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Article 8

By Richard Connzfl

In Paris in 1876 a 31-year-old banker named Albert took an 18- marriage, it made the front page of The New York Times. The
year-old named Bettina as his wife. Both were Rothschilds, and study, published in the Journal of Genetic Counseling last year,
they were cousins. According to conventional notions about in- determined that children of first cousins face about a 2 to 3 per-
breeding, their marriage ought to have been a prescription for cent higher risk of birth defects than the population at large. To
infertility and enfeeblement. put it another way, first-cousin marriages entail roughly the
In fact, Albert and Bettina went on to produce seven chil- same increased risk of abnormality that a woman undertakes
dren, and six of them lived to be adults. Moreover, for genera- when she gives birth at 41 rather than at 30. Banning cousin
tions the Rothschild family had been inbreeding almost as mamages makes about as much sense, critics argue, as trying to
intensively as European royalty, without apparent ill effect. De- ban childbearing by older women.
spite his own limited gene pool, Albert, for instance, was an out-
doorsman and the seventh person ever to climb the Matterhorn. THE MARRIAGE OF ALBERT ROTHSCHILD
The American du Ponts practiced the same strategy of cousin AND BETTINA ROTHSCHILD WAS THE
mamage for a century. Charles Darwin, the grandchild of first
cousins, married a first cousin. So did Albert Einstein. RESULT OF FOUR GENERATIONS OF
In our lore, cousin marriages are unnatural, the province of INBREEDING IN THE BANKING
hillbillies and swamp rats, not Rothschilds and Darwins. In the DYNASTY-A PRACTICE ADVOCATED BY
United States they are deemed such a threat to mental health THE FAMILY FOUNDER MAYER AMSCHEL
that 3 1 states have outlawed first-cousin marriages. This phobia ROTHSCHILD. HIS INTENTION WAS
is distinctly American, a heritage of early evolutionists with CERTAINLY A FRUITFUL ONE IF THE
misguided notions about the upward march of human societies.
Their fear was that cousin marriages would cause us to breed
our way back to frontier savagery---or worse. "You can't marry SUCCESS IS THE PRESERVATION
your first cousin," a character declares in the 1982 play OF WEALTH.
Brighton Beach Memoirs. "You get babies with nine heads."
So when a team of scientists led by Robin L. Bennett, a ge- But the nature of cousin maniage is far more surprising than
netic counselor at the University of Washington and the presi- recent publicity has suggested. A closer look reveals that mod-
dent of the National Society of Genetic Counselors, announced erate inbreeding has always been the rule, not the exception, for
that cousin marriages are not significantly riskier than any other humans. Inbreeding is also commonplace in the natural world,

