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Why four taboos

and how the sex taboo came about

A society is largely or even exclusively defined by one or more taboos, which have considerably changed in the course of human evolution. It is becoming increasingly apparent that unilateral taboos generally have very unpleasant consequences. A balanced juxtaposition of partial taboos would correspond to the idea of ​​a flexible (dynamic) modern Middle Way and could bring great benefits.

Even among animals of a group or herd, the most important and prevalent prohibition is the taboo not to harm other members of the same group. When later in the human era territories under a leader took shape, this taboo was at least partially replaced by the taboo, not to show sex. By putting on clothes, they wanted to stay warm, but also to differ from the animals. In the meantime, however, as the former taboo diminished in importance, violence against other people was permitted at least under certain conditions.

This meant the beginning of wars, which also take place between the often very aggressive chimps on one side of the central river of the Congo, but not between the rather peaceful bonobos on the other side. The latter ones are almost identical to the chimpanzees, but do not suffer so much from scarce resources as triggers for the struggle for habitat.

We probably have to accept that the so called era of humanity began by the coming-up of the sex taboo. Humanity therefore has not necessarily to be seen as an exclusively glorious thing. The sex taboo made possible for leaders to rely on power and even violence, and to concurrently exclude others from this possibility, which became a prerequisite for forming coherent territories and finally nations. This was the core of he Chinese eunuch system at the emperor's court holding together the biggest one of all territories.

The following main taboo probably getting even more significance was not to leave the group and not to give up in war-like situations, which often included the possibility of being killed by being a soldier who was not allowed to desert. This taboo guaranteed the coherence of the group in the territory and limited the possibility of getting away from the group alone or as kind of a nomad. This could also make a sense behind the immense Chinese terracotta army.

To live outside of the inner territory of the population became possible in the Roman era. The value of those “nomads” breaking the taboo not to freely move around was rationally recognized first for trade, when they formed, for instance, caravans, and later it also happened for the purpose of reconnaissance. The main population and the nomads (not to be thought as living in a desert) together were called civis, what certainly brought about the creation of the idea of a so-called civilization first as a matter of consciousness.

The first persons of this new kind of nomads in the transition time to modernity were considerably later, after a quite long period of chaos, people like Marco Polo and Columbus inducing a new shift of the prevailing taboo. Enlightenment led to an increasing but violently contested taboo on fundamentalist beliefs in favor of rationality and brought with it grim wars between reformists and traditionalists, only at first sight on a purely religious level. During the two centuries following the new chaos of the Thirty Years' War the era of Enlightenment meant a victory of rationality. This led the basis for the rising natural sciences and technology, but also caused deep social conflicts. Trying to balance these tendencies by declaring at least a partial taboo on rationality the romanticism came up as reaction strongly favoring sensuality. The next rebuke led to shutting down any form of sensuality by bringing fascism which again led to chaos. Whosoever did not show any form of sensuality was enabled to kill people of other groups even under very cruel circumstances thereby leading to a justification of racism or at least hostility against foreigners, which as we know became excessive during the second world war and in US-led wars like in Vietnam.

The post-war societies were increasingly confronted with the wish to outlaw violent behavior underlined by the menace from nuclear weapons. At the beginning this to a similar extent again favored sensuality and rational thinking. These two tendencies, however, struggled with one another. Sensuality largely meant humanities, which struggled with the not really resolved conflict between communism and capitalism. Favoring rationality induced a growing taboo of non-rationality, which intruded in our societies leading to a new uprise of appreciating natural sciences and technological success supported especially by spreading communication and weaponry. These both domains now increasingly started to compete with one another leading to more nations having nuclear weapons and practicing espionage as well as to desire for disarmament and also to whistle-blowing.

In practice the coming-up of a new taboo generally tends to make former taboos at least less conscious. Summarizing these were not to overtly show sex, not to allow leaving the group, not to accept fundamental beliefs, and not to permit violence. Clearly a strong competition between those different taboos was and is going on.

In former writings (see: the possibility has been mentioned to attribute four different taboos to the four different main parts of the body showing up one after the other during evolution. The oldest one is the abdomen, to which the sexual taboo can be assigned. As next step in evolution followed the formation of extremities allowing active movement, to which the taboo forbidding to leave the group can be associated. The third step was the formation of a clearly separated head leading to a rise of thr taboo of non-rationality. Finally a clearly separated upper body came about, which can be considered as the seat of sensuality associated to the lungs and the heart inducing a taboo of not-showing-empathy.

Clearly these attributions can not strictly be proven and therefore a certain degree of authoritative arbitrariness might be seen in it. But the correlation seems to be so strong that it is very likely to provide a useful picture not necessarily lacking a basis.

It should be underlined that not accidentally just four of them evolved reflecting the fact that the prevailing methods of description in natural sciences use four dimensions and that similarly a reduction of the number of useful categories in humanities to four of them seems possible too. Therefore in a more general sense a four-dimensional world could be assumed to which during evolution of the human kind four taboos came up. These one after the other led to four kinds of “monoisms” with each of them appearing accompanied with a particular taboo. The sexual taboo led to monogamy, the taboo not to leave the group led to monotheism, enlightenment induced a taboo of non-rationality, and romantic sensuality fostered a taboo on the use of violence.

The practical consequence of these deliberations could be a stronger skepticism against exaggerated favoring only one taboo, for instance now again rationality as kind of counter-reform against the exclusive taboo of violence after the Second World War with the aim to justify the increasing use of military and heavy weaponry. The proposed modern Middle Way could hinder in future the repetition of exaggerated use of one-sided taboos, which almost always mainly is applied as means of dispute between different parts of a population or nowadays also between nations.

Rationally this kind of consideration, of course, can be declared as wrong or not justified. But this argument may not be valid, as just the unlimited validity of rationality can be doubted. All arguments favoring the use of one or another taboo to accomplish the coherence of a society should be in a balance with other respects to be considered either within the same or in neighboring societies.. This does not at all mean unlimited arbitrariness or esoteric behavior or to favor hostility against sciences.

A balance between those taboos might be a desirable goal for the future. Polyamory seems to be able to partly replace monogamy. Supporting rather simple religiousness without relying on one particular God can avoid struggle between confessions and institutionalized religions. Allowance of non-rationality can foster the vast domain of arts. For fighting violence better police instead of more military should be preferable.

© Copyright (all rights reserved) Hans J. Unsoeld, Berlin 2017

Updated Febr. 20, 2018  

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