AboutZoos, Since 2008


Inbreed­ing Caused Dar­win Fam­ily Ills?

pub­lished 23 June 2010 | mod­i­fied 29 Decem­ber 2011

Charles Darwin’s wor­ries about pos­si­ble adverse effects of inbreed­ing in his fam­ily seem to have been justified,

accord­ing to a study described in the May 2010 issue of Bio­Science. Dar­win mar­ried his first cousin, Emma Wedg­wood, and his mother, Susan­nah Wedg­wood, was the daugh­ter of third cousins. The study, which extended to 25 fam­i­lies includ­ing 176 chil­dren, found a sta­tis­ti­cal asso­ci­a­tion between child mor­tal­ity and the inbreed­ing coef­fi­cient of indi­vid­u­als in the Darwin/​Wedgwood dynasty. Charles Dar­win demon­strated the phe­nom­e­non of inbreed­ing depres­sion in many plants, and was aware of research into the effects of mar­riage between rel­a­tives on the health of result­ing chil­dren. He feared that his mar­riage might have been respon­si­ble for some of his children’s health prob­lems and asked a mem­ber of Par­lia­ment to add a ques­tion about mar­riages to rel­a­tives to the British 1871 cen­sus form.

Three of Charles Darwin’s 10 chil­dren died before reach­ing adult­hood, one from child­hood tuber­cu­lo­sis at age 10 and one from unknown causes as an infant. A third child, who died in infancy of scar­let fever, appears in a pho­to­graph to have devel­op­men­tal abnor­mal­i­ties. Inbreed­ing is an impor­tant risk fac­tor in a num­ber of human dis­eases, includ­ing infec­tious dis­eases. The authors of the study, Tim M. Berra, Gon­zalo Alvarez, and Fran­cisco C. Cebal­los, sug­gest that the expres­sion of dele­te­ri­ous genes “pro­duced by con­san­guineous mar­riages could be involved in the high child­hood mor­tal­ity expe­ri­enced by Dar­win prog­eny.” Fur­ther­more, three of Darwin’s six chil­dren with long-​term mar­riages left no off­spring. Unex­plained infer­til­ity may also be a con­se­quence of a con­san­guineous mar­riage. On the other hand, three of Darwin’s sons were fel­lows of the Royal Soci­ety and were knighted by Queen Victoria.

(Source: Amer­i­can Insti­tute of Bio­log­i­cal Sci­ences, Bio­science press release, May 2010)

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