the mother was not even legally a parent of her children.  The Iroquois children do not have official paternity, but paternal love nevertheless exists. Durkheim protests strongly against the assumed unchanging basic ingredients of the nature of the human family, when its forms are so enormously varying and almost everything is possible. Thus Durkheim typically speaks of very different things than Westermarck: rules instead of emotions.


This leads to the second important difference, the use of concepts. Westermarck treats his concepts loosely, Durkheim complains. He defines “family” simply as the unit of male and female that exists longer than just for reproduction and birth of children. I.e. family is a human (and not exclusively human) arrangement which is necessary to take care of the children until they can become independent (Westermarck 1889, 19-20) This is a Darwinian definition in the sense that it defines the survival condition for the offspring. Westermarck clearly and pointedly rejects juridical or rule-based definitions. Rules can never be the basis of a social institution (see Westermarck 1889, 22), but emotions can.  Marriage is therefore rooted in family and family in emotional relationships, rather than family in legal marriage, with emotions as the consequence.

Family, clan, tribe, family relationship, are all highly unclear, Durkheim complains. Again, we see how the essential difference between Durkheim and Westermarck is that for the former, anything social must be based on an explicit rule or law, never just on a simple, trivial emotion. Thus for instance marriage (which is the precondition of family) is marriage only if it is confirmed by a legal institution, being somebody’s relative must be determined by legal relationships. (“There is marriage when there is reglementation, mutual recognition of rights, and duties with sanctions » Durkheim p.16) Durkheim claims that Westermarck imputes legal rules where he can just show anecdotes. It is interesting that for Durkheim, the concept of family used by Westermarck is wholly ideological. In present usage we should say that Westermarck’s approach is naturalistic whereas Durkheim’s approach is, if not ideological, then at least idealistic and rule-based.




Original promiscuity



In Durkheim’s time, the view that the original situation of human family was that of promiscuity, was novel. It had been posed by several authors (Morgan, Lubbock etc, see Westermarck 1889, Ch IV) and it was assumed that the family as an institution must have developed later and therefore, before such civilized regulation was established, human beings must have had free and unrestricted sex. Before the promiscuity hypothesis, the general assumption had been that the family was a fundamental form which had existed since time immemorial (the “biblical” family concept). For Durkheim, then, Westermarck’s theory of the origins of the family was a return to the classic, but mistaken view of the permanence of the family. In fact, Westermarck goes further and posits family for the prehuman, apelike ancestors of humans. He also sees the mother-child bond, not the heterosexual union, as constitutive of the family (1889). Against both the promiscuity hypothesis and Westermarck, Durkheim posits an immensely varying family which can have been at one time extremely polygamous, at times patriarchal, at times matriarchal, and which only lately has developed into a more permanent and unified European family form. Durkheim is familiar with the Darwinian argument, to the extent that he points out that as the family forms depend on environmental conditions, it is quite possible that there have been “conditions d’existence” that have required completely different family forms. To him it is purely conjectural to claim that the original form would be the bonds of the nuclear family.


Durkheim also says that even if it were true (which he disputes) that the observations of anthropologists show that in all existing primitive societies, the family form of man and one or more women and children is observed, this is not a proof, because there can have been many more primitive societies where this was not true. Westermarck can thus never prove his claim.

Durkheim accepts the critique of Westermarck against the original promiscuity hypothesis, but he does not believe marriage was an original state of human societies. Instead the original state was that of sexual anomie, lack of all rules, where many different kinds of unions existed – monogamy, polygamy, free unions, etc. Durkheim notes that it is quite possible that this situation would not have led to any free love on a continuous basis but the essential thing was that there were no sanctions against free love or for more permanent unions. He also claims that Westermarck has not even considered the possibility of sexual anomie, which is a serious shortcoming (and due to his unsatisfactory concepts of family and marriage)


According to Durkheim, there are two fundamentally different sexual unions: a free union, i.e. concubinage, and legal marriage. These two are completely different and cannot be treated as one, as Westermarck does. As Durkheim says, in complete seriousness “Des amants qui restent unis toute leur vie ne sont pas pour cela des epoux” (s. 12). So, even if it were true that there is a certain permanence of the couple, which is more accentuated when we get to the humans, the interesting question for Durkheim is how this union becomes regulated, based on rules, where violators are punished. Only this interests sociology, because only this is a social institution.


