Ryan Taylor Your spouse, your cousin...
Society's taboos


About Ryan Taylor

Dave Obee's
tribute to Ryan

Ryan's Columns

Ryan's Books

Devonians in

Back to

By Ryan Taylor

Every society has taboos about who we cannot marry.

Brothers can't marry sisters, unless they're Egyptian pharoahs. If you marry a string of related people, you become your own grampaw, like the song says, but it's illegal everywhere except Kentucky.

An interesting gray area in the Western way of looking at this issue is the marriage of first cousins. It has never been illegal in Europe - although it is in much of North America - and has never even been frowned on particularly. Queen Victoria and her husband, Albert the Good, were first cousins. People who grew up in small rural villages with their limited choice of possible spouses might well choose a cousin. In the past, when 'dating' was unknown and courtship a much more narrow process than our modern trip to the altar, you pretty much had to court someone you knew already. Getting introduced to strangers had too many barriers.

Throughout the nineteenth century in Britain, first cousin marriages were common, at the same time that a man marrying his deceased wife's sister was illegal and also marrying a dead grandfather's widow, even if she were no blood relation. The latter was an old taboo that came from the first Church of England prayer book. The other was a later law. It was repealed in 1907 after considerable pressure from King Edward VII. He had lobbied to end the restriction for more than thirty years, no one knows why. There is no evidence he had any wish to marry either the Russian czarina or the Duchess of Brunswick, who were his wife's sisters.

The reason for the resistance to first cousins marrying in North America is scientific. Their children will be riddled with inherited diseases or genetic malfunctions.

A new study at the University of Washington examining data from 1965 to 2000 shows that the prevalence of inherited disease in offspring of cousins is little more than in the general population, about 2.8 percent.

First cousins share 12.5 percent of their genes, but the overlap does not seem to be in the important, disease-causing ones. Today, related spouses may be able to predict troublesome areas by examining the family's health history and having specific tests to see what their predilictions are.

Even in Europe, cousins who have married often keep it quiet now. Although it has not been a source of stigma in the past, it is now, thanks to the North America 'scientific' reasoning, which now appears to be more of an old wives' tale.

Arno Moltulsky, one of the study's authors, says that the average risk of a birth defect is 3-4 percent. First cousin marriage adds 1-2 percent to that, and this is frowned on. He then points out that people at risk of Huntington's chorea have a risk of 50 percent, but no one questions their right to have children. The combination of age-old taboo and scientific platitudes is very strong.

Column copyright © 2002 Ryan Taylor

Sponsored by Interlink Bookshop and Genealogical Services and hosted by Islandnet.com