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October 2, 2010 6:47 PM   Subscribe

How many human societies in recent history, if any, have been reliably reported to have no belief in the link between sex and conception, or the link between fathers and children?

I was having a friendly argument with another person who loves anthropology, and he states that "many" hunter-gatherer tribes have been discovered to have no concept of the link between sex and childbearing, or of paternity. He says that this knowledge only became widespread after animals were domesticated.

Personally, I had understood that only a few peoples had ever been reported to reject the concept of a link between sex and children,* and/or between fathers and children, and that these were not reliable reports in themselves. However, I do not recall how long ago I read this, or where. I tried to look this subject up for myself, but I don't know the right search words to give me what I'm looking for. Can you help?

* I'm aware that there are many very different cultural ideas about fatherhood and conception, but I'm referring to the very basic idea: a man has sex with a woman, the woman has a child, and the man is that child's father.
posted by Countess Elena to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Try here
posted by larry_darrell at 7:36 PM on October 2, 2010

You'll want to look at The Moral Animal by Robert Wright, page 44. He describes the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski's notes on visiting the Trobriand Islands in Melanesia in 1915. This isn't available in Amazon's preview, but I'll type out some relevant portions from my copy of the book:
The prehistoric migration that populated these islands broke off from the migrations that peopled Europe at least tens of thousands of year ago, and possibly more than 100,000 years ago. . . . The natives, it seemed, hadn't even gotten the connection between sex and reproduction. When one seafaring Trobriander returned from a voyage of several years to find his wife with two children, Malinowski was tactful enough not to suggest that she had been unfaithful. And "when I discussed the matter with others, suggesting that one at least of these children could not be his, my interlocutors did not understand what I meant."

Some anthropologists have doubted that the Trobrianders could have been so ignorant. And although Malinowski's account of this issue seems to have the ring of authority, there is no way of knowing whether he got the story straight. But it is important to understand that he could, in principle, be right. The evolution of human sexual psychology seems to have preceded the discovery by humans of what sex is for. Lust and other such feelings are natural selection's way of getting us to act as if we wanted lots of offspring and knew how to get them, whether or not we actually do.
posted by John Cohen at 7:52 PM on October 2, 2010

I was taught something similar to your friend's point of view in relation to traditional Aboriginal Australian conception beliefs whilst doing undergrad anthrop, but my understanding now is that there might actually be a fair bit of debate about it. The set of concepts involved is usually referred to as something like "spirit child beliefs." Here are some links.
posted by Ahab at 11:41 PM on October 2, 2010

And (smacking head after having failed to actually search Google Books).. a reference to the work of the prof who taught me (continues overleaf with exposition on the notion that the firmly expressed traditional belief amongst elders was that children were the product of spirit child conception, but that some younger men had diverging ideas.)
posted by Ahab at 1:43 AM on October 3, 2010

You're looking for conception beliefs. My nanna had a great take on this.

She was the local midwife, copsewasher, hebal remedies.... you get the drift. She could just about read and write.
As the first person in the family to go to Uni I would spend hours telling her the latest stuff on criminology, anthropology, philosophy...., she loved it!, she eat that right up and made some amazing observations I'm not ashamed to say I used in my course work because she could always get me to view things in a different light.
I also shared the fiction stuff because I can read very fast and would get through about 1 work of fiction a week along with my coursework. So we came to the novels of Jean M Auel, and the character, Ayla.

there were so many things that I knew she would understand from the use of plants to wash & heal, basic bone-setting, and then there was the beliefs outlined in those novels where there was no direct association of insemination and paternity, just a sense that the spirit of a man who was worthy (due to protecting & providing for the female) had a better chance of having a "spirit" child with that woman.

