Wednesday, May 05, 2010


Miscegenation (marrying someone from another “race”) may still be illegal in some places, in spite of modernization, but it is the genetically healthiest thing humans beings could do for themselves. We all know hybrid corn is stronger and bigger than in-bred seed stock. The most pungent comments on in-breeding often come from the blog called “Terrierman” ( which is written by Patrick Burns. I don’t read it because I want to “dig on the dogs,” as the initiated terriermen say, but because I like dogs and thinking about them.

Patrick has joined those who are scornful of dog “breeds” that are artificially created by deliberate inbreeding, mostly in order to deform and debilitate perfectly good “types” that develop naturally in regions because of use as well as by the elimination of the maladapted. The archetype example of an artificial breed created by conceit is the English bulldog which cannot be born without human help and will live a short miserable life because of its crushed face and squashed skeleton.

But that’s just dogs. What about humans? We know that the English royal family -- indeed all the European royal families -- were so threatened by in-breeding that they have now resorted to movie stars and rich commoners to keep themselves from dying out. The Egyptians -- who married sisters to brothers because what else can you do if you’re the only gods in town -- DID die out. Now we run their mummies through the MRI and can only say, “Tut tut tut!” Poor creatures, so mal-formed and vulnerable.

But here’s some news that’s very sad and yet revealing.

“From New Scientist: Widespread inbreeding between the Darwin and Wedgwood families was probably to blame for Charles Darwin's ill health, and the childhood tragedies and infertility that blighted his family.

“That's the conclusion of an analysis examining links between ill health over four generations of the Darwin-Wedgwood dynasty and the degree of inbreeding between the families.”

And Darwin knew it. “Survival of the fittest” has a cutting edge if it’s “in-family.” He and his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood, had ten children, three of whom died before maturity. Three others married but had no children. Charles himself was plagued by illness that may have been related (so to speak) to the fact that his maternal grandparents were third cousins. This is only “a moderate level of inbreeding” according to Tim Berra, professor emeritus in the Department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology at the Ohio State University in Mansfield. But in the family's children, there was "a significant positive association between child mortality and inbreeding."

Did Thomas Jefferson know this? His first wife was white. His second wife (technically his slave) was black but a half-sister to his first wife. I’ve never seen an analysis of the two-family Jefferson vigor as compared with Darwin’s. It would be a daring but highly interesting thing to read.

Burns says, “A first cousin marriage does not, of course, mean instant problems. In fact, across the world, first-cousin marriages represent about 10% of all marriages.”

I didn’t know that. But when I run across them I notice -- for instance, James Earle Fraser’s marriage to Laura, who was both his cousin and his student and who were both excellent sculptors. The Frasers had no children.

Burns goes on, “That said, first cousin marriages do increase the chance for genetic defect.

“How much?

“A first-cousin marriage raises the risk of birth defect and mortality about as much as giving birth at age 41 instead of age 30.

“Of course, if a society has a history of marrying first-cousins, Coefficients of Inbreeding can rise rapidly and with it genetic defect.

“In Pakistan, where this kind of thing still occurs, one study estimated infant mortality at 12.7 percent for married double first cousins versus 5.1 percent for the progeny of unrelated parents.”

So presumably, marrying one’s first cousin but not having children would be without bad consequences. In fact, since the style and pace of the two people are more likely to be similar, cohabitation would go more smoothly. The old-time practicing polygamist plains Indians advised marrying sisters, so they would agree on how the housekeeping should be done.

Laws against miscegenation come from several sources: one is simply the arrogance of thinking one’s own characteristics are too valuable to be diluted by outsiders. Another is early knowledge about heredity, which could not be made specific by DNA allele analysis to see for sure whether two people carried the same faulty gene that would result in disaster for the children. And another comes from the idea that the Jukes and Kalikaks, early sociologically stigmatized families, lived in poverty with damaged children because of in-breeding rather than poor nutrition, industrial contamination, lack of opportunity or other factors for which society would have to take responsibility.

Around here there are several groups who are rather sensitive about inbreeding. Hutterites, who live in self-segregated groups, are now more strategic about getting the kids from one place to interact with and date Hutterite kids from another group. (However the rumors about drafting boy gene-donors persist.) I’ve heard many fullblood Blackfeet kids demand of their parents in exasperation, “Well, I really like this person. Don’t tell me I’m related to them, TOO!!” It’s an active taboo. In the old days there was enough raiding and out-migration to keep things mixed up, but the reservation system created problems. Until the invention of inter-tribal boarding schools, pow-wows, and athletic events. I don’t know how much Valier people think about descent from the founding Belgian ancestors who immigrated as a group not so long ago.

But the real reason I pay attention is that in Bob Scriver’s teen years, he fell in love with his cousin. It was what the French call a “white crush,” meaning no sex involved, just a kind of admiring intimacy. When the parents realized this, they came down excessively hard, never allowing the cousins to see each other again, which wasn’t very difficult since one was here in Browning and the other was in Quebec. They also prevented the letters that were the main bond between the youngsters. (Would this work in the age of the Internet?) In fact, Bob was lectured so harshly that throughout his lifetime he felt that he was “bad seed,” perverse, doomed, and tainted. It affected his marriages and other relationships. In fact, it is a good example of how the original offense was not so malign as was the blame imposed as punishment. In-breeding/miscegenation are two sides of the same coin. His mother was just as horrified by the idea of him marrying an Indian.

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