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Abstract

Comparing food taboos across 78 cultures, this paper demonstrates that meat, though a prized food, is also the principal target of proscriptions. Reviewing existing explanations of taboos, we find that both functionalist and symbolic approaches fail to account for meat's cross-cultural centrality and do not reflect experience-near aspects of food taboos, principal among which is disgust. Adopting an evolutionary approach to the mind, this paper presents an alternative to existing explanations of food taboos. Consistent with the attendant risk of pathogen transmission, meat has special salience as a stimulus for humans, as animal products are stronger elicitors of disgust and aversion than plant products. We identify three psychosocial processes, socially-mediated ingestive conditioning, egocentric empathy, and normative moralization, each of which likely plays a role in transforming individual disgust responses and conditioned food aversions into institutionalized food taboos.

In: Journal of Cognition and Culture