Another example cited by Durkheim is that even if one could show that most people have had monogamous families, the difference is enormous between a situation where people could have been polygamous, if they had wanted, and the present situation where they cannot (he thus closes his eyes for the de facto polygamy of his own social group – upper class Frenchmen with institutionalized lovers, something which continues until this day).


Nor does the universal prevalence of jealousy prove anything. Besides, Durkheim stresses that there are families in which the husband gives the wife to his guest (Durkheim ignores that this is a giving of a very valuable gift, not free sexuality). The guest-gift is common especially where brothers share a common wife (one form of which is the levirate, where the brother inherits the wife). And why does jealousy exist when we know that men are naturally polygamous and always interested in the wife of the neighbor, asks Durkheim?  “En un mot, l’égoisme sexuel, quelque énergie qu’on lui suppose, ne peut pas plus avoir été la source du droit marital que l’égoisme économique n’a été l’origine du droit de propriété » (p 14) In one word, sexual egoism, however much force we assume it has, can not have been the source of marital rights, as little as economic egoism can have been the origin of property (my translation). Let us note that Durkheim was probably wrong even in his claim about property.


Durkheim concludes that Westermarck is correct in that there have never been group marriages or general promiscuity, but the information collected by Westermarck show without any doubt that there has NOT been marriage in the sense of Durkheim. This is also shown by the fact that the concept of kinship varies enormously. According to Durkheim, it is unclear whether fathers have understood that they are fathers to their children. Children may use the same names about fathers and other kin and even the word referring to mother and father can have been identical. (In this Durkheim is clearly mistaken: the assumption of fatherhood is not restricted to civilized humans but exists even among birds and certainly among apes (see Hrdy 1999)). So, according to Durkheim, Morgan’s research shows the existence of large family collectivities which had no clear nucleus but a lot of homogeneous strata. By contrast, a matriarchal family form where the father’s position is undefined and kinship connected to the mother, is a highly developed family form, which must have been preceded by many others.


Westermarck is thus accused of bypassing the difference between primitive family forms and the present day family in the “great European societies” and the huge development from the first to the second. “Ce qu’il faut, cest assurement sortir du systeme exposé dans le Mutterrecht mais pour le depasser et non pour revenir en arrière”.


In the end, Durkheim regrets the “return of Westermarck to the biblical origins of the family” as an unfortunate backward development. He also remarks that Westermarck’s ideas about exogamy and incest are very superficial: the origin of exogamy is religious and related to totemism. This dispute deals with the origin of incest, to which we now turn.




Durkheim and Westermarck on the origin of incest



Durkheim’s La prohibition de l’inceste et ses origines, Année Sociologique 1, 1896-97, Durkheim 1969) starts very elegantly. The challenge is to explain how such a totally superstitious and irrational prejudice can explain a fundamental aspect of contemporary morality (p. 88).To know the reason for the universal prohibition of incest we must go to the root of it. This root is the law of exogamy, which is defined as prohibition to marry inside the same clan. A clan is defined by people who have the same totem (although there may be several clans with the same totem, notes Durkheim. In this case, totem is the essential). Thus rules concerning totem are at the root of this prohibition of incest. This is in all simplicity the logic of Durkheim’s explanation. The material on which this conclusion is based comes mainly from Durkheim’s armchair studies of Australian aboriginals (published as Formes élementaires de la vie réligieuse), but also from American Indians. In the new edition of Human Marriage, Westermarck showed that the totem explanation did not hold water even in Australia.(see below)


This over 60 pages long text thus claims to present the origin of the incest taboo, which is the law of exogamy. As to the origin of exogamy Durkheim has no explanation, it is just based on religious prejudice. Nevertheless, he notes that the reasons cannot be based on any Darwinist principles. (In this text, there is, as previously mentioned, only one footnote referring to Westermarck: “To be complete, let us mention a hypothesis of Westermarck : abhorrence of incest is instinctive, and this instinct is the consequence of cohabitation. This suppresses sexual desire. The idea has already been proposed by Moritz Wagner[4]. But it cannot be applied to exogamy, because members of the same totem do not live together and even live often in different areas. We shall see in what follows that this explanation is no more valid for more recent forms of incest.”(my translation)) Instead, it is explained by religious rules related to totemism.


