Forbidden Relatives: The American Myth of Cousin Marriage First Edition
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From the Back Cover
About the Author
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Students of human societies will find this book fascinating of course. Family historians who may find that their lines "cross" more than once due to cousin marriage will also learn a great deal from this book. The acceptability and legality of cousin marriage has varied over time and cultures for a variety of reasons. This book is a guide to understanding those historical and cultural reasons. From Leviticus to Archbishop Parker's Table in the Book of Common Prayer, marriage prohibitions based on the degrees of consanguinity have effected how our families combine for millennia. This book is important background to understanding how families came to be the way they are.
The book examines the social and legal prohibitions against cousin marriage in the United States by reviewing their history and comparing U.S. prohibitions to laws and customs about cousin marriage around the world. It reviews the biological evidence regarding the negative impacts of cousin marriage. Finally, the social impacts of cousin marriage and its prohibitions are briefly discussed.
Thirty-one U.S. states have some form of prohibition against cousin marriage. Nineteen states have no such prohibitive laws. No European nation prohibits cousin marriages. Why do these prohibitions exist and why the variance between nations and states? This book answers those questions directly.
The author argues that such prohibitions were a late nineteenth century enforcement of the bio-evolutionary belief that cousin marriage threatened the civilized status of the United States. Cousin marriage was seen as step towards a "less developed" or "more barbarous" level of human society. States entering the Union prior to about 1860 did not have laws against cousin marriage. Almost all entering after 1860 prohibited cousin marriage to some degree. Clearly, the legal prohibitions began long before modern genetic science could provide any guidance on the issue.
The now commonly held assumption in America today is that the prohibitions against cousin marriage are to prevent cousins from producing less intelligent or otherwise "less fit" offspring. We often point to the Royal houses of Europe as examples of the negative effects of cousin marriage. The hemophilia carried by Queen Victoria and passed to many of the other Royal houses through inter-marriage is often erroneously used as a specific admonition against the practice of cousin marriage. Successful marriages between first cousins, such as Charles Darwin and his wife, have been uniformly ignored in the popular mythology of this taboo. The Darwins produced ten healthy offspring, several of whom were just as exceptional as their famous father.
The author argues convincingly that modern genetic science does not support the prohibitions against cousin marriage. Genetic concerns about offspring have nothing to do with the marriage of cousins and everything to do with the frequency of particular "bad" genes in the population and the individual likelihood that a specific couple will produce offspring effected by a particular "bad" gene. The slightly (very slightly) increased risk from detrimental recessive genes in the offspring of blood relatives argues for genetic counseling rather than outright prohibitions against particular marriage partners.
So if genetic science is no help in support of the prohibition of cousin marriage, why are the laws still on the books? The author hints at an interesting theory just at the end of the book. Noting that the creation of prohibitive laws against cousin marriage coincide with the massive waves of immigration into the United States from the mid-1800s to the 1920s, the author suggests that such prohibitions may have been designed to help stir the Melting Pot. The author's corresponding tie-in of his theory to the marriage prohibitions promulgated by the Roman Catholic church in the early Dark Ages is pure genius. I won't "give away the ending", but the book is worth reading just for the author's theory on the acculturation factors which may underlie our cousin marriage prohibitions.
Much social stigma exists about cousin marriages as a result of misinformation. Martin's book goes to great length to dispel those myths and explaining the origin of the taboos.