Are taboos ignorant superstitions, do they contain adaptive wisdom, or are they a mixture of both?
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.