The above figure illustrates the geographic distribution of the prevalence of people marrying people closely related to them. Mostly this involves cousin marriage. Most people know the urban legends around the debilities that occur due to cousin marriage, but traditionally the focus has been on rare recessive diseases (e.g., albinism). Now, a massive new study has been published (more than 400 authors, with sample sizes for 1 million or more for some characteristics) looking at a variety of traits, Associations of autozygosity with a broad range of human phenotypes:
In many species, the offspring of related parents suffer reduced reproductive success, a phenomenon known as inbreeding depression. In humans, the importance of this effect has remained unclear, partly because reproduction between close relatives is both rare and frequently associated with confounding social factors. Here, using genomic inbreeding coefficients (FROH) for >1.4 million individuals, we show that FROH is significantly associated (p < 0.0005) with apparently deleterious changes in 32 out of 100 traits analysed. These changes are associated with runs of homozygosity (ROH), but not with common variant homozygosity, suggesting that genetic variants associated with inbreeding depression are predominantly rare. The effect on fertility is striking: FROH equivalent to the offspring of first cousins is associated with a 55% decrease [95% CI 44–66%] in the odds of having children. Finally, the effects of FROH are confirmed within full-sibling pairs, where the variation in FROH is independent of all environmental confounding.
The offspring of first cousins have on average 0.10 fewer children. On an individual level, this is not that great of an effect. But in an evolutionary population genetics sense this is a serious selection coefficient.
On the whole, the paper is impressive in its scope. There are even sibling analyses to confirm the impact of runs of homozygosity causing problems due to rare alleles (since this paper involved r.o.h, of course, Jim Wilson is involved!).
Rather, I want to ask: if inbreeding is so bad genetically and biologically, why is it so common? One of the consequences of the Protestant Reformation is that the Roman Catholic Church’s strict enforcement of consanguinity rules were dropped, and cousin marriage became much more common among elites (such as the Darwin-Wedgewood family). The material rationale for cousin marriage is actually rather straightforward, in that it keeps accumulated property and power within the extended lineage. Marriages between children of brothers may cement alliances, while matrilocality and marriages between cross-cousins in South India have been associated with lower domestic abuse rates (in contrast, in North India strongly enforced exogamy has been associated with the idea that women marry into an alien household).
I would suggest perhaps that though marriages between relatives are biologically disfavored, there are many cases where it is culturally beneficial. In societies where collective family units engage in inter-group competition, some level of consanguinity may benefit cohesion. Other societies where individualism is more operative may exhibit no such incentives.
Note: I don’t see great evidence of purging genetic load in populations with more inbreeding. The rare variants are probably replