Laws and Generalizations

Robin Fox's elevation to the National Academy of Sciences has led to a demand for some summary of his empirical work and theoretical findings, which largely appear in collections of essays rather than journals, and consequently go unread by the various scientific and scholarly cliques who only read what their members write.  Most of these laws and generalizations appeared on the old website and are reproduced here, having been initially assembled by students and friends.  Some new ones from The Tribal Imagination are included.  This is a small sampling but will give some idea of the scope.
Preamble: Exceptions to generalizations are the norm. Any generalization that does not have exceptions is probably a tautology. Laws must hold in all cases, or they are not laws. Exceptions prove the rule in the sense that they test it. If they are true exceptions then the law must be abandoned or re-written. Hypotheses must be vulnerable to disproof or they are not science (Popper).  Aphorisms only have to be witty.

We constantly reproduce that which produced us.

     (Behavioral ontogeny reproduces biosocial phylogeny - after Freud)

Kinship systems traditionally ensured that the marriage choices of the younger generation were contingent on the choices of the previous generations: thus building control of the young into the rules of the system, rather than depending on direct confrontation.

Descent and alliance - the two fundamentals of human kinship systems - are both found in nature: the human innovation is to combine them into one system. (More recent work on Gelada baboons challenges this generalization. The Geladas may have both descent and alliance, in which case this is not a human innovation but itself part of nature. See Chapais Primeval Kinship.)

The three building blocks of primate social order are: (a) dominant males (b) females with young (c) peripheral or aspirant males.

Corollary: The Human Revolution occurred when kinship ceased simply to link the blocks, but began to determine the allocation of mates among them.

Corollary: Initiation ceremonies for males will be fiercest where the struggle for control of the females is strongest (e.g. competitively polygynous societies.)
Law of sibling incest avoidance (first published in 1962 and known in some circles as "Fox's Law":)
The intensity of heterosexual attraction between co-socialized siblings after puberty will be inversely proportionate to the intensity of physical interaction between them before puberty.

     Revival of Edward Westermarck’s hypothesis, and coinage of term "Westermarck Effect" -  as opposed to “Freud Effect.”

The Freud and Westermarck hypotheses on incest are not incompatible: they refer to different situations (close rearing with physical intimacy and close rearing without.)
(See The Red Lamp of Incest)

   (Data from the Israeli Kibbutzim [Joseph Shepher] suggest that the law should be re-written to say “ intensity…. before age six.”)

It is a sad parody of human good intentions that incestuous desire in siblings can result from a quite conscious attempt to prevent it.  


Law of the dispensable male: In mammalian mating systems, if the mother-child unit can survive without the support of a male then it will do so.

Corollary: The basic unit of kinship is therefore not the nuclear family but the mother-child unit.

Corollary: Humans alone can separate the courtship bond from the parental bond; corollary of this - that the basic cultural unit of kinship is the avunculate - brother, sister and sister's children, not the nuclear family.)

The basic "Oedipal complex" is the struggle between the father and his sister's brother, which is in fact the struggle in Oedipus Rex (Oedipus vs. Creon).

Exogamic rules (rules against marrying within the kin group), not incest taboos, are the passage from nature to culture. (Comes out the same as Lévi Strauss, but starting assumption is totally different: incest avoidance is natural; incest rules are cultural acceptance of this fact.)

Evolution of equilibration (neo-cortex) means we are geared to both facilitation and inhibition (ritualization) of aggression.

Human rule systems (societies/cultures) are not sustainable if they are in conflict with basic human needs laid down in the EEA (environment of evolutionary adaptedness) - Upper Paleolithic.

The brain did not evolve to give us accurate information about the world, but to give us useful and optimistic information.

Consciousness today is operating out of its normal context. It was an adaptation to life in the Upper Paleolithic.

Corollary: “History” is a series of wilder and wilder swings away from the Paleolithic norm.

Evolutionary biology does not so much explain what we do, as explain what we do at our peril.

We are not directly motivated to maximize reproductive success, but to maximize success: reproductive success may or may not follow.

In reconciling self-interest with sociality (and hence group with individual selection)

1. The major proximate motivation of self-interested social animals is the maximization of sociality.
2. The self-interest of organisms (genetic, economic or both) is constrained by sociality not only from without but from within the proximate motives of the organisms.
3. The optimal social organization would be one that recognized self-interest (reproductive or productive) as a primary driving force in individual motivation, but that also reinforced the sociality-maximizing motives of individuals. (1997 Conjectures and Confrontations: see Diagramaticon)

Prejudice is not a warped form of thinking: thinking is a normal form of prejudice.

