Does morality have a biological basis? An empirical test of the factors governing moral sentiments relating to incest

Debra Lieberman, John Tooby, Leda Cosmides

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

200 Scopus citations


Kin-recognition systems have been hypothesized to exist in humans, and adaptively to regulate altruism and incest avoidance among close genetic kin. This latter function allows the architecture of the kin recognition system to be mapped by quantitatively matching individual variation in opposition to incest to individual variation in developmental parameters, such as family structure and co-residence patterns. Methodological difficulties that appear when subjects are asked to disclose incestuous inclinations can be circumvented by measuring their opposition to incest in third parties, i.e. morality. This method allows a direct test of Westermarck's original hypothesis that childhood co-residence with an opposite-sex individual predicts the strength of moral sentiments regarding third-party sibling incest. Results support Westermarck's hypothesis and the model of kin recognition that it implies. Co-residence duration objectively predicts genetic relatedness, making it a reliable cue to kinship. Co-residence duration predicts the strength of opposition to incest, even after controlling for relatedness and even when co-residing individuals are genetically unrelated. This undercuts kin-recognition models requiring matching to self (through, for example, major histocompatibility complex or phenotypic markers). Subjects' beliefs about relatedness had no effect after controlling for co-residence, indicating that systems regulating kin-relevant behaviours are non-conscious, and calibrated by co-residence, not belief.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)819-826
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1517
StatePublished - Apr 22 2003
Externally publishedYes


  • Freud
  • Inbreeding
  • Incest
  • Kin recognition
  • Kin selection
  • Westermarck

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)


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