Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Target Article

Human inbreeding avoidance: Culture in nature

Pierre L. van den Berghea1

a1 Department of Sociology, University of Washington, Seattle, Wash. 98195


Much clinical and ethnographic evidence suggests that humans, like many other organisms, are selected to avoid close inbreeding because of the fitness costs of inbreeding depression. The proximate mechanism of human inbreeding avoidance seems to be precultural, and to involve the interaction of genetic predispositions and environmental conditions. As first suggested by E. Westermarck, and supported by evidence from Israeli kibbutzim, Chinese sim-pua marriage, and much convergent ethnographic and clinical evidence, humans negatively imprint on intimate associates during a critical period of early childhood (between ages 2 and 6).

There is also much evidence that, like other social animals, humans do not seek to maximize outbreeding, but rather to maintain an optimal balance between outbreeding and inbreeding. Close inbreeding reduces fitness through inbreeding depression, but some inbreeding brings the benefits of nepotism. For simple, stateless, horticultural societies, the optimal balance seems to be achieved by a combination of precultural inbreeding avoidance of relatives with an r ≤·25 and cultural rules of preferential marriage with kin with r ≥·25. Adjustment of the coefficient of inbreeding to other ecological settings seems to be largely cultural. An interactive model of “culture in nature” is presented, in which culture is seen as coevolving with genes to produce the maxiniization of individual inclusive fitness.