Westermarck also replied to this article in the fifth edition of his History of Human Marriage (1921, 183-185,198) by connecting Durkheim’s arguments to those of his authority, Frazer, and showing that Frazer himself disproves Durkheim’s theory. Totemism and exogamy have no necessary connection but may be completely separate. There are several examples of exogamy without totemism, (Westermarck 1921, 184). The explanation that shedding of (menstrual) blood is the main reason why marriage would be forbidden for people of the same totem is not relevant at all: all kinds of blood shedding are quite possible, e.g circumcision. Westermarck’s mastery of the field is complete, whereas Durkheim appears as a pure amateur. (In this text, Westermarck disposes of some other criticisms too: for instance the critique of Durkheim that instinctual aversion should apply to spouses, not only children, siblings and parents, 1921, 198)..


I shall not cover this whole, rather rambling article. I just want to stress that read with hindsight, it is obsolete and has only a historical interest, at least compared to Westermarck. It also shows that Durkheim still did not understand the principles of evolution. For instance, on p. 45 Durkheim gives us the following reasoning:

Exogamy is the first form of prohibition of incest in history. It cannot have existed before, because otherwise there could not have been such prohibitions in more primitive societies: “All repression of incest presupposes family relations which the society recognizes and organizes. Society cannot prevent the relatives to get together unless it attributes a social character to this union; otherwise it would not be interested” ( my translation)


We have a nice circular definition here: incest prohibition is social, therefore only socially defined family forms can be forbidden. The “naïve” ideas of Westermarck about a much earlier (even non-human) origin of incest prohibition are by definition out of question. Durkheim is fascinated by extremely complex clan rules in which children will have different totems from parents and thus different prohibitions than those of the parents. Yet these complex rules must have a common cause: this is what he sets out to search from religious rules. In fact, this is one of his reasons for studying incest: how is it possible that the “absurd prejudices” of primitive people may have anything to do with our contemporary morals. But again, as with marriage, rules are essential. Without rules there is no society.


As to these rules, Durkheim is true to his logic of reasoning concerning crime: crime is a “normal” activity and depends only on rules. Concerning exogamy, the logic goes as follows: One cannot prevent irregular unions between relatives by forbidding them to marry (as little as one prevents free unions by forbidding marriage). The refusal of incest is rather based on duty; there is an impersonal imperative which prevents us of having sexual relations with our relatives. Incest destroys the family by subverting the rules: if a man wants to make love to his sister, she is no more his sister! (1969, 93)


Later, some additional counterarguments appear: Durkheim mentions the idea that long togetherness dilutes sexual sentiments but this cannot be the cause of incest prohibition, because same is true between spouses (p 95, see Westermarck’s reply to this, above)

No, the causes of incest prohibition, for which Durkheim now can give different rational moral explanations, have their origin in the superstition which led to exogamy. And these superstitions led to us seeking our sexual partners, instead of our close relatives, from other groups outside the primitive clan where, all were relatives. While the original superstitions disappear, the actual prohibition remains. Even the separation between the sexes in general is due to this phenomenon: Durkheim ends the article with a speculation about the fundamental difference between the sexes which has its origins in the horror about menstrual blood.  Again, the original reason has disappeared, but the difference of sexes remains and it still has a useful function, according to Durkheim. Many people would nowadays disagree.


Durkheim’s article on incest appears as just another futile attempt to “theorize” about incest, whereas Westermarck could, with his “speculative empirical approach” achieve results which are now considered as most certainly proved and which has been named after him, as the justly famous Westermarck-effect (see e.g. Wilson 1998).


According to Westermarck, the universal refusal of incest is not the result of a social construction of a norm, but of an evolutionary adaptation, which is not unique for humans. Evolutionary rules are based on “algorithms” where the choice is made semi-automatically and based on observation or experience. The rule is: do not have sexual relations with somebody with whom you have grown together since very young (human beings, who have been in close contact with each other since early childhood of at least one of the two, are not interested in sexual intercourse).

Similar rules work for recognizing parenthood (both by parents and by children) or being a close relative. Additionally, it is important to note that incest aversion is not simple lack of sexual interest but an active aversion, even with regard to thinking about such actions. This active aversion, the function of which is to prevent genetic damage, is the root cause (ultimate cause) of incest taboos. (Westermarck 1889, 1891; Westermarck 1922, vol. II. 35-239); Westermarck 1926, vol. II. 747-752).


