The world knows of Charles Darwin, the father of theory of natural selection, but what many are unaware and what modern scientists often underplay is the fact that Charles Darwin and his wife Emma Wedgewood were first cousins !. Yes….you heard it right first cousins. In his 43 years of married life with Emma, he had ten children of whom only two had died in infancy (due to scarlet fever) and most of his other children went on to have distinguished careers as notable members of the prominent Darwin-Wedgwood family. Naturally, then, he had for himself, examined the topic of cousin marriage in his writings. In 1871 Charles Darwin said and I qoute,
“When the principles of breeding and of inheritance are better understood, we shall not hear ignorant members of our legislature rejecting with scorn a plan for ascertaining by an easy method whether or not consanguineous marriages are injurious to man”.
Have we ever asked ourselves how common are cousin marriages around the world ?. In general, it is estimated that atleast 80% of all marriages in human history and 20% of all marriages world-wide today are between relatives who are first cousins and that such practices are culturally popular across much of the Muslim world in the Middle East and also among a large section of Hindus in Southern India (with approximately half a billion Muslims and about 700 million Hindus). Such marriages appear to be practiced in several societies within the same geographic area despite being racially, linguistically, religiously, and historically very heterogeneous. In the Middle East, over half of all marriages are consanguineous (among patrilateral first-cousins) and such marriage practices appears to have evolved culturally in these societies for certain socio-economic advantages. For instance, the aggregation of economic wealth, the better treatment of spouse, and an increased family stability and security.
In April 2002, the National Society of Genetic Counselors, (NSGC) based on their conclusions on a review of six major studies conducted from 1965 to August 2000 made the following observation in the Journal of Genetic Counseling. Researchers concluded that children of marriages between cousins inherited recessive genetic disorders only in 7-8% of cases as opposed to the rate of 5% in the general population. The study goes on to stress that counselors should not discourage cousins from procreating but instead, they should take individual family disease histories and offer ordinary genetic services such as fetal and newborn disease testing. Yet, the media, medical personnel and the academia recklessly exaggerates and misrepresents scientific risks in a way that may disorient or actively discourage the cultural practice among laymen creating unnecessary cultural prejudices and superimposition of moral stereotypes on communities that practice cousing marriage.
A classical example for such an exaggeration in the media is the article “The risks of cousin marriage” in 2005 where the BBC news went ahead and reported that the British Pakistanis are 13 times more likely to have children with genetic disorders than the general population owing to the prevalence of cousin marriage among them. No doubt that there were increased number of cases among the British Pakistanis but was the said data an accurate representation of facts or was the media too keen to perpertuate a scientific myth? Did they get their facts checked ? The risk continues to be wildly exaggerated and worded in a way that often blows out of proportion, the original risk, cherry picking on exceptional and convenient examples sutable to that narrative. The study conducted between 2007 and 2011 known as the “Born in Bradford study” seeked to investigate the impact of close kin marriage on health in childhood, and researchers observed that, on average, the children of first cousins in the Pakistani community had 3.6% greater risk of being born with a congenital anomaly than children born to unrelated couples, whose risk was 2.6%. But there was a distinct ethnic imbalance in this study, with fewer than 1% of children in the white British population born to first cousins in comparison with 37% in the Pakistani community. These problems with the data collection in the Bradford study mean that the results may be misleading and the increased risk being overstated – not warranting the media hype that it generated. Therefore, media and academia need to co-operate to demonstrate a greater sense of social responsibility to an over-representation of the risks involved in such cultural practices as it tends to disorient common readers.
The Human Genetics commission has also categorically commented on the risks of cousin marriage and how it is often misrepresented. It reads – “HGC agrees with Genetic Alliance UK’s assertion that, for communities where cousin marriage is the tradition, a similar response to that given to increased maternal age would be appropriate”. The logic behind such a statement from the HGC is to assert that although a nominal increase in certain defects represents an element of risk, the data is still not considered large enough to actively discourage cousins from having children. Exaggeration, selective representation of facts, ignorance and fear, it appears, are the real mind-killers.