The four basic processes of human thinking. These are: (1) that we must make causal connections; (2) that we must attribute responsibility for actions; (3) that we must think in terms of stereotypes; (4) that we must prefer intuition to logic in uncertain situations. 


The tyranny of ideas is inescapable: we cannot operate without them, and we cannot survive because of them.

Corollary: the roots of war lie not in aggression, but in fanaticism and ideology.

Men love the treaties as much as the wars.

Corollary: The actual time spent on violence in wars is significantly less than that spent on logistics and diplomacy.

War is diplomacy’s way of generating more diplomacy.

Males are females' way of generating more females.


The basic confusion of social science has been to attempt to marry a collectivist theory of society with an individualistic theory of epistemology, because of a mistaken association of the latter with a progressive utopian ideology. (Search)

The 'disease' model of aggression (and social pathologies) is wrong. Aggression is a normal part of the system (digestion not diarrhea.) So-called social pathologies are often endogenous healing processes mistaken for diseases.

******** (From The Tribal Imagination, 2012.) On group fragmentation:

The probability that any human group will fragment increases in proportion to the decrease in the average coefficient of relationship among its members.

Corollary:  Groups produced by the fragmentation will have a higher average coefficient of relationship than the parent group.  The limit  of pre-fragmentation relationship is  r =  +/- .0021 (the relationship of 4th cousins - this number was wrong in the text.)

(Translation: The less closely over time that the members of a breeding group become related to each other, the more likely is the group  to split up)

More recent research (M. L. Herbert) suggests that fertility in a group (from fruit flies to humans) declines rapidly as the degree of relationship between mates declines (after second cousins.)  Thus unless groups split up and form more closely related units, they will not  maintain their rate of replacement.  "Marry in or die out" (the opposite of Tylor's maxim.)
From the development of this idea see "Marry In or Die Out: Optimal Inbreeding and the Meaning of Mediogamy." (Remember that the dependent variable is simply fertility.)
 There is a significant positive association between consanguinity and fertility.

(Logically the closest relionships i.e. the incestuous ones, should be the most fertile.)

The average fertility of a breeding group is directly proportionate to the average degree of relationship in the group. 

As the population increases the average degree of relationship declines and the growth rate drops. 


Although social conditions may cause the male bond to be muted, since it is a basic need,  they will never extinguish it.

A Digression on David Schneider. (from The Tribal Imagination)

 The swing away from kinship [in anthropology] was heavily influenced by David Schneider as part of his rearguard action against the damaging criticisms from Rodney Needham of Schneider’s (and George Homans’) misinterpretation of Lévi-Strauss.  (See my account of this quarrel, its principles and principals, in Participant Observer.)  Schneider could not accept that he was wrong on the issue of cross-cousin marriage, but since he clearly was, the only tactic open to him was to question the category of “kinship” itself.  His tactic was to take the criticism leveled against Morgan regarding the lack of fit between kinship terminology and biological relatedness, and make this into a case for abandoning the concept of “kinship” altogether.  This was greeted with relief and enthusiasm by the hordes of analytically challenged baby-boomers flooding into anthropology.
  “Kinship” according to Dave (who was something of a trickster and was probably playing a cruel joke on anthropology) is an ethnocentric invention based on European notions of bilateral relatedness anyway.  Obviously I disagree with him, but this is not the place to deal with Schneider at length, simply to notice the influence of his ideas on the current refusal to deal with kinship systems as we have traditionally understood them.  (Schneider A Critique of the Study of Kinship,1984.)  Today most of so-called kinship studies, and a lot of current “cultural anthropology,” are products of David Schneider’s rearguard action and his intellectual scorched-earth policy.

The great irony of this is of course that Rodney outdid Dave yet again with his ultimate deconstruction of "kinship."  (Rethinking Kinship and Marriage, 1971. Remarks and Inventions: Skeptical Essays about Kinship, 1974).) But this had little influence, and Rodney died peacefully, but very alone, in his Oxford flat.
David Schneider

d. 1995
Rodney Needham.

d. 2006
with the King of Tory Island, Patsy Dan Rogers, at the University of Ulster degree ceremony, Londonderry, NI, 1997.

