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English, science and religion professors address the history, morality and depiction of incest within cultures

Incest lecture.jpg

As part of a genetics interdisciplinary panel discussion, professors of English literature, religion and science offered their thoughts about incest as it related to their fields of study on Sept. 19.

Panelists said while incest today is viewed as negative and genetically dangerous, it was historically and culturally acceptable based on circumstances. They also cautioned people to not make assumptions about history and cultural practices based on what people know today.

In a series of questions and answers during the panel, professors spoke about how incest had been depicted in the scriptures, through literature and addressed the religious and scientific points of view.

In the scriptures

Assistant Professor Matthew Bowen, one of the three panel speakers, was the first to speak on the topic of incest, particularly how it related to accounts of it in the scriptures. Bowen holds a doctorate in Biblical Studies from the Catholic University of America. Beginning his lecture, he cautioned the audience packed into the cramped McKay 175 classroom to look at the events through the lens of the ancient Israelites who lived during the time these acts of incest occurred.

Zeph McKee, a junior majoring in political science from Montana, asked why Lot’s daughters had sexual relations with their father in the aftermath of Sodom and Gomorrah, as recorded in Genesis 19. Bowen began by saying “Genesis 19 is an ideological story about the origin of Israel’s neighbors to the east and south, the nation of Ammon.

“The name of the nation of Ammon, in the Bible, is a name that implies kinship. The biblical text plays on the meaning of that name and Moab to imply that the beginning of those nations came from an unseemly relationship,” Bowen said, as he wrote the names of Ammon and Moab on the whiteboard, and pointed out their common linguistic root.

“There were strong social structures in ancient Israel that were emphasized by Leviticus, which is full of statutes meant to hold Israel together as a community and allow them to subsist,” he explained. Bowen said this is why Leviticus forbids many types of incest, as the act of family having intercourse with each other would break apart Israel as a community.

In Genesis 19, after Lot and his family escape from Sodom and Gomorrah, he only has two daughters, who then get him drunk and have sexual relations with him. Bowen, however, pointed out at the moment, the daughters of Lot believe the world had come to an end. “When Sodom and Gomorrah are annihilated, it’s clear that the mindset, as told within the story, the daughters see no other way to continue their line. They then have children by him.”

Bowen was quick to remind the students in the audience how the biblical text does not look favorably upon the actions committed by Lot’s daughters. “The text is pointing out how unseemly this is. That’s the point of the story.”

He then addressed the controversy surrounding Abraham and Sara, who were in fact half-siblings, yet conceived Isaac. “Ancient Israel would have had an issue with the Abraham-Sara relationship, but here’s the thing, Abraham and Sara were not Israelites. They came from Ur of the Chaldees, most likely in what is now Syria.

“What you need to understand from an anthropological-sociological point of view, is that what is considered incest in one culture isn’t always considered incest in another culture. What was offensive in ancient Israel may not have been offensive where Abraham lived.”

Bowen went on to talk about the idea of how man came to be, and if Adam and Eve really were the first two people on Earth, their children would have had to marry and have children with one another to propagate the human species. “I recently attended a conference that focused on the topic of reconciling evolution and the gospel. We have to be really careful about the assumptions we bring to a lot of the scriptural text.

“A lot of you growing up might have assumed Lehi and his family arrived on an empty continent, even though the scriptures never say it was empty. Do we assume that Adam and Eve were brought into a world empty of another population, even though the scriptures never specify? There are even texts in the Pearl of Great Price that might indicate the flood was smaller in scope, which matches up better with geological evidence. All we get is people making assumptions about the text they are reading.”

Literature, history and biology

After a round of applause from the audience, Stephen Hancock, an associate professor of English and the English Department head, got up to speak about incest in contemporary history and literature.

Hancock, who holds a doctorate in Romantic and Victorian literature from Purdue University, explained how the incest taboo, while widespread across the world, is not entirely universal. “There are lots of cultures where, because of their social bonds, incest becomes important for solidifying certain lines, which are seen as sacred, though I’m not saying we should buy into that completely.

“As Brother Bowen was talking about, we have a real problem talking about incest in my culture. There are different arguments about the origins of man. If you’re someone who believes everyone started with Adam and Eve, then you have to believe, through the principle of noncontradiction, that there were sisters marrying brothers.”

Hancock then pointed out how norms and ideas about family relations have changed over time, using European society as a prime example. “In every 18th century novel, which starts with two cousins meeting, the whole story will be about them getting together and marrying in the end,” he joked.

“Throughout European history through the 1800s, it was a normal thing for first cousins to marry one another, usually in the upper classes of the nobility, because they did not want to marry those lower than them. So you have a tradition of keeping the family or the bloodline ‘pure,’ and it was simply a normal thing.

“As the lower classes began getting more economically powerful, they could marry across classes, and so there was a rise in aristocracy. But the royals of Europe intermarried quite a bit for land treaties and alliances.”

Due to the intermarriage of the royal families of Europe, there were genetic traits, and sometimes diseases, passed around the families. One of the most famous cases of intermarriage passing diseases around in the family, was of hemophilia. Known as the “royal disease,” according to, it spread from Queen Victoria’s male descendants as they married into the royal families of Europe, decimating the thrones of Britain, Germany, Russia and Spain.

Hancock also joked how there were “at least 10 shows that either portrayed or dealt with incest, ‘Game Of Thrones’ being a prime example. Incest is such a popular topic in media today because it is so taboo. We don’t know what to do with it.”

Esprit Saucier, assistant professor of biology, listed several facts about incest from a biological perspective. “Incest is not a good idea. It can result in non-viable offspring. When you have a higher genetic diversity in your offspring, the genes can compensate for each other. If two siblings have a wonky gene, a child is more likely to get it and will not be as healthy. They also become a burden to the community.”

Walking out of the classroom, McKee remarked, “It was surprisingly entertaining. I didn’t expect to learn so much about the scriptures and social norms as they relate to incest and the importance of genetic diversity.”

Following the question and answer session, one of the organizers, J. Eston Dunn, a senior from Tennessee majoring in biology, thanked the speakers and attendees for coming.