Note a very important corollary of this: in the cultural theories of exogamy, the explanation is that the rules are very ancient. There is no written evidence and the original reason for the rule has since disappeared. Thus we can never know for sure the original reason, and the only possibility is to speculate about it. Westermarck’s theory, by contrast, supposes that the rule is constantly reproduced, invented anew, because the original reason exists in the present day. Westermarck’s thesis can be empirically proven or disproven: you only need to show that being raised together has no effect on sexual desire. (discussed by Westermarck, see Sarmaja MS) A second possibility to disprove the Westermarck-effect is to show that there is no actual genetic disadvantage in incestuous sex. There is now much empirical research which supports Westermarck (both regarding apes, childhood marriages, and kibbutzes, eg. Wolf 1995, Shepher 1972)


Durkheim’s theory of the origins of incest has, on the other hand, been disproven conclusively many times since it was expounded, as have most other cultural theories of incest.

It might also be mentioned that Freud engaged in a debate with Westermarck, and presented most of the counterarguments still being used. For instance the most “sociological” of them: that it would be unnecessary to have strict laws against incest if it would be a biological adaptation. I.e. if nobody wants to have incestuous relationship, there is no need for a law. But the same argument is valid for many criminal actions, for instance killing of one’s father or child.  There is no universal desire to kill one’s parents (or anybody, for that matter), but still there are laws against it. Another criticism concerned the so-called false imprinting: the Westermarck-effect would guarantee that even parents of adopted children would feel sexual aversion, even though there is no need of it. This precisely confirms the theory: even adopted children are protected from their foster parents’ sexual interest, if they are adopted very young. A cultural theory would treat the incest aversion as completely dependent on cultural codes and thus adoption would in some case be no hindrance and in other cases would create a taboo.


As Westermarck said, in the end of his debate with Freud, that he would be more convinced if Freud had some empirical basis for his arguments (e.g. 1921, 204). It was impossible to get any proof for his claim that children desire sexually their parents of opposite sex and are jealous of the other parent. The foundational myth of the Oedipus complex concerning the sons who kill the Father is a pure invention (and the name is misleading: Oedipus did not desire his mother and want to kill his father, he acted in both cases without knowing the truth).[5]




Durkheim’s Critique of The Origin and development of the moral ideas (Vol I) in Annee Sociologique 1906 (Journal sociologique 1905-1906, p. 584-595)



This an extensive critique of Westermarck’s first volume of Moral Ideas. The second volume was not reviewed by Durkheim. To begin with, Durkheim notes with satisfaction that Westermarck follows the same approach as he does, i.e the comparative approach to study the genesis of morals. He is also satisfied that Westermarck has referred explicitly to him in the book. But, after this positive note, a very critical review follows, starting from the (for Durkheim) absolutely false idea that human evolution should be the basis of a study of moral ideas.  Instead, Durkheim thinks that the causes of moral ideas are essentially social. On the contrary, Westermarck believes that moral ideas come from the universal and permanent aspects of human nature. Thus to prove his claims, he seeks confirmation from very different societies. « Il est preoccupé avant tout d’accumuler les faits, non les choisir solides et demonstratifs ».  Instead, one should concentrate on tasks which are more precise and specific.

These specific facts are the rules concerning moral conduct. Westermarck’s project to find the original states of moral sentiments is impossible, because the original states cannot be observed (this is not really true, see above). On the contrary, to study the original states we must begin with the complex situations (this is “l’ordre naturel et logique des problèmes”)

According to Durkheim, Westermarck finds two sentiments which are the basis for everything else, anger and sympathy (whereas for Durkheim, where there are no rules or sanctions, there are no morals, see 1969, p 92). This is, however, not fully correct: for a succinct presentation of the theory, see Westermarck’s book on Ethical relativity (1932).


 Durkheim’s critique is the following : because guilt can be attributed and assumed to collectivities, the agent theory of morality does not work.  Retribution directed towards innocent people is for Durkheim the key problem of Westermarck’s theory (i.e. the problem of collectivities and collective consciousness).  Also, Westermarck passes too quickly to the shared feelings of morality from individual feelings. This is what is central for Durkheim and he agrees with Westermarck as to the end result, but not as to the cause.  Especially, Durkheim complains, Westermarck does not devote any thoughts to the question of the variety of sanctions, although he has developed a theory of moral sanctions.

