The logical default:
Recently a kind friend produced data that superficially seemed to support what I have been saying all along: the population that marries no kin dies.  But on closer inspection I saw that the results were ambiguous.  There was an alternative explanation.  Sufficient data might have been conclusive, but what was given was no hard proof. 

Then I reflected that I shouldn’t have to prove anything.  Our ancestors married kin for eons, and here we are.  So it works.  It positively works.  You can do that.  Over the past few generations most people in the developed world have shunned marrying kin.  It’s a teaching to the discredited school called “Eugenics,” and the horrors of Nazi Germany can be in large part attributed to that school.  I should have thought that was enough to induce a powerful prejudice against eugenics right from the start.  They taught you must not marry outside your “race” – whatever that word means to you.  That would seem harmless.  Our ancestors didn’t do a whole lot of it, so it can’t be necessary.  Secondary prejudice has done a lot of harm, but the actual lack of such matches is tolerable.  And eugenics taught you must never marry kin.  That one we clutch to out bosoms.  But it has never really been proven.  And making such a profound change as going from always kin to never kin, even if you knew nothing else at all, is obviously dangerous.  At best you cannot know where it leads. 

Compare that with the flu.  Something less than a century ago there was an epidemic of Spanish flu.  It was called that because Spain was the only country in which the authorities did not panic and suppress the information that there was a serious flu pandemic.  What in the world can they have been thinking? 

There is a clear danger against which the only conceivable protection is knowledge that it is there and prudent precautions against it taken by individuals, and they suppress the information.  Are they trying to kill us all? 

Spanish flu was quite simply the worst thing that ever happened.  It killed more otherwise healthy and happy people than any other event in history.  But the fact remains that most people who got it did survive.

It’s different with bird flu.  There is a strain of H5B1 virus that does kill most of the people who get it.  The idea that it is so bad has been discounted without evidence.  But one expert is quoted as saying, “You walk into a poultry house and everything is dead.”  It would take a lot to reassure me after that one. 

Bird flu doesn’t get around between people all that well.  I think there is one case where a man died of it while it was wiping out birds on the other side of a river.  He had not been around birds.  He probably got it from a person.  But it is rare.

Then a few years ago it became evident that there were five different mutations in the virus that had occurred in the wild.  If they all got into one virus, then it would be expected to transmit easily between people.  Within a few days most of the world would be dead of the virus and the rest would have serious problems from the disruption of things like the food supply.  I stocked up on enough food to last a few weeks and maybe some gas to cook it with and some water.  The crisis passed.  I ate the food.  I still have a couple small tanks of cooking gas. 

Not content to watch and see if nature would let all five mutations get together, some people went ahead and did the genetic work to put them together.  Sure enough the virus was easily transmitted between ferrets, the animal that is the best model for flu transmission resembling that in humans.  (Flu Papers Warrant Full Publication NATURE vol. 482 no. 7386 February 23, 2012 page 439)  There was a flap.  Some people thought that the paper should be suppressed lest some diabolical fiend make the virus and release it into the world.

It’s a little late.  The mutations were published years ago.  The technique of splicing them together is standard.  The fiend has had everything he needed for a long time.  The only news is that, yes, it would probably work.  And that news is already on the headlines.  Nonetheless there are serious meetings trying to decide whether the benefits of publishing the paper such as increasing knowledge of just what we might be up against, outweigh the risk of saving the fiend a little trouble getting it all together. 

It may be regrettable that infectious disease is not subject to the same restrictions as say you to make an atomic bomb.  Maybe some knowledge is just too dangerous to be made public just as some knowledge is just too vital to be left lying.  But at least they are talking about it.  And in the meantime the default is to keep it hushed up until they are sure.  That’s the right default. 

But the issue of marrying kin is far more important that bird flu.  Nobody, not even I, expects an epidemic of a virus simply to exterminate us.  A fair number of people do survive, and in a few weeks it will all be over if it happens at all. 

So the right default, the prudent choice, must be to assume that marrying kin is the way to go until lots and lots of research and public debate have been done.  Then maybe, just maybe, some advantage of abandoning it would be seen to outweigh some small but inevitable residual risk.  That is unless the evidence continues to point the way the evidence now points, in which case at least people ought to know the consequences of their actions. 

But that is not the way it is playing out.

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