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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

I am my beloved's and my cousin is mine.

Every morning I listen to the radio while I make my bed, pack my things, and generally prepare to head out and face the world. Recently, while listening to the cackling imbeciles that populate morning shows, an interesting fact was brought to my attention. That fact is simply this: a surprisingly large number of American states permit first cousins to marry. Specifically, 26 of the 50 U.S. states permit first-cousin marriage of some sort. That was not, however, the most interesting part.

The most interesting part was the list of states in question. Any guesses? Well, I'll tell you, some of the usual suspects are there: Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia. You know, those backward hick states. Still, there appear to be a few other states on the list that we might not usually associate with incest. States like: New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Vermont, Illinois, California, and Connecticut.

On the other hand, there are some rather unexpected entries among the states who do not allow first-cousin marriage: Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and West Virginia. Yeah, you read that right: West Virginia. It would appear that the South is not as backwards and incestuous as our goddamn Yankee bretheren would like to believe, and they are not quite so sophisticated. You are, of course, welcome to doubt me, but the facts are not terribly difficult to find.

You may find this topic a little odd, and I'll admit I did at first as well, but cousin marriage appears to be a more controversial topic than I had once suspected. As it happens, there is an entire organisation, the "Cousins United to Defeat Discriminating Laws through Education" (or "CUDDLE," which I must say is a rather unfortunate acronym) that is dedicated to liberalizing the cousin marriage laws. Or, in their terms:

C.U.D.D.L.E. International, founded in 2002, is a privately funded organization dedicated to dispelling social prejudices and discriminating laws based on common myths about cousin marriages.

C.U.D.D.L.E. promotes tolerance, understanding and respect through education, advocacy, and conflict resolution.

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Goals
To continue extensive research on the issue of consanguinity
To produce educational materials for all walks of life
To bring about legislative reform in areas which do not currently allow cousin marriage
To provide a support network free from harassment
To provide referrals to legal and medical professionals
To provide scholarships to cousin-couples and their children


So, it does indeed seem that the prohibition on cousin marriages is not as ironclad, or widespread, as many of us tend to think. But, I hear you asking, don't first cousin marriages likely produce children who are... well... troubled by genetic disorders? Well, as CUDDLE so adroitly points out the vast majority of offspring produced by first cousin couplings likely would not be stricken by birth defects at rates greater than the general population. Of course, this ignores the cumulative effect of first cousin marriages over many generations, but so long as individuals are not restricted to their own cousins for marriage partners there is little reason to believe that this progressive (or perhaps more appropriately "degenerative") concentration of harmful genes would occur. I must concede to the CUDDLErs that, in all likelihood, infrequent cousin marriage is unlikely to entail serious genetic consequences. This does not, however, mean that I am in favor of abolishing the taboo on cousin marriage.

You see, this is a classic example of a prohibition that is rooted in sociology, rather than biology. The problem with cousin marriages isn't that it produces deformed children, but that it produces deformed social structures.

It comes as no surprise to any sociologist that most marital partners are highly similar to one another- a known by the term "Homophily." A consequence of this is that many tight social structures, like extended family structures, are formed within particular demographic groups. Since many parameters of social structure (for example age, education, income, etc.) are, in the terms of Peter M. Blau, consolidated (i.e. strongly correlated) marriages tend to take place within, rather than between, localized social structural clusters. This can be a problem because the extent to which such clusters are not bound together by social ties, is the extent to which society as a whole may fail to cohere.

So what happens when exogoamy is no longer required, or even stressed? Well, it isn't that the children become genetic freaks, but that the structure of society unravels to a greater and greater extent. The between-family linkages that help to bind society together are broken, and clans may become islands unto themselves. You could argue that this is as unlikely as the cumulative destruction of genes by repeated cousin marriage, but it is far easier to become socially-inbred than to become genetically-inbred. One might think of it like a shirt of chain mail: when the rings of family interlock, a strong and flexible fabric is woven. When these social circles no longer connect, however, the fabric disintegrates into a jumble of isolated, easily-pentrated bits.

Human existence is not merely biology and psychology, but sociology as well. We are social creatures, and the health of our social structures is as indispensible to our continued prosperity as the health of our bodies and our minds. Prohibitions on incest are valuable not merely because they help protect us against genetic disorders, but because they help bind us together and stabilize the group. To abandon such prohibitions is to start down a road leading to social dysfunction- an outcome that is perhaps even more dangerous than its genetic equivalent. So, while I certainly appreciate the CUDDLErs' point, I must remain a staunch opponent of cousin marriage. That said, however, I feel compelled to ask a final question:

If two folks from Connecticut get married, and then get divorced, are they still brother and sister?

3 Comments:

Blogger shakha said...

Ummm... read some anthropology. Cousin marriage isn't some radically unstable force. In fact, it's fairly common in many societies - even ones that are much older than our own. Just because cousin marriage doesn't make sense from your point of view doesn't mean it won't work for society. If families are large enough, or if there are certain rules to such marriages then families do not become "islands unto themselves." (Levi-Strauss looked at this pretty seriously in his 1969 work "The Elementary structures of Kinship" and developed the idea of alliance theory from it. Malinowski looked at the same kind of things and developed the idea of role theory from it.)

So while you can provide a nice hypothesis working with Blau, it turns out that empirical work done in Anthropology will not confirm it.

All societies have incest taboos. But breaking YOUR incest taboos doesn't make a society somehow "less stable" or "more likely to unravel". It just makes that society different.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005 11:54:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

A valid point, Shakha, and one that I shall consider seriously. Allow me to caution you, however, against concluding that the commonality of a feature is related to its tendency to generate stability. Discrimination based on sex or race has been widespread historically as well as culturally and, arguably, has generated considerable instability. To assume that something is functional merely because it is present is the great sin of the Parsonians.


It is further worth noting your caveats about family size and "rules" to kin-marriages. This supports both your point and my own- that cousin marriage may not be inherently destabilizing, but that it also may not be inherently benign. Its functional or dysfunctional properties may depend on the presence or absence of other features.


In short, the extent to which anthropology and cross-cultural sociology support or disconfirm my, admittedly half-assed and primarily rhetorical, assertions is probably not entirely clear.


Your points about ethnocentrism are, however, well-taken.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005 7:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I support cousin couples! I found this site to have a lot of good information.

www.cousincouples.com

You should look into it and see what you think of the finding.

JF

Wednesday, August 26, 2009 3:37:00 AM  

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