Taboo, the polynesian word for a forbidden practice, has become part of the English lexicon. Are taboos ignorant superstitions, do they contain adaptive wisdom, or are they a mixture of both? Joseph Henrich and his colleagues are addressing this question for food taboos and other cultural practices on the island of Fiji. Their work is an intoxicating blend of anthropology, psychology, and biology from a unified evolutionary perspective. What they have discovered for one kind of taboo on a single island says much about our general capacity to learn and transmit behavioral practices, which are often–but not always–adaptive.

Joseph Henrich is Professor and Canada Research Chair in Culture, Cognition, and Coevolution, Departments of Psychology and Economics, at the University of British Columbia. Visit his website to learn more about his work and his numerous academic publications.

Joseph Henrich’s Website

Books by Joseph Henrich:

Why Humans Cooperate (with Natalie Henrich)

Foundations of Human Sociology: Economic Experiments and Ethnographic Evidence in Fifteen Small-Scale Societies (with Robert Boyd, Samuel Bowles, Colin Camerer, Ernst Fehr, and Herbert Gintis.

Published On: April 20, 2012

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, both in his own research and as director of EvoS, a unique campus-wide evolutionary studies program that recently received NSF funding to expand into a nationwide consortium. His books include Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, and The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time and Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. .

One Comment

  • Dominc Akandwanaho says:

    I personally come from a society that deeply appreciates the concept of taboos. Growing up, children are taught several taboos, which are essentially sets of beliefs, that these are believed to be so important and imperative in life.
    When I look at most of the taboos that i was taught as a kid, i am amazed to recognize their true implications. Most of them, probably 90% have a factual implication.  For instance kids are not supposed to sit on grinding stones, which i think is rather unhealthy…etc

    Conclusively, i assert that taboos, probably like religion are a product of evolution and most of them were quite essential in the times they were invented. They are also still very applicable in many African societies.

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