Kinship and thought:
People think (I think we do.) and people use words.  (Hoo, boy.  And how.)  The words we use influence our thoughts.  Take in English the word “leech.”  It is very old.  It is not clear to linguists whether it first meant the little blood sucking critter or a physician.  And blood sucking continues to imply taking financial advantage of someone.  Before antibiotics (and it wasn’t so long ago), the average person consulting the average physician for the average complaint did not come away with an improvement in that complaint.  As  my father taught me, “There is a vast difference between a good doctor and a bad one.  But there is very little difference between a good doctor and no doctor at all.”  He learned that from a young doctor who was renting a room from us. 

People have different ways of describing kinship.  It’s not just the words differing in different languages.  Just whom a word might cover varies.  Of the 6,000 languages known, there are not two that use exactly the same system of kinship.  (Stephen C Levinson Kinship and Human Thought SCIENCE vol. 336 no. 6084 May 25, 2012 page 988)

The payload, of course, is marriage systems.  That was laid out by Robin Fox in Kinship and Marriage a long time ago.  Analyzing kinship systems has waned and waxed since then, but the emphasis on marriage has not returned in what I have read.  Of course it should.  Thinking about kin means thinking about possible partners.  And systems vary.  Looking at the distribution of different systems world wide they seem distributed largely at random.  Of course if you are in a culture that prescribes marrying kin, you are not likely to be attracted to a culture in which the system is different and the language is different.  Modern Americans would have a great deal of difficulty warming up to a culture in which it was insisted that each man try to marry his father’s brother’s daughter, for instance. 

Most people have married cousins most of the time throughout history.  So kinship systems have been crucial.  There are two cultures in which you can marry anybody you like, age and sex permitting.  The Eskimo do it that way, but their low population density has assured an average degree on consanguinity that has been consistent. 

The other system, not yet established as being viable in the long run and certainly not looking good in that regard, is the modern urban one.  But although the system seems pretty permissive (there are places that accept single sex marriages) there is one rule that abides: don’t marry a parent, a sibling or a cousin.

Aha.  You see how the vocabulary plays on the mind.  By cousin is usually meant a first cousin, the child of the sibling of a parent.  But technically a cousin means anybody you are related to at all.  Hmm.  That would be everybody, wouldn’t it?  Don’t we all trace back to a single mother at some time in the invisible but calculatable past?  And don’t we all trace back the same way to a single father?  I doubt the two ever met.  It’s just sort of a trick of arithmetic.  Genes change at some rate.  Given the amount of change per generation and given the maximum genetic diversity of humans, you can get a number of generations.  You can follow mitochondrial DNA if you want to find Eve and the Y chromosome DNA if you are looking for Adam.  If fact it is quite common to use this kind of calculation to ascertain the time since two different species diverged, or genera if you like.  Sometimes that seems to match the fossil record better than at other times.  But nobody doubts that such a calculation is possible.

We are all cousins, except I suppose siblings, parents, children, aunts, uncles, grand and great grand and so forth parents and children.  You can throw in-laws in there if you like.  I’ve never heard of a cousin-in-law.  That just about exhausts our vocabulary and exhausts our thinking.  You don’t marry cousins.  And logically that means you don’t marry at all.  And effectively, the outcome looks like it will be the same.

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