Slandering Appalachia:
I have written about this before, but I would like to mention it again under the heading of folkways.  Many years ago a man spent his summers strolling around the mountains of eastern United States chatting with people about their families.  He was tapping into an information network that had long existed.  People were happy to talk about their families and traced them back and out for many generations.  If we are to survive, this will be a skill we must all develop.  We must know or know how to find out who are cousins are out as far as the 10th or so.  But at the time, and even at present, this folkway is simply considered an oddity by the uninformed, which is essentially everybody else.

There were problems with his work.

First, it was unethical.  There was no way the people who were opening up their family secrets could have known that this would place them in a bad light for the rest of the world.  He, too, might not have known.  But there are many things that have been done unethically by people who thought they were in the right. 

Second, there was no control.  What he was doing was putting together genealogies.  His theory was that people inherited genes just exactly the way Mendel’s peas did.  In order to do this, he had to have extensive knowledge about large genealogies and to have some markers he could follow; they had to be things that people would notice.  I do not exactly remember what things he was looking at, but they tended to be things like color blindness, hair lip or intellectual achievement.  They had to be noticeable but not fatal.  What he did not do was to compare the incidence of such things in his own study with the incidence in any other population.

He found such things.  They followed the classical laws of genetics.  He published his results.  People could see how recessive deleterious genes could be inherited in such a way as cousins might express them.  The public reaction was and remains, “How terrible.  These people are marrying cousins and that is causing them to be deformed and mentally impaired.”  So far as it goes, that case can be argued.  However without a control it is impossible to say, “That is causing them to be more deformed and mentally impaired than people in other populations,” or even “more deformed and mentally impaired than they would be if they did not marry cousins.”  In fact at the time, Rh incompatibility was so common and so severe that they were probably less frequently mentally impaired than other populations in most of the rest of the United States and less frequently mentally impaired than they would have been with a random mating strategy. 

The inbreeding accused of doing genetic damage was actually reducing it. 

In fact I do not know whether he reported Rh incompatibility at all.  It certainly would have followed the genetic laws he was interested in had he understood it.  Perhaps the issue was not yet understood.  Still, looking at all that data, it is surprising that he suspected nothing.  There had to be a pattern.  A couple would marry, have one healthy child and then a number of other children, all of whom would be mentally impaired or would die, and this would happen more often when people did not marry cousins. 

But there is one problem he could not have known about.  That is the problem of urban infertility we have discussed so much.  At Harvard Medical school they showed us some of his original results.  Sure enough there were family trees following multiple generations showing how cousins were marrying and their children inheriting two copies of bad genes and have regrettable consequences.  What struck me then, and I regret not having pursued it at the time, was the families were so large.  The common response would have been, “They shouldn’t be having all those children if they have bad genes.”  I thought the “bad genes” were usually no serious matter and that having children was not necessarily a bad thing at all.  But alas I did not pick up the clue.  I do not see how I could have run the truth down back then, in the absence of adequate computers, of studies that have been done since, and of knowledge of how demographics have evolved over the intervening decades.

The problem is that why this negative reaction of people.  It is not justified by the facts.  I suspect the answer is just more urban propaganda.  The urban society needs recruits to survive.  Recruitment can be nice, of the form, “Come to town and make more money or have a more interesting mental life,” or it can be nasty, of the form, “If you don’t come to town you are a nasty and contemptible bumpkin.” The sentiment was and remains the nasty form of recruitment.

There have been 943 visitors so far.  This is research not advice.  Linton Herbert

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