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Cousin Marriage

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What with demand for Volkswagens soaring, German Chancellor Merkel’s decision to let in (literally) countless numbers of newcomers from the Muslim world is being hailed as an economic masterstroke that will counteract the deleterious wage-boosting effects of the number of working-age residents in Germany being otherwise expected to plunge from 49.2 million in 2013 all the way down to 48.8 million in 2020.

But, strange as it may seem from reading The Economist, the word “demographics” means more than just “age.” One of the more interesting aspect of demographics is the “consanguinity” rate, or percentage of all marriages that are between first or second cousins, a statistic which correlates strikingly with a lack of what Europeans consider civic virtues.

Professor Alan Bittles of the Centre for Comparative Genomics at Murdoch U. tracks those rates at his website.

Interestingly, the Merkel Youth seem to come overwhelmingly from inbred cultures, which is probably not coincidental.

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When reading Stephen Colbert’s very funny book I Am America (And So Can You!), I kept getting the impression that at least one of Colbert’s writers was a reader of mine. Nothing at all was ripped off, but a lot seemed riffed off, which I very much like. Then I came to an entire page of the bestseller on the less-than-burning topic of cousin marriage, confirming my surmise.

So, for the benefit of Colbert writers, let me point out that the scientist, Alan Bittles, whose research I used most for my pre-Iraq war article on cousin marriage has a new pro-cousin marriage book out, Consanguinity in Context:

A Perth-based researcher has called for an end to the stigma surrounding marriage between cousins, after uncovering evidence that the health risks have been greatly exaggerated. 

Murdoch University adjunct professor Alan Bittles has shed new light on the consequences of intra-familial marriages, which he says are on the rise in Australia due to increased migration. 

Bittles has sought to address common misconceptions of same-blood marriage, from a social, medical and religious perspective, in a new book based on 35 years of research. 

Bittles claims more than 1.1 billion people are either married to a close relative or are the offspring of such a marriage, which are common in many Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Jewish communities. 

In his book, Consanguinity in Context, Bittles called for greater understanding and acceptance of the practice, which is largely taboo in Western countries. 

He said there was a general belief that first cousin marriages lead to negative genetic outcomes, yet a large majority of children born to first cousins are healthy. 

And in many cases of those born with defects, non-genetic factors were often to blame.

It’s kind of like how society is always getting upset at people who drive with their infants on their laps while texting. A large majority of the time, however, the baby doesn’t fly out the window of the moving car. And even if the infant does land on its head, it probably didn’t inherit good brains to start with, so no biggie. Likewise, why is society worried about Muslim immigrants forcing their daughters to marry a first cousin from the Old Country as part of an immigration fraud scheme and then having the taxpayers pay for a lifetime of care for the offspring with birth defects?

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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In contrast to the five poor daughters theme of Pride and Prejudice and Fiddler on the Roof, there’s the five rich sons theme of the real-life Rothschilds. From the NYT:

Rothschilds Bring In an Outsider to Run the Show


LONDON — More than 200 years ago a German banker, Mayer Amschel Rothschild, sent his five sons to different European cities to guarantee the survival of what became one of the most prominent banking dynasties.

This month, his great-great-great-grandson David de Rothschild, a baron, took an equally unusual step to ensure the future of the family-owned firm: For the first time, he passed some responsibilities of running Rothschild to someone outside the family.

So, how did Rothschilds stay in control of the family firm for so long? What happened to regression toward the mean?

Lance Morrow offered two explanations in Time in his review of Niall Ferguson’s 1998 book on the Rothschilds:

What was the Rothschilds’ secret? Commercial genius and intermarriage [he means inbreeding -- intermarriage is the opposite]. Rothschilds married Rothschilds; first cousins wed first cousins; and in one case an uncle took his niece as his bride. The 19th century was ignorant of the genetic risks–and in that respect, as in others, the Rothschilds were lucky. Close breeding kept the fortune cohesive. It ensured a unity of decision making and cooperation among the family’s five great banking houses–the world’s first multinational, with offices in London, Paris, Frankfurt, Vienna and Naples.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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Here’s the opening of an interesting new paper that will be presented at this year’s Human Behavior and Evolution Society meeting at Cal State Fullerton from May 27-31. “Consanguinity” means cousin marriage (typically, second cousins or closer relations):

Consanguinity as a major predictor of levels of democratization in a study of 55 countries.