There is some truth in that Westermarck could not clearly explain the retribution directed against innocent members of a group; this is because he did not distinguish between punishment and vengeance.  To avenge a misdeed, one does not have to choose the actual guilty person but any member of the same group will do; actually the effect is then greater[6]. The difference is clearest when we punish children. It would be most unjust to punish one child for what the other has done (in many classical children’s books, precisely such injustices are often described). On the other hand, for Durkheim, the idea of reciprocity was more or less foreign.



Westermarck’s replies to Durkheim



Westermarck first reacted to the Durkheimian critique only very superficially, in a review of another author in “Revue international de sociologie” in 1897, accusing him of accepting the “theory” of creation. In his memoirs, he does not refer to explicitly to Durkheim, but mentions a French author who had criticized him of reverting to the biblical beliefs concerning Adam and Eve. (That both criticized each other rather unfairly of mixing religion with science is funny because for both were extremely critical about religion and the worst offense was to be seen to represent a naïve belief in religion-related tenets (see Pyysiäinen 2005, for a discussion of Durkheim’s relationship to religion).) Westermarck returned the compliment (privately) by saying that Durkheim was suffering of a totem craze (totemdille). (There is something in this claim, because Durkheim even claimed that group mentality is also derived from totemism, see Bergesen 2004, 396.)


 In 1921, Westermarck formulated in a letter his main point against Durkheim: “Thus professor Durkheim, in his book on the totemic system in Australia with the significant title “Les formes elementaires de la vie religieuse”, confidently asserts that his system contains “all the great ideas and all the principal rival attitudes which are at the bottom even of most advanced religions”; he then proceeds to a discussion of religion in general, in the belief that if you have carefully studied the religion of one people only, you are better able to lay down the main principles of religious life than if you follow the comparative method of a Tylor or Frazer. It almost seems as though some kind of sociological intuition were to take the place of comparative induction.”


Westermarck reacted understandably strongly to the point made by Durkheim that Darwin’s theory of evolution is only a hypothesis on which one cannot base claims.[7]  He retorted that if Durkheim does not believe in the evolution of humans from lower animals, then he must support the thesis of divine creation, which is completely unscientific.

Note that here Durkheim is against generalizing from one hypothesis, whereas Westermarck criticizes Durkheim for generalizing from one single case. It is clear that generalization based on a testable hypothesis is certainly closer to a “good method”.


Another essential difference between Durkheim and Westermarck is rather obvious: Westermarck, on the basis of evolutionary theory, assumed that humans had evolved a common, universal human nature which formed the basis of the development of moral sentiments. Here, he was inspired also by Hume and Smith but the main references are to Darwin. By contrast, Durkheim believed that there exists an unlimited amount of different moral rules and no such thing as a common human nature. The latter was also the view of Lagerborg, Westermarck’s Finnish student. For him it was clear that Durkheim was right in the end: the division between mind and body is essentially the division between biological and sociological aspects of human life. Social institutions can not and should not be explained by simple psychological facts, instincts etc. p. 22: “Thus, it is the task of sociology to examine the social origin of all higher conscious life. Social facts, such as moral phenomena, can least of all be explained solely from biological and psychological points of view”. Lagerborg here gives voice to what became the dominant paradigm in the social sciences from the 1930s, as Westermarck lost, and Durkheim-Lévi-Strauss (and Freud) won the academic battle.







My original intention with this text was to see what distinguishes Westermarck and Durkheim with regard to family and the question of incest, and how their arguments relate to what we know today.


If one looks at what theses Durkheim defended and what Westermarck defended, it appears evident that the former’s views are now more or less disproven.

Durkheim is also wrong in his idea that sociology is about rules and sanctions, not habits and practices, so that the origin of marriage must be exclusively discussed as a problem of explicit rules. He is mistaken in rejecting Darwin’s theory of evolution as a mere hypothesis, in which he did not believe. He was also mistaken in seeing incest prohibition was a social institution based on superstition, which has nothing to do with natural selection. (Unfortunately, this is still a popular misconception among social scientists, which e.g. Marshall Sahlins expounded in his 2005 Westermarck Memorial (!) lecture).


