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November 20: Edward Westermarck

Edward Westermarck (1862)

It was also on this date, November 20, 1862, that Finnish philosopher and sociologist Edward (Edvard) Alexander Westermarck was born in Helsinki, the son of a university Latin professor. He learned English to study Darwin and other naturalists, and became a professor himself — at the London School of Economics and Political Science (1907-1931), at the University of Helsinki (1906-1918), and at the University of London (1907-1930).

Westermarck's landmark work, written in English, was The History of Human Marriage (1891). He is remembered for first noting that infants raised together are unable to form incestuous feelings for one another as adults, regardless of their genetic relationship. This became known as the Westermarck effect.

It was Westermarck who noted, "It has taken nearly 2000 years for the married woman to get back that personal independence which she enjoyed under the later Roman Law, but lost through the influence which Christianity exercised on European legislation. And it may be truly said that she regained it, not by the aid of the churches, but despite the opposition."*

He did not write specifically on religion, but Westermarck was known to his friends as an Agnostic, and was an honorary associate of the British Rationalist Press Association until his death on 3 September 1939. It was Edward Westermarck who said, "The patient and impartial search after hidden truth, for the sake of truth alone ... is of course the very opposite of that ready acceptance of a revealed truth for the sake of eternal salvation, which has been insisted by the Churches."**

* Edward Westermarck, Christianity and Morals, London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1939. ** Ibid.

Originally published November 2003.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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