Wednesday, 16 July 2014

A note on the viability (and desirability) of cousin marriage under historical conditions


The modern consensus is that cousin marriage is 'a bad thing' because of the higher probability of genetic disease among close-ish relative.

Cultures which practice cousin marriage certainly experience much higher rates of genetic disorders - especially those relating to rare and recessive genes. The clinical genetics wards in the UK are very obviously populated by the offspring of such cultures.

But, in the conditions of historical human selection, this doesn't matter.

Before about 1800, all human societies experienced very high rates of child mortality (probably about 2/3 or 3/4 of children died before maturity) - so most babies that were born would not have survived until adulthood.

Any significantly deleterious gene combinations resulting from relatedness would be eliminated by this harsh selective sieve.

So a somewhat higher rate of genetic diseases would barely be noticeable, and easily outweighed by the group benefits and social advantages which cousin marriages might be expected to bring.





  1. In fact the eugenic argument against inbreeding is valid only in the short term. Outbreeding, by masking deleterious recessive genes, may give your children a better phenotype, but by delaying the necessary purifying selection it probably harms your great-great-grandchildren. Perhaps someone who knows can tell me whether cattle breeders bother to avoid inbreeding.

  2. @Karl - Good point. Animal breeders (of course!) work by inbreeding, they don't avoid it. But they cull the failures - or at least exclude them from the breeding stock, which amounts to the same thing.

  3. As an example, the German Shepherd breed was created via heavy culling of unwanted young. A lot of inbreeding for desired qualities + killing or not-breeding of any stock with undesired traits. We purchased a pure-bred and when my wife read up on the history she was horrified.