Sociology Index

Edvard Alexander Westermarck

Edvard Alexander Westermarck was a Finnish philosopher and sociologist. Among other subjects, he studied exogamy and the incest taboo. His thesis, The History of Human Marriage, was first published as a book in 1891. Edvard Alexander Westermarck critiqued Christian institutions and Christian ideas on the grounds that they lacked foundation. Edvard Alexander Westermarck was also a moral relativist and in his two-volume The Origin and Development of Moral Ideas he argued that moral judgements are not rational but are based on emotions and on social approval or disapproval.

Edvard Alexander Westermarck denied the existence of general or universal moral truth. He has been described as "first Darwinian sociologist" or "the first sociobiologist", as well as “an authority in the history of morals and of marriage customs.” He denied the then prevailing view that early human beings lived in sexual promiscuity, arguing that in fact historically monogamy preceded polygamy.

Edvard Alexander Westermarck became a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Helsinki. He was promoted to professor of Moral Philosophy in 1906 and occupied that chair until 1918. While still teaching Philosophy in Turku, he helped found academic sociology in the United Kingdom, becoming the first Martin White Professor of Sociology (with Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse) in 1907 in the University of London.

Edvard Alexander Westermarck published Ethical Relativity (1932), Three Essays on Sex and Morals (1934), The Future of Marriage in Western Civilization (1936) and Christianity and Morals (1939), the latter published in the year when he died. In 1929, he had published the English version, Memories of My Life of his autobiography, originally published in Swedish in 1927.

The phenomenon of reverse sexual imprinting is when two people live in close domestic proximity during the first few years in the life of either one, and both become desensitised to sexual attraction, now known as the Westermarck effect, was first formally described by him in his thesis The History of Human Marriage (1891).

Westermarck was also a scholar of Morocco and offered a positivist view of how its folk religion was formed in his two-volume work Ritual and Belief in Morocco (1926). He also studied his favorite subject marriage in Morocco, publishing in 1914 Marriage Ceremonies of Morocco.

Edward Westermarck: Sociobiology
Stephen K. Sanderson. Oxford Handbook of Evolution, Biology, and Society. Edited by Rosemary L. Hopcroft.

Abstract: The first sociobiologist was not Edward O. Wilson but, rather, the Finnish sociologist Edward Westermarck. At the turn of the 20th century, Westermarck presented Darwinian natural selectionist theories of numerous social phenomena, especially marriage and family practices across a wide range of societies and the evolution of moral emotions.

Edvard Alexander Westermarck was almost completely forgotten outside of Finnish sociology due to the rising tide of social environmentalism and determinism that was inhospitable to biological explanations of human behavior. Westermarck deserves to be rehabilitated. In sociology, he needs to be considered one of the great founding fathers of that discipline even by those who may not be receptive to Darwinism.