More generalizations:

Kinship systems are derivable from four premises (a) the women have the children (b) the men impregnate the women (c) men usually control the system (d) primary kin do not mate with each other.

Put another way: Gestation, Impregnation, Domination and Hybridization (the avoidance of incest) lie at the root of all social organization.

There are four solutions to 'the matrilineal puzzle.' (see Kinship and Marriage.)

There are three methods of lineage segmentation: the 'drift' method, the 'spinal chord' method, and the 'perpetual' method. (The "spinal chord method" is what others have called "ramages" or "conical clans.")

The development of double descent in central Africa was a result of a switch to general polygyny in matrilineal systems (not a change in residence rules viz G. P. Murdock).

The consanguineal family is not , as            Fortes thought , a product of matrilineal descent.  It appears on Tory Island as part of the domestic cycle in conjunction with cognatic descent and natolocal residence. (The Tory Islanders)

Partible inheritance does not necessarily lead to land fragmentation.  (The Tory Islanders)

Crow-Omaha systems are logical developments from an 'elementary' base (The Keresan Bridge, Challenge of Anthropology etc.) Their variations reflect not degrees of acculturation, but the degree to which they have developed from that base.

The 'family/household' distinction, stemming from the Latin and Anglo-Saxon linguistic heritage, is a source of major confusion for English-speaking anthropology, since the distinction is not necessarily made elsewhere.

The basic struggle in the West is not dyadic - between the individual and the state, but triadic - between the individual, the kinship group and the state. (Reproduction and Succession)

Anglo-Saxon individualistic bias leads to a totally wrong interpretation of history and an even worse interpretation of the aspirations of the third world. (And a profound misunderstanding of the Arabic world.)

All history is the history of reproduction and succession. (Reproduction and Succession)

Kinship categories are natural categories: category systems are adaptive in that a rapid switch between the categories of “marriageable” and “unmarriageable” is possible.

Corollary: Genetic degrees of kinship are not of necessity predictive of behavior. (Search for Society)

A few rules can generate many outcomes. Of the large number of possible outcomes, surprisingly few are realized.

Any rules are better than no rules. The substantial content of social rules is not as important as having rules at all. Without some rules - no matter what - behavior has no orientation.

The rules for breaking the rules are as important as the rules themselves.

The evolution of inhibition leads to the possibility of delayed gratification, which is the basis for the ability to make and keep rules. (Red Lamp)

The adult female orgasm is the homologue of the pre-pubertal male masturbatory orgasm.

     (This follows from the clitoris being a rudimentary, i.e. non-ejaculatory, penis.)

Corollary: The female orgasm is a purely vestigial phenomenon, like the appendix.

The aim of a young primate male is to rise in the hierarchy to copulate with the group females. The aim of a young human male is to rise in the hierarchy to control the marriages of the group’s females.
There is nothing in the long-term memory that was not first in the emotions.

This requires visual representation during REM sleep i.e. dreaming.  

Corollary: Totemic categories physiologically enhance their own memorization. (Red Lamp of IncestSearch; Challenge)

Bureaucracies fail because the means of the bureaucrats become the ends of the organization.

The egos of the bureaucrats then tend to become identified with the means-become-ends of their organizations. (Conjectures)


The base conditions for the emergence of vertical social complexity:
1. Resource surplus
2. Critical population density
3. Division of labor
4. Expansive warfare and conquest
5. Elite literacy and record keeping

Recent research (Norte Chico, Peru) suggests 4 and 5 may not hold in every case. (Challenge, Tribal Imag.)

The expression of sexual behavior in female monkeys is a function of hormonal state and environmental conditions (not one or the other.) (International Journal of Primatology - with Dieter Steklis)

The Anasazi population of Chaco Canyon NM at the height of occupancy (10th-12th centuries AD) was probably about 2,440 people, based on the number of "clan kivas" and the median  modern Pueblo clan size. (On the low end of estimates.)
(Challenge 1994).

The contention that for social complexity to arise there must be intensive agriculture and an agricultural surplus is challenged by the cases of the Norte Chico of Peru, the NW Coast Indians and the Calusa of Florida, where fish provided the necessary surplus.
(Challenge, Tribal)

Copyright:© Robin Fox 2010

Permission to reprint any statement on this page is granted, providing authorship is acknowledged.