and contrary to our expectations, some biologists argue that this family: "The marriages that I should prefer for our colony would
can be a very good thing. It depends in part on the degree of in- be between the cousins. In that way we should be sure of honesty
breeding. of soul and purity of blood." He got his wish, with seven cousin
The idea that inbreeding might sometimes be beneficial is mamages in the family during the 19th century. Mayer Amschel
clearly ,contrarian. So it's important to acknowledge first that in- Rothschild, founder of the banking family, likewise arranged his
breeding can sometimes also go horribly wrong-and in ways affairs so that cousin mamages among his descendants were in-
that, at first glance, make our stereotypes about cousin marriage evitable. His will barred female descendants from any direct in-
seem completely correct. heritance. Without an inheritance, female Rothschilds had few
possible marriage partners of the same religion and suitable eco-
A CLOSER LOOK REVEALS THAT nomic and social stature--except other Rothschilds. Rothschild
brides bound the family together. Four of Mayer's granddaugh-
ters mamed grandsons, and one married her uncle. These were
BEEN THE RULE, NOT THE EXCEPTION, hardly people whose mate choice was limited by the distance they
FOR HUMANS could walk on their day off.
Some families have traditionally chosen inbreeding as the best
In the Yorkshire city of Bradford, in England, for instance, a strategy for success because it offers at least three highly practical
majority of the large Pakistani community can trace their ori- benefits. First, such marriages make it likelier that a shared set of
gins to the village of Mirpur in Kashmir, which was inundated cultural values will pass down intact to the children.
by a new dam in the 1960s. Cousin marriages have been cus- Second, cousin marriages make it more likely that spouses
tomary in Kashmir for generations, and more than 85 percent of will be compatible, particularly in an alien environment. Such
Bradford's Palustanis marry their cousins. Local doctors are marriages may be even more attractive for Pakistanis in Brad-
seeing sharp spikes in the number of children with serious ge- ford, England, than back home in Kashmir. Intermarriage de-
netic disabilities, and each case is its own poignant tragedy. One creases the divorce rate and enhances the independence of
couple was recently raising two apparently healthy children. wives, who retain the support of familiar friends and relatives.
Then, when they were 5 and 7, both were diagnosed with neural Among the 19th-century du Ponts, for instance, women had an
degenerative disease in the same week. The children are now equal vote with men in family meetings.
slowly dying. Neural degenerative diseases are eight times Finally, marrying cousins minimizes the need to break up
more common in Bradford than in the rest of the United family wealth from one generation to the next. The rich have
Kingdom. frequently chosen inbreeding as a means to keep estates intact
The great hazard of inbreeding is that it can result in the un- and consolidate power.
masking of deleterious recessives, to use the clinical language Moderate inbreeding may also produce biological benefits.
of geneticists. Each of us carries an unknown number of Contrary to lore, cousin mamages may do even better than or-
genes-an individual typically has between five and seven- dinary marriages by the standard Darwinian measure of suc-
capable of killing our children or grandchildren. These so- cess, which is reproduction. A 1960 study of first-cousin
called lethal recessives are associated with diseases like cystic marriages in 19th-century England done by C . D. Darlington, a
fibrosis and sickle-cell anemia. geneticist at Oxford University, found that inbred couples pro-
Most lethal genes never get expressed unless we inherit the duced twice as many great-grandchildren as did their outbred
recessive form of the gene from both our mother and father. But counterparts.
when both parents come from the same gene pool, their children Consider, for example, the marriage of Albert and Bettina
are more likely to inherit two recessives. Rothschild. Their children were descended from a genetic pool
So how do scientists reconcile the experience in Bradford of just 24 people (beginning with family founders Mayer Am-
with the relatively moderate level of risk reported in the Journal schel and Gutle Rothschild), and more than three-fifths of them
of Generic Counseling? How did Rothschilds or Darwins were born Rothschilds. In a family that had not inbred, the same
manage to marry their cousins with apparent impunity? Above children would have 38 ancestors. Because of inbreeding, they
all, how could any such marriages ever possibly be beneficial? were directly descended no fewer than six times each from
The traditional view of human inbreeding was that we did it, Mayer and Gutle Rothschild. If our subconscious Darwinian
in essence, because we ~ o u l dnot get the car on Saturday night. agenda is to get as much of our genome as possible into future
Until the past century, families tended to remain in the same generations, then inbreeding clearly provided a genetic benefit
area for generations, and men typically went courting no more for Mayer and Gutle.
than about five miles from home-the distance they could walk And for their descendants? How could the remarkably untrou-
out and back on their day off from work. As a result, according bled reproductive experience of intermarried Rothschilds differ
to Robin Fox, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers Univer- so strikingly from that of intermarried families in Bradford? .
sity, it's likely that 80 percent of all marriages in history have The consequences of inbreeding are unpredictable and de-
been between second cousins or closer. pend largely on what biologists call the founder effect: If the
Factors other than mere proximity can make inbreeding attrac- founding couple pass on a large number of lethal recessives, as
tive. Pierre-Samuel du Pont, founder of an American dynasty that appears to have happened in Bradford, these recessives will
believed in inbreeding, hinted at these factors when he told his spread and double up through intermarriage. If, however,