She found that hilarious, and told me it related more to what the author wanted to happen in human relationships. See, "if you can see enough to know that this plant produces a wash that can be used like soap, you certainly can see that Mary O' Leary's third son is not her husbands'!"

that knowledge, she conceded, might have been used by wise women to hold power for a time but the first time of hunger tends to put an end to secrets. When groups are starving as the often were during the winter months, most secrets come out for one reason or another. She remembered her mother telling her about the "Souper Murphy's"... but that's another Julia story I'll keep till later.

tl:dr: so much of what we hypothesize about anthro, due to the lack of primary sources, allows us to put our own political spin, hopes and dreams, on it, bias is inevitable.
posted by Wilder at 1:50 AM on October 3, 2010 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Wilder, that's very funny and very much what I thought on re-reading those books as a grownup. (Your nana sounds fascinating!) Auel's society is total wish-fulfillment derived from the later work of Marija Gimbutas, although I'll certainly say that Auel did her homework.

Larry, John -- thanks for the book recs; I will definitely check those out. I do believe now that it was in regards to Trobriand Islanders that I recalled reading something, but I don't think I knew about those particular Aboriginal beliefs.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:18 AM on October 3, 2010

I find it all but impossible to imagine that hunter-gatherer societies, which are observers of nature's patterns par excellence, could have failed to notice that babies often look like their fathers.

On the other hand I find it easy to believe that European anthropologists with limited understanding of someone else's language, and full to the gills with paternalistic theories, could have grossly misinterpreted what hunter-gatherers told them. (Assuming of course that the hunter-gatherers were even trying to tell them the truth, and not simply having a laugh at their expense.)
posted by musofire at 7:36 AM on October 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Cynthia Eller, in The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000), pp. 93-95, writes that Malinowski's reports about the Trobriand Islanders and W. E. Roth's reports about Australian Aborigines were based on misunderstandings. Subsequent ethnographers found that both groups recognized a necessary connection between sexual intercourse and childbearing, and that Malinowsky may have been misled by talking to men, who in order to suppress social conflict would officially deny the possibility that some children might have been born from adulterous liaisons.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:50 AM on October 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I was coming in to say that "what we tell the wacky foreigner" and "what we actually know" are, uh, sometimes uncorrelated.
posted by SMPA at 7:58 AM on October 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

> Malinowski's reports about the Trobriand Islanders and W. E. Roth's reports about Australian Aborigines were based on misunderstandings.

This is my understanding as well.
posted by languagehat at 8:37 AM on October 3, 2010

Malinowski's reports about the Trobriand Islanders and W. E. Roth's reports about Australian Aborigines were based on misunderstandings.

Indeed. And Malinowski also was famously ignorant about women's sources of power within the culture that he was supposedly an 'expert' about. Women's knowledges generally within cultures, and specifically relative to reproduction have been actively marginalized, lost, and grossly misunderstood. This even within the discipline of anthropology. The anthropology of birth has some fascinating reads, including this classic by Brigitte Jordan, and this one by Robbie Davis Floyd and Carolyn Sargent. From my perspective, it's just as valid question whether 'we' know as much as 'they' do, as the reverse. If this is an unthinkable proposition, then ethnocentric bias should be clearly considered.
posted by kch at 10:16 AM on October 3, 2010

He says that this knowledge only became widespread after animals were domesticated.

Is there an explanation for why it would be easier to observe the cause & effect of reproduction in another species but not in one's own?

I find it all but impossible to imagine that hunter-gatherer societies, which are observers of nature's patterns par excellence, could have failed to notice that babies often look like their fathers.

The very basic causal relationship would have to be evident to women, whose menstrual cycles would be disrupted by a pregnancy early on, so there'd be no need for a vague "nine months later"... Someone who doesn't have sex goes to the menstrual hut every month, and someone who does have sex visits more rarely.
posted by mdn at 4:22 PM on October 3, 2010

Ah, you've missed one of the most fascinating ideas about paternity, which is apparently common in hunter/gatherer groups, not just in South America where it first became known to anthropologists, apparently.

I'm talking about partible paternity: this is the idea that babies are made up of collected semen, so all the men a woman sleeps with are different kinds of fathers to the child. They even have different names for the different men, like, the "one who put it in" "the one who stirred it up," etc.

More in this interview I did with Christopher Ryan, author of Sex at Dawn, here.
posted by Maias at 4:29 PM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

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