Collective consciousness was for Durkheim a social fact. For him, it was simply impossible to connect individual psychological processes to the collective actions of a group As noted by Bergesen (2004, 398), Durkheim strongly believed that all basic cognitive categories (space, number, cause, substance, personality, sociality) are developed only via learning and social interaction  (but see Pyysiäinen (2005) for a claim that Durkheim did try to connect the individual and collective level).

Durkheim used an analogy drawn from chemistry in defence of collective consciousness: bronze derives its characteristics from being bronze, not from the individual characteristics of its components, copper, tin or lead. This is typical of the way Durkheim used natural sciences, completely contrary to the way Westermarck used them, never as analogies but concretely.  One claim which was clearly intended against Westermarck (among others; no names are mentioned): “Que la matiere de la vie sociale ne puisse pas s’expliquer par les facteurs purement psychologiques, c’est a dire par des etats de la conscience individuelle, c’est ce qui nous parait etre evidence meme ».  (That the subject-matter of the social life cannot be explained by purely psychological factors, i.e. by states of individual conscience, seems to us perfectly evident, my translation)


It is interesting to note that the book which is perhaps most wrong in its conclusions and facts, Formes elementaires de la vie religieuse, is now the second most popular of Durkheim’s books, after Division du travail social. (according to Google scholar)


Westermarck, on the other hand, seems to have got most of his fundamental claims right (see also Rosengren-Takala 2004, 10). He was also an extremely meticulous researcher who really checked his facts, who had gone through all the relevant literature, who compared all the known information. His problem was that his books were seen mainly as compilations of disparate facts and that he had no theory - or nothing that could be understood as a theory from a sociological point of view. This misunderstanding is based on the invisibility of Darwin’s theory of evolution as the theoretical fundament of Westermarck’s books.


From a methodological point of view, Westermarck and Durkheim were not so different: Durkheim also used the so-called comparative method, but he was more selective and restrictive (and superficial). He also emphasized, more than Westermarck, the quality of data over its quantity: this was his argument for using a few case studies instead of comparing enormous numbers of disparate data. In this, I sympathize with him: the task that Westermarck undertook is impossible to any ordinary human! Nowadays, the situation would be different as digitalized materials facilitate comparisons and data searches. Whereas before, only wealthy individuals could have the network and resources needed to organise a “comparative” study, now anybody with access to the Internet could do the same, albeit with the same problems about the quality of data.


The main reason for Westermarck’s eclipse was his evolutionary, Darwinian approach to sociology and anthropology, and most specifically his relationship to human nature.  Although he has not been reproached as an “evil” social Darwinist (because he did not make the direct generalisation from a Darwinian theory of evolution to a theory of social evolution), he has been seen as somebody who was an anthropologist or a psychologist, but certainly not a sociologist. And, as our legacy from Durkheim, psychological explanations have been seen for a long time as an easy avoidance of real explanations.


Many of Westermarck’s facts may be nowadays obsolete or wrong. Indeed, it would be an interesting research project to see how much or how little! The same is true of Darwin: his readings of other scholars sometimes gave him misleading information.[8] Nevertheless, Westermarck’s main conclusions regarding human family formation, incest aversion, the importance of emotions in family life and moral behavior, etc., still stand, and are even being reinforced by the modern synthesis of evolution and the social sciences, developing rapidly, if still more or less unnoticed by the mainstream sociology.





Albert J. Bergesen (2004): Durkheim’s Theory of Mental Categories. Annual Review of Sociology, 30: 395-404

Emile Durkheim (1969/1897) La prohibition de l’inceste et ses origines. Année sociologique  1897 (Journal sociologique, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 37-101)

Emile Durkheim (1975/1895): Origine du mariage dans l’espece humaine d’apres Westermarck,  Année Sociologique 1895, Textes 3,  Paris: Editions du Minuit, 70-92

<>Emile Durkheim (1975/1906):  The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas (Vol I) in Année Sociologique 1905-06 (Journal sociologique, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 584-595) 

Sarah Franklin: The reproductive revolution – how far have we come? Professorial inaugural lecture 24.11.2005

http://www.lse.ac.uk/collections/LSEPublicLecturesAndEvents /pdf/


Rolf Lagerborg (1942). I egna ögon – och andras. En bok om att känna sig själv. Helsingfors: Söderström & Co

Rolf Lagerborg (1951): Edvard Westermarck och verken från hans verkstad under hans sista tolv år 1927-39. Holger Schildts förlag, Helsingfors

