Healthy Living » Op-Ed » Royal Inbreeding   Login


August 2009

Royal Inbreeding
Dr Sreedevi Yadavalli
Searching and wooing a potential mate at a family wedding may be a common plot line in popular Indian cinema. But this uniquely Asian cultural trait is at variance with the common western sensibility of avoiding closely related mates because of a higher chance of passing along the unfortunate traits so often associated with inbreeding

The western society has seen a great amount of inbreeding among its royal families, and it has long been debated that frequent royal intermarriage was responsible for some of their health problems; the worst instance quoted is that of Charles II. Charles's mother was his father's niece, and Charles suffered from epilepsy, mental retardation, impotence, and severe speech impairment caused by his massive tongue – famously called the Habsburger Lippe or Habsburg jaw, a condition of mandibular prognathism.

In fact, research now suggests that the entire Hapsburg line was done in by its DNA. Generations of marriages within the same, tiny gene pool led to a devastating accumulation of illnesses, with half the family's children dying before the age of 10. The dynasty that ruled Spain from 1516 to 1700 ended when Charles II died at the age of 39, leaving no heirs. An ironical end to a royal family that was paranoid about ceding power to an 'outsider' - to the extent that they always inbred.

Another famous story is that of Anastasia, the daughter of the last Russian Tsar who was killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Ten years after the death of Anna Anderson who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, her DNA was compared to that of Prince Philip, and Anderson was understood to have been an imposter. This is because the real Anastasia would have been related to Philip (and Elizabeth) through Christian IX and Queen Victoria who were her great grandparents.

There are so many instances of inbreeding among European royal families that one study actually traces the ancestry of all crowned heads of Europe back to William the Conqueror (1027 – 1087)! And even further back in time, royal life must have been a misery in physical, psychological and emotional health conditions, with some Egyptian Pharaohs indulging in incestuous relationships by marrying their sisters or half-sisters.

While inbreeding "fixes" desirable characters within a population, similar to livestock inbreeding, repetitive instances over successive generations reduce "fitness" resulting in inbreeding depression. The other extreme is outbreeding depression resulting when the offspring from crosses between individuals of different populations have lower fitness than the progeny from crosses between individuals of the same population.

So does the solution to begetting "fit" progeny lie midway between the two extremes?
Yes, says a recent Icelandic study by the deCODE genetics company, which holds that third or fourth cousins have the highest rate of genetic success and children, suggesting that a minimal relationship to each other is favourable among reproducing couples. The reason for this dose of biological wisdom seems to be that such distantly related couples have "just the right genes" when combined - not too similar, but not too dissimilar either.

So, there most certainly is a kind of sound rationale behind our masala film formula of the lead couple meeting up at a family wedding for their own "match fixing"!

 Also See

 Related Articles