Michael A. Woodley

Institution: School of Biological Sciences, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Abstract: This study reports the existence of a significant and robust correlation at the national data scale between consanguinity (as measured by the coefficient of inbreeding), and levels of democratization (as measured by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index) for a sample of 55 countries (r=-.77, P <.05). Comparative correlative analysis found that democracy exhibits a higher magnitude correlation with consanguinity than with measures of nine other factors believed to influence levels of democracy (economic freedom; education; GDP per capita; history of foreign occupation in last 100 years; human development; inequality; IQ; media age; and percentage exports in non-renewable resources). Multiple regression analysis further revealed that consanguinity was the strongest predictor of differences in levels of democracy, although three factors (history of foreign occupation in last 100 years; inequality; and percentage exports in non-renewable resources) also produced statistically significant ? coefficients. These results are interpreted in light of the theory that democracy only seems to be an optimal political system for countries in which consanguinity has not allowed for the extensive perpetuation of genetically closed kinship groupings (clans or tribes), as these will tend to maximize both their collective utility and inclusive fitness through securing resources at the expense of other kinship groupings.

It has been speculated that high levels of consanguinity within countries (mating between second cousins or closer, F <0.0156), prevents democratic nation building. High degrees of consanguinity within ethnic kinship groupings (traditional tribal groups and clans) are thought to generate mistrust between those groups through the reinforcement of endogamous social and biological arrangements, with non-democratic regimes emerging as a consequence of individuals turning to reliable kinship groupings for support rather than the market or the state (Kurtz, 2002; Sailer, 2004).

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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As I wrote in my early 2003 American Conservative article on why Iraqi social structures were likely to undermine America’s goal of nation-building in Iraq, “Cousin Marriage Conundrum” (which Steven Pinker selected for his anthology The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2004 anthology), about half of the married couples of Iraq are first or second cousins.

Reading Daniel Yergin’s history of the oil industry, The Prize, I discovered a great example of the logic behind this.

Imagine you are the dictator of an oil-rich country. Who is the most likely person to overthrow you?

Your Minister of Defense, right?

So, you could appoint your own first cousin as Minister. He’d be more loyal to you than some stranger would.

Yet, Shakespeare’s history plays about struggles for the English crown have been characterized as the War of the Cousins.

Or, you could appoint your own son-in-law. He’d be more loyal than some stranger would.

Yet, King James II of England was overthrown in 1688 by his son-in-law William of Orange.

But, if you were Saddam Hussein, you could appoint your own first cousin who is also your brother-in-law!

Yergin writes;

The new Iraqi regime — particularly the party, military, and security services — was dominated by Tikritis, many of them related in some way to Hussein. So obvious was their grip that in the mid-1970s the government banned the use of names that indicated clan, tribe, or locality of origin. At the top sat members of Hussein’s Talfah family and two other immediately related families, the only people he could trust — to the degree that he could trust anybody. He has already married his cousin, the daughter of his uncle Kahyr Allah Talfa. Now Adnan Khayr Ala Talfah — son of his uncle, brother of his wife, his own cousin — was Minister of Defense (a post he held until his death in a helicopter crash in 1989). Hussein Kamil Al-Majid, who happened to be both Hussein’s cousin and son-in-law, became chief weapons buyer, and responsible for the development of nuclear and chemical weapons and missiles. And the influence of [uncle and father-in-law] Khayr Allah Talfah continued to be felt. In 1981, the government printing house distributed a pamphlet by Talfah. Its title gave some idea of the thrust of his political thought: Three Whom God Should Not Have Invented: Persians, Jews, and Flies.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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Hibernia Girl graphs the relationship between corruption and rates of “consanguinity.”

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From the Times of London:

A government minister has warned that inbreeding among immigrants is causing a surge in birth defects – comments likely to spark a new row over the place of Muslims in British society.

Phil Woolas, an environment minister, said the culture of arranged marriages between first cousins was the “elephant in the room”. Woolas, a former race relations minister, said: “If you have a child with your cousin the likelihood is there’ll be a genetic problem.”

The minister, whose views were supported by medical experts this weekend, said: “The issue we need to debate is first cousin marriages, whereby a lot of arranged marriages are with first cousins, and that produces lots of genetic problems in terms of disability [in children].”

Woolas emphasised the practice did not extend to all Muslim communities but was confined mainly to families originating from rural Pakistan. However, up to half of all marriages within these communities are estimated to involve first cousins.