Mayer and Gutle Rothschild handed down a comparatively But what they are avoiding, according to William Shields, a
healthy genone, their descendants could safely intermarry for biologist at the State University of New York College of Envi-
generations-at least until small deleterious effects inevitably ronmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse, is merely incest,
began to pile up and produce inbreeding depression, a long-term the most extreme form of inbreeding, not inbreeding itself. He
decline in the well-being of a family or a species. argues that normal patterns of dispersal actually encourage in-
A founding couple can also pass on advantageous genes. breeding. When young birds leave the nest, for instance, they
Among animal populations, generations of inbreeding fre- typically move four or five home ranges away, not 10 or 100;
quently lead to the development of coadapted gene complexes, that is, they stay within breeding distance of their cousins. In-
suites of genetic traits that tend to be inherited together. These tense loyalty to a home territory helps keep a population
traits may confer special adaptations to a local environment, healthy, according to Shields, because it encourages "optimal
like resistance to disease. inbreeding." This elusive ideal is the point at which ti popula-
The evidence for such benefits in humans is slim, perhaps in tion gets the benefit of adaptations to local habitat-the co-
part because any genetic advantages conferred by inbreeding adapted gene complexes-without the hazardous unmasking of
may be too small or too gradual to detect. Alan Bittles, a pro- recessive disorders.
fessor of human biology at Edith Cowan University in Aus-
tralia, points out that there's a dearth of data on the subject of GENETIC AND METABOLIC TESTS
genetic disadvantages too. Not until some rare disorder crops up CAN NOW SCREEN FOR ABOUT 100
in a place like Bradford do doctors even notice intermamage. RECESSIVE DISORDERS
Something disturbingly eugenic about the idea of better-fam-
ilies-through-inbreeding also causes researchers to look away. In some cases, outbreeding can be the real hazard. A study
Oxford historian Niall Ferguson, author of The House of Roth- conducted by E. L. Brannon, an ecologist at the University of
schild, speculates that that there may have been "a Rothschild Idaho, looked at two separate populations of sockeye salmon,
'gene for financial acumen,' which intermarriage somehow one breeding where a river entered a lake, the other where it ex-
helped to perpetuate. Perhaps it was that which made the Roth- ited. Salmon fry at the inlet evolved to swim downstream to the
schilds truly exceptional." But he quickly dismisses this as "un- lake. The ones at the outlet evolved to swim upstream. When re-
likely ." searchers crossed the populations, they ended up with salmon
young too confused to know which way to go. In the wild, such
At the same time, humans are perfectly comfortable with the
a hybrid population might lose half or more of its fry and soon
idea that inbreeding can produce genetic benefits for domesti-
cated animals. When we want a dog with the points to take Best
It is, of course, a long way from sockeye salmon and inbred
in Show at Madison Square Garden, we often get it by taking in-
insects to human mating behavior. But Patrick Bateson, a pro-
dividuals displaying the desired traits and "breeding them back"
fessor of ethology at Cambridge University, argues that out-
with their close kin.
breeding has at times been hazardous for humans too. For
Researchers have observed that animals in the wild may also instance, the size and shape of our teeth is a strongly inherited
attain genetic benefits from inbreeding. Ten mouse colonies trait. So is jaw size and shape. But the two traits aren't inherited
may set up housekeeping in a field but remain separate. The together. If a woman with small jaws and small teeth marries a
dominant male in each colony typically inbreeds with his kin. man with big jaws and big teeth, their grandchildren may end up
His genes rapidly spread through the colony-the founder ef- with amouthful of gnashers in aTinkertoy jaw. Before dentistry
fect again-and each colony thus becomes a little different from was commonplace, Bateson adds, "ill-fitting teeth were prob-
the others, with double recessives proliferating for both good ably a serious cause of mortality because it increased the likeli-
and ill effects. When the weather changes or some deadly virus hood of abscesses in the mouth." Marrying a cousin was one
blows through, one colony may end up better adapted to the new way to avoid a potentially lethal mismatch.
circumstances than the other nine, which die out. Bateson suggests that while youngsters imprinting on their
Inbreeding may help explain why insects can develop resis- siblings lose sexual interest in one another they may also gain a
tance almost overnight to pesticides like DDT: The resistance search image for a mate-someone who's not a sibling but like a
. first shows up as a recessive trait in one obscure family line. In- sibling. Studies have shown that people overwhelmingly choose
breeding, with its cascade of double recessives, causes the trait spouses similar to themselves, a phenomenon called assortative
to be expressed in every generation of this family-and under mating. The similarities are social, psychological, and physical,
the intense selective pressure of DDT, this family of resistant even down to traits like earlobe length. Cousins, Bateson says,
insects survives and proliferates. perfectly fit this human preference for "slight novelty."
So where does this leave us? No scientist is advocating inter-
THE OBVIOUS PROBLEM WITH THIS CONTRARIAN marriage, but the evidence indicates that we should at least
xrgument is that so many animals seem to go out of their way to moderate &r automatic disdain for it. One unlucky woman,
avoid inbreeding. Field biologists have often observed that ani- whom Robin Bennett encountered in the course of her research,
mals reared together from an early age become imprinted on one recalled the reaction when she became pregnant after living
another and lack mutual sexual interest as adults; they have an in- with her first cousin for two years. Her gynecologist professed
nare aversion to homegrown romance. horror, told her the baby "would be sick all the time," and ad-
vised her to have an abortion. Her boyfriend's mother, who was intermarry their children despite a family history of thala:
also her aunt, "went nuts, saying that our baby would be re- semia, a recessive blood disorder that is frequently fatal b e f o ~
tarded." The woman had an abortion, which she now calls "the the age of 30. After testing determined which of the childre
worst mistake of my life." canied the thalassemia gene, the families were able to
Science is increasingly able to help such people look at their a pair of carrier-to-noncarrier first-cousin marriages.
own c'hoices more objectively. Genetic and metabolic tests can Such planning may seem complicated. It may even be th
now screen for about 10 recessive disorders. In the past, fami- sort of thing that causes Americans, with their entrenched drea
lies in Bradford rarely recognized genetic origins of causes of of inbreeding, to shudder. But the needs of both culture an
death or patterns of abnormality. The likelihood of stigma medicine were satisfied, and an observer could only conclud
within the community or racism from without also made people that the urge to marry cousins must be more powerful, and mot
reluctant to discuss such problems. But new tests have helped deeply rooted, than we yet understand.
change that. Last year two siblings in Bradford were hoping to

Reprinted with permission from Discover magazine, August 2003, pp. 60-64. O 2003 by Richard Conniff. Reprinted by permiss~onof the author.