Rolf Lagerborg (1953): The Essence of Morals. Fifty Years (1895-1945) of Rivalry between French and English Sociology. Transactions of the Westermarck Society II. Copenhagen: Ejnar Munksgaard, 9-26

Steven Lukes (1975): Emile Durkheim. His Life and Work: a Historical and Critical Study. Harmondsworth, Penguin Books

Ilkka Pyysiäinen (2005): Yhteisö ja agenttius Durkheimin uskontoteorioissa. Sosiologia 4

Anna Rotkirch – J.P.Roos (2006): Comments to Steve Fuller. Tieteessä tapahtuu  (in english: http://www.tieteessatapahtuu.fi/0506/RotkirchRoosengl0506.pdf

Rainer Rosengren – Jukka-Pekka Takala (2004): Edward Westermarck’s Evolutionary Approach  (unpublished manuscript, available from the author (Takala))

Heikki Sarmaja (no date): Westermarck ja vertaileva tutkimusmenetelmä (Westermarck and the comparative method). MS

Joseph Shepher (1972) Mate selection among second generation kibbutz adolescents and adults: Incest avoidance and negative imprinting. Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol 1, (4, 293-307)

Georg Simmel (1892): Einleitung in die Moralwissenschaft. Eine Kritik der ethischen Grundbegriffe. Cotta's Nachfolger, Stuttgart und Berlin 1892/93

Edward Westermarck (1889): The History of Human Marriage.  London: Macmillan

Edward Westermarck (1921): The History of Human Marriage in Three Volumes. Fifth Edition Rewritten. London: Macmillan <> 

Edvard Westermarck (1927): Minnen ur mitt liv. Helsingfors: Holger Schildts

Edvard Westermarck (1934): Freuds teori om Oedipus-komplexen. Stockholm: Albert Bonniers Förlag

Edward Westermarck (1932): Ethical Relativity.
New York: Harcourt, Brace <> 
Edward O. Wilson (1998): Consilience. The Unity of Knowledge.
London: Abacus <> 
Arthur P. Wolf (1995): Sexual Attraction and Childhood Association: A Chinese Brief for Edward Westermarck. Stanford,
Stanford University Press,


[1]  This article originated as a small comment comparing the incest theories of Westermarck and Durkheim. I thank especially Anna Rotkirch and Heikki Sarmaja for extensive comments.

[2]  Westermarck’s true first name; in England his name is given as Edward even in his own books

[3]   Interestingly, Westermarck mentions in his autobiography that when he gave a paper in Münich in 1896 about normative and psychological ethics (the previous referring to absolute and the latter to relative, emotion-based ethics), he was approached by Georg Simmel, who said that he had expounded the same theory in a recent book but because he himself had picked things out of Westermarck’s book, they were now even.  According to Westermarck he was not aware of Simmel’s book (probably Einleitung in die Moralwissenschaft, 1892), but the interesting thing is that Simmel agreed with Westermarck about the basic (evolutionary) tenets of his moral theory. This comes surely as a surprise to modern Simmelians, for whom Westermarck is anathema.


[4]  Moritz Wagner was a Darwin contemporary who presented a since then eclipsed theory of evolution in which isolation is emphasized. I have not found any mention that he would have developed an emotion theory of incest.

[5] On the other hand, it seems to be established that we do desire people who look like us. Thus, if the Westermarck effect has not been active (e.g. in case of siblings who have been separated at birth), close relatives may indeed desire each other. Thus, there is a grain of truth in Freud’s Oedipus complex, precisely in the cases that Freud knew about: where the children had grown apart from their parents, cared for by servants or even having been nursed by wet nurses, so that the Westermarck-effect could not be operative..

[6]  That the assumption of the efficacy of collective punishment does not seem to work in the expected way, is shown by the conflict between Israel and Lebanon: the collective punishment of Lebanon by Israel has had rather the opposite effect.

[7] It is good to remember that when Darwin presented his theory of evolution, he was “speculating” because he had no precise idea of the nature and causes of the mechanisms which could bring about the natural selection process (formulated in the neo-Darwinist synthesis).

[8] One example is that Darwin was led to believe in the original promiscuity hypothesis, which Westermarck rejected, under the influence of Alfred Wallace, see Rosengren-Takala 2004.


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