Medical research suggests that while British Pakistanis are responsible for 3% of all births, they account for one in three British children born with genetic illnesses.

Arranged first cousin marriages are also a vehicle for immigration fraud — they are a way to bring in more family members.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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It’s long been understood theoretically that there must exist a Darwinian fitness trade-off between too much inbreeding and too much outbreeding, but nobody knew where that was. If you marry your first cousin, you are likely to suffer a 30% higher infant mortality rate. But if you marry somebody too genetically dissimilar, you can start running into various reproductive problems as well.

Now, deCODE Genetics of Iceland, who foisted upon the world the most likely fallacious claim that James D. Watson is 25% nonwhite, is claiming that the Darwinian fitness sweetspot is 3rd cousin marriage:

In a paper published today deCODE scientists establish a substantial and consistent positive correlation between the kinship of couples and the number of children and grandchildren they have. The study, which analyzes more than 200 years of deCODE’s comprehensive genalogical data on the population of Iceland, shows that couples related at the level of third cousins have the greatest number of offspring. For example, for women born between 1800 and 1824, those with a mate related at the level of a third cousin had an average of 4.04 children and 9.17 grandchildren, while those related to their mates as eighth cousins or more distantly had 3.34 children and 7.31 grandchildren. For women born in the period 1925-1949 with mates related at the degree of third cousins, the average number of children and grandchildren were 3.27 and 6.64, compared to 2.45 and 4.86 for those with mates who were eighth cousins or more distantly related.

The findings hold for every 25-year interval studied, beginning with those born in the year 1800 up to the present day. Because of the strength and consistency of the association, even between couples with very subtle differences in kinship, the authors conclude that the effect very likely has a biological basis, one which has yet to be elucidated. The paper, ‘An association between the kinship and fertility of human couples,’ is published online in Science magazine at .

deCODE has access to the amazing Icelandic national family tree, in which most Icelanders who ever lived over the last 1000+ years are enrolled. Genealogy is easier in Iceland because there hasn’t been much immigration for the last 1000 years, and because of the surname system: for example, the PR lady who wrote this press release is named Berglind Olafsdottir — i.e., she is “Olaf’s daughter.”

Icelanders are of Scandinavian and Celtic descent.

The odds of genetic problems due to inheriting two deleterious recessive genes falls off pretty fast as you move from first cousin outward. I believe at the third cousin marriage level, it’s only 1/16th as high as at the first cousin marriage level, but don’t quote me when proposing marriage to somebody you met at Great Aunt Meg’s 90th birthday party. Still, I’m not sure how much faith I should put in these findings.

I could imagine some non-biochemical reasons for this, such as that 3rd cousins might have tended to marry at younger ages — in early modern England, as Gregory Clark pointed out in A Farewell to Alms, age of marriage is the main determinant of fertility. Or perhaps healthy people tended to quickly find spouses within their social circles, who tended to be related to them, while sickly people had to wander further afield to find somebody who would marry them.

John Hawks notes an even likelier reason: people who are descended from highly fertile people will have more third cousins to marry. That could be biological or cultural or both.

Some of it could be purely mathematical — the chance of falling in love with your third cousin depends in part on the number of third cousins you have.

And the number of cousins of any type you have is wildly dependent upon typical family size in your family tree. To simplify genealogical calculations, assume that every person in Family Tree A for the last four generations has had only one child, every person in Family Tree B has had exactly two children, and so forth. Here’s what you would face in terms of number of relatives of your own generation:

kids/family Siblings 1st Cousins 2nd Cousins 3rd Cousins
1 0 0 0 0
2 1 4 16 64
3 2 12 72 432
4 2 24 196 1536
5 4 40 400 4000

Thus, if everybody has had exactly one child for the last four generations, you would have no siblings, no cousins, no 2nd cousins, and no 3rd cousins. At your family reunion, you’d be assured of getting a big slice of the pie, but you’d be pretty lonely.

But if your ancestors had have a nice stable two surviving/breeding children per person, then you would have 1 sibling, 4 cousins, 16 2nd cousins, and 64 3rd cousins.

Yet, if your ancestors averaged five children surviving to reproduce, you’d have 4,000 third cousins!

Of course, humans do not breed in an evolutionarily stable manner. We’ve taken over this planet by having more than two children each. So, most people are descended, on average, from people who had more surviving children than the average.

It rural Iceland, if you came from “good stock,” it might have been hard to avoid marrying your third cousin.

Anyway, I haven’t seen the paper yet, so I can’t tell if the the deCODE people have been able to deal with these objections. They certainly have a lot of data to work with.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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A Lieutenant Colonel writes from Iraq:

I just read your 2003 article, “Cousin Marriage Conundrum.” You’re right on the money about Iraq. I am at the end of my 1 year tour in Iraq serving as a military advisor to an Iraqi Army brigade in the northern Kurdish Region. From my observations, it is clear to me that Iraqi obsession with sect and tribe is a major obstacle to reconciliation and development. Of the two, I must say that I believe sectarianism is the greater challenge, based upon my observations during 110 days in Baghdad with my Iraqi Brigade. But even this is related to tribalism, in that sectarianism as practiced in Iraq has little to do with belief (although shia and sunni do have different beliefs) and much to do with group identity — for the average Shia and Sunni are simply tags to identify group membership much more than flashpoints for theological debate. This sectarian group consciousness has become so heightened that Arabs I meet even in safe S_______ will only reveal their sect after great prodding, for fear of retalion (interestingly, this same phenomenon prevailed in Somalia when I was their 15 years ago — in that extremely clannish culture, it is considered very impolite to ask someone about their clan affiliation, and even my local hire interpreter dodged telling me what his clan was — I still do not know to this day).

On the other hand, pure tribal identity still plays a big role in Iraq. You can see this in evidence in Anbar, where attacks against Coalition and Iraqi Government forces have dropped precipitously after the tribal sheyks determined that Al Qaida was a bigger threat than the US and decided to forge an alliance with us. Another example is in the northern region, where the Iraqi units tasked with defending oil infrastructure were recruited locally, and do nothing to stop attacks on that very infrastructure, because most of the attackers are their relatives and fellow tribesmen.

There is an interesting counterpoint to the enduring nature of tribal loyalty in Iraq, however, and that is the Kurdish Region. As late as the 1960s tribal affiliation was still the dominate social identity for many Kurds – even to the point that the Iraqi regime was able to rally sizeable armed support against the Kurdish rebellion from among the Kurds themselves, by exploiting tribal rivalries and wooing tribal aghas and chiefs. Even as late as the early to mid-1970s, the great Kurdish leader, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, derived most of his power from his tribal base rather than from a political constituency (even though he was president of the Kurdish Democratic Party). Now however, a completely different situation prevails. While the tribes still exist and have some influence, they have mostly been emasculated of any real power. Furthermore, Kurds almost universally identify more with their ethnic identity than with any other source of identity, be it tribe, sect, religious affiliation (christian, Yezidi, Kakiye, etc) or State citizenship. However, all is not roses – to a certain extent, political party affiliation has supplanted tribal affiliation as a claimant to allegiance and a source of patronage, with the two main parties – the Kurdish Democratic Party led by Kurdish Regional Government President Massoud Barzani (son of Mullah Mustafa) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan headed by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Needless to say, the vast power of these two parties has led to friction – even major violence as in the civil war in the mid- to late 1990s — and corruption. That said, the Kurdish Region is far better developed politically, socially, and economically than the rest of Iraq, due in no small measure to the leadership of these two parties. So the chains of tribalism can be broken, as they have been in the Kurdish region.

It doesn’t always turn out this well, however. Somalia is another interesting case in point. Here, the power of traditional tribal elders was broken by the erection of the superstructure of the modern nation-state over the country. When this government was overthrown in 1992, people still identified themselves by clan, but the traditional clan leaders had lost all influence. The result – any s***head kid with an AK-47 suddenly was the real power in town – and tended to use that power against other people from rival tribes.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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A reader writes:

I think that your paper misses one of the prime motivators for first cousin marriage (at least among the community in which I gained some familiarity with it – Panjabi Muslims). In communities where extended families are still the norm, the success or otherwise of a marriage depends a lot on the relationship with the in-laws – for the bride in particular. She may have a great relationship with her husband, but if his mother doesn’t like her, she can make her life hell. And in fact it is almost expected that the relationship between mother in law and daughter in law will be very high conflict. A side effect of patriarchy – generally, older women have authority over younger women, having served their time at the bottom of the heap, they are forthright in exercising power over the “new girls” as they come along. When you give your daughter into her new family, you know that you are giving that family a lot of power over her – the power of life and death, in some cases, given the rate of honour killings and dowry deaths (among Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus alike). So who do you trust your daughter to? Your article refers to an immigrant bringing in “his’ nephew – but it is generally the women who play the major role in arranging the marriages (although the men certainly get to say yes or no). So when it comes to “who can I trust to care for my daughter” the answer is often “she will be safe in my sister’s home”. Or my husband’s sister’s/brother’s home – I haven’t done any empirical research as to how common it is to marry along the matrilineal vs patrilineal line (remembering that those lines are often related).

Of course, that trust is often completely misplaced. I’m not sure that kin relationships mean as much as your article makes out, especially when they are often artificially created – a lot of people aren’t really conscious of how many of their “aunties and uncles” are blood aunties and uncles. I rather doubt that it has much effect on social institutions in the ways described but that is a whole paper in itself rather than an e-mail.

Again, I don’t have the empirical evidence to hand, but it is not true that the cousin-marriage for immigration purposes “almost always works just in one direction — with the new husband moving from the poor Muslim country to the rich European country” – brides are often brought over for British (or other Western) grooms. This is thought to re-infuse the family with the “home culture”, and there is a perception that a girl from back home will be more “traditional” (again this is often untrue). And while men generally have more autonomy in refusing a marriage, and are more likely to be forgiven if they walk right away from the whole thing, they too come under enormous emotional pressure in these situations. (“you will drag our family’s name into the mud and your sisters will never find husbands”). In Pakistan, I know a middle class man who was not told that his wedding had been planned and the bride selected until 3 days beforehand. He went ahead with it because if he had not, everyone would have assumed that he had somehow found out something disgraceful about the girl’s history, and she would have been dishonoured. Even though he had never met her, he didn’t want to do that to her – not to mention the drama and “dishonour” it would have caused in his own family – the girl’s family (this wasn’t a cousin match) would certainly have defended her honour by attacking their good name.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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Steven Pinker’s “Inherit the Wind: Our Weird Obsession with Genealogyis the cover story in the August 6, 2007 issue of The New Republic . Here’s an excerpt:

In the struggle between society and family, the exponential mathematics of kinship ordinarily works to the advantage of society. As time passes or groups get larger, family trees intertwine, dynasties dissipate, and nepotistic emotions get diluted. But families can defend themselves with a potent tactic: they can graft the twig tips of the family tree together by cousin marriage. If you force your daughter to marry her first cousin, then your son-in-law is your nephew, her father-inlaw is your brother, your parents’ estate will be worth twice as much per grandchild, and the couple will never have to bicker about which side of the family to visit on holidays. For these reasons, clans and dynasties in many cultures encourage first-or second-cousin marriage, tolerating the slightly elevated risk of genetic disease. Not only does cousin marriage amplify the average degree of relatedness among members of the clan, but it enmeshes them in a network of triangular relationships, with kinsmen valuing each other because of their many mutual kin as well as their own relatedness. As a result, the extended family, clan, or tribe can emerge as a powerfully cohesive bloc—and one with little common cause with other families, clans, or tribes in the larger polity that comprises them. The anthropologist Nancy Thornhill has shown that the prohibitions against incestuous marriages in most societies are not public-health measures aimed at reducing birth defects but the society’s way of fighting back against extended families.

In January 2003, during the buildup to the war in Iraq, the journalist and blogger Steven Sailer published an article in The American Conservative in which he warned readers about a feature of that country that had been ignored in the ongoing debate. As in many traditional Middle Eastern societies, Iraqis tend to marry their cousins. About half of all marriages are consanguineous (including that of Saddam Hussein, who filled many government positions with his relatives from Tikrit). The connection between Iraqis’ strong family ties and their tribalism, corruption, and lack of commitment to an overarching nation had long been noted by those familiar with the country. In 1931, King Faisal described his subjects as “devoid of any patriotic idea … connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil; prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatsoever.” Sailer presciently suggested that Iraqi family structure and its mismatch with the sensibilities of civil society would frustrate any attempt at democratic nation-building. [More]

Overall, Pinker does an excellent job of synthesizing what I’ve been writing for years, with one lacuna, which I’ll explain at another time.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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Chris Caldwell has a good article in the NY Times Magazine, “Where Every Generation Is First-Generation,” on how Turks in Germany are not assimilating because of arranged marriages with people, often cousins, from the old country.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
Steve Sailer
About Steve Sailer

Steve Sailer is a journalist, movie critic for Taki's Magazine, columnist, and founder of the Human Biodiversity discussion group for top scientists and public intellectuals.

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