Wednesday 2 March 2011

First cousin marriage: good, bad or indifferent?


I was recently re-reading my favourite Charles Williams novel The Place of the Lion and noticed for the first time that the lovers (Anthony and Damaris) are first cousins.

In the novel, the fact that they are cousins is treated as a 'good thing' - it seems to imply that there is a kind of familial love between them, as well as an erotic love.

In Tolkien's world, Hobbits often marry their cousins - and this also seems to be regarded as 'a good thing' on the whole.

Yet this matter of cousin marriage (or sex) is in fact highly controversial around the world: ranging from societies where cousins (even double cousins - on both the mother's and father's side) are more-or-less forced to marry, through a mildly pro-cousin marriage atttude such as that exemplified by Charles Williams and Tolkien, though indifference to cousinness as an irrelevance to marriage, to first cousin marriage being actually illegal (in many US states).

This is a quite remarkable - but almost un-remarked - range of opinion.

Anthropologists have shown that some societies more or less depend on cousin marriage for their cohesion (a cohesion based on genetic relatedness - the cohesion of 'clans'); while for other societies - especially more modern societies - the cohesion of families is a direct threat to the cohesion of the larger state.

Of course there are concerns (or pseudo-concerns) about 'in-breeding' being a bad thing; on the other hand there is some evidence that a degree of inbreeding is beneficial to biological fitness.

I simply flag this up as a fascinating but almost-ignored divergent aspect of social morality: is the ideal spouse a cousin, or anything-but-a-cousin?



dearieme said...

The bio problem is quite real, but arises particularly when cousin marriage is pursued across generation after generation. The occasional cousin-cousin marriage in a society where it is rare needn't be a big worry.

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting point which I'd never really noticed before.

I'm curious about your mention of evidence that some degree of inbreeding is beneficial. Do you happen to remember where you read that?

Bruce Charlton said...

Here is some reading matter for WmJas:

I don't think that cousin marriage should be illegal even if it is certainly associated with a higher rate of genetic problems.

I just don't see the *moral* principle which would make it reasonable to make cousin marriage illegal.

Certainly there is nothing in 'natural law' or spontaneous morality (i.e. no 'yuck factor') which would indicate CM ought to be prohibited; and I'm not aware of any specifically Christian prohibition?

Anonymous said...

Cousin marriage has significant inbreeding costs, a substantially higher rate of defective children but resolves the problems of patriarchy - the wife is unlikely to be oppressed, even in a society that allows husbands to execute wives.

Bruce Charlton said...

JAD - good point. I have seen a modern empirical study which showed that proximity of relatives was protective of the wife.

a Finn said...

Razib Khan (from the linked article): "... but it ignores the possibility of pedigree collapse leading to mutational meltdown. It’s happening today to the Samaritans; generations of inbreeding have not produced superior individuals purged of deleterious alleles, rather, it has generated a population on the verge of biological extinction because of high rates of birth defects."

- This is not the first time I hear something like this about Samaritans. I think we should establish a clearing house, a counter news agency, which doesn't produce any news on it's own, just clears the newsstream from it's constant lies, to show what a fairly neutral newsstream would look like.

Clearly, to liberals Samaritans serve as a monster/ horror story, the purpose of which is to produce "voluntary" repulsion and avoidance in masses towards any social organization that resembles Samaritans, i.e. their enduring social bonds, which have all kinds of consequences to their level of consumption; interchangeability with other human units; will to move from one place to another and react and act according to incentives power has sown in the environment; conformity to standardized interaction formulas of large complex organizations; collective power and influence; willingness to accept outside rules, propaganda and regulations; etc.

In short, they are "hard to handle", less governable, despite the fact that Samaritans are known for their diplomacy and outward conformity to outside society (And verbal and persuasive abilities; Samaritans say that they can win out over Jewish rabbis in debates). Liberal power would cease to exist if Samaritan-like social arrangements would become widespread in society. The functioning of liberalism is dependent on atomization.

What's the truth then about Samaritans?

In 1918 there were 146 Samaritans, in 2007 720, and there were many times between that were not favourable to procreation. The number of Samaritans is projected to be in the thousands after a couple of decades, i.e. they are procreating when they are young and they have high birthrates. I don't have the percentages of genetic disorders in their community (and it's not a coincidence that this is not mentioned in stories about Samaritans, it is likely too low), but it is a tragedy that affects individuals in individual families, not viability and functioning of the Samaritan community. In recent times there have been some imbalances between the number of young men and young women, so some Samaritan men have had to find wives from outside the Samaritan community. This is in principle against the endogamy rules of Samaritans. Long history of endogamy in lineages is one important factor affecting status in the community. It's normal that Samaritan men can prove pure lineages 12-16 generations back with their records.
Liberals have celebrated the Samaritan intermarriages as "opening up to the world and "liberalization". But:

a) Traditionalist majority in the community adheres to the endogamy rules strictly, and they don't take spouses from intermarried families.

b) The wives in intermarried families are Jewish, i.e. they are seen to be fairly close ethnically and religiously to Samaritans.

c) Jewish wives have to go through long and demanding trial and conversion process to Samaritan religion, culture and customs.

d) New intermarriages are actively discouraged.

Also, in the liberal horror stories it has been pointed out that Samaritan couples have taken genetic tests to prevent genetic disorders in children. This has represented a sign of Samaritan "desperation" to liberals, another sign of "bankcrupty" of their way of life. But genetic testing against genetic disorders is normal policy in Israel, and it is used widely by Jews to prevent genetic diseases. Samaritans are just one more group participating normally in that policy.

Conclusion: Samaritans will outlive liberalism and liberals.