Taboos and Societal Evolution

A recent thread discussing the legal and moral implications of teachers having sex with 18 year old students evolved into a discussion of moral taboos and our place in nature. I think about this topic a lot. In fact, it might be the thing I think about most. As human beings, there is a necessity that we approach life consciously if we are to thrive, as both individuals and as a collective species.

For ages we thought that as humans we had a range of vision (I mean this literally, here) which allowed us to see everything worth seeing. As science pushes ever further into the unknown, we consistently find that this arrogance on our part is not merited. Just the other day I read an article in Scientific American which disclosed the findings of an avian researcher, Timothy H. Goldsmith, who explored how much more birds can see than we do. For example, birds can see light in the ultraviolet range. Pictures taken with a camera which only registered ultraviolet light revealed a very different world than the one we see. A black-eyed susan has several bands of color, rather than being merely yellow, with a black center. Stop and try to imagine everything we cannot see. We are so blind that we cannot even conceive of what it is that we do not see. And yet it is there, and no less important for the fact that our eyes cannot perceive it.

Likewise, we cannot adequately evaluate our culture from inside of it. Many taboos are easily recognized as such (don’t put your elbows on the table) and are therefore easily dismissed in situations where they are not necessary (I am eating alone…my elbows are inconveniencing no one). Others, however, are so pervasive that we often have no idea that they are taboos at all. No, I cannot name any. Obviously. But I can name some that many people are unaware are taboos, and which therefore go largely unquestioned: public nudity (or, rather, the lack of it); relationships between people of greatly disparate age; wealth = respectability; true love = monogamy; democracy is the best system of governance; people are immoral by nature, and require an outside source to give them boundaries so that they do not devolve into savagery; don’t pick your nose; women don’t do this, men don’t do that…

But think of what we can’t see, because it is so deeply entrenched in our psyches that we take it for fact. The Vikings, when settling Greenland, developed a taboo against eating fish. So they imported cows..and guess what? They eventually had to give up and go home, because there wasn’t enough food. I sometimes think about the Great Depression, and all its starving dependants…and I look outside my window at all the food growing in my yard and wonder how many of them went grazing. Here in the south, kudzu grows everywhere. It’s a real pest, and people are always trying to contain it. Guess what? It’s edible. But nobody eats it.

Over time, taboos (and other societal standards) change. Studying these changes can be a valuable tool when looking for hidden taboos in our own culture. I once read a book which claimed that during the Regency era in England, body hair on women was all the rage. They wore diaphanous dresses to show off how hairy they were, and would even make fake “muffs” to stick on so that it would show through better! In the U.S., of course, the majority of women strive like hell to get rid of all hair not on their heads. Even in Europe, I don’t see any women striving to be furrier. Where did this notion that women were supposed to be hairless come from, anyway? Why is it there? Do we need it…or is it hurting us in some way?

Cassandra once asked how we can evolve fast enough to not be our own undoing. I think that learning to look critically at ourselves as a species and evaluate whether our society’s norms are helping or hurting us is a good step in that direction. In doing so, we may find some surprising things. We may find that we are more animalistic than we are comfortable with. We may also find that we are capable of taking charge of our own destinies in a way we never thought possible.