Book Incest and Influence:
The book Incest and Influence by Adam Kuper, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2009 is a delightful read.  It is about Victorian England and it is probably best if you like Victorian English novels.  There are lots of people to keep track of.

As you may suspect already, there were lots of cousin marriages at least for parts of the 19th century.  And there were lots of children.  Yes, we would have expected that.  There were a lot of very capable people.  According to no less a redoubtable source as the movie The King’s Speech, the English government in the 20th century ruled a third of the world’s people.  India at one time was administered by a government agency that numbered, if memory serves, about 100,000 serving a population of some 100,000,000.  At that rate your total tax burden might be about 1% and the government would be in the black.  Evidently there is an English tendency to assume that most people are going to behave decently most of the time. 

Then they stopped marrying cousins, the children dwindled and the empire pretty much collapsed.  This of course is not the subject of the book.  The book examines close kin marriages and also the prejudice against them.

The prejudice is a bit of a puzzle.  There was a time when the Catholic Church forbad marriages out to about 7th cousin.  There is of course absolutely no scriptural basis for this, rather the contrary.  But what was the basis?  I do not know, but I take it that the church was largely under the control of men who had sworn not to have families.  Reproduction cannot have been high on their list of priorities.  The powerful ones were from powerful families of course.  That means that those families had for generations had the wide social horizon that we have seen leads to progressively more catastrophic infertility.  Let’s see.  They had the big social pool, few babies and frowned on kin marriages.  We have the big social pool, few babies and frown on kin marriages.  I suspect there is a connection.  The impasse I have reached with so many people seems subjectively to me to be more than superstition.  They get this blank look.  Then usually they simply walk away.  More commonly they will make a reply suggesting they fully understand and then a moment later there is an almost audible clunk and they say something just the opposite of what we had both agreed on.  It’s not like I get, “Here, wait a minute.  No I can’t accept that.  That can’t be true.”  I get, “I see.  You must marry kin to have enough babies….  But we are never going to run out of babies.  There are always lots of people who marry people they aren’t related to at all.”

So I suspect a degree of instinct.  Mother Nature has tampered with our minds. 

After the Reformation, church influence declined and cousin marriages increased.  That’s from the book.  And the book goes on to say that the prejudice against them slowly reemerged.  Charles Darwin himself married a first cousin and then turned right around and said that marrying cousins was a bad thing and led to insanity.  Can’t have been much peace in that home, eh what?  Then his son took the attitude, “All right, let’s see if that is the case.”  So he did an elegant study and found that cousin marriages actually reduced the number of children that had to be kept in institutions for mental reasons. 

Of course from our own perspective we can see what was going on.  Rh incompatibility was rampant in those days and not understood.  It results from certain combinations of genes with the mother and the fetus having different genes at a key location.  The protection offered by cousin marriages from Rh disease just about accounts for the difference.

Ah, say you perhaps, we now know how to deal with Rh incompatibility (Well, we know, but we have chosen a second best course of action, maybe third best.), so that doesn’t count any longer.  And I would have to agree.  But then we can also screen for a host of other genes so marrying cousins becomes fairly safe again.  (Nothing is safe.)

Now you would think that Darwin, seeing the evidence, would have become a convert.  Nay, he only yielded to a degree but persisted in his discredited belief to the extent that there was no evidence.

Now of course the prejudice is rampant, but that gets beyond the book again.  It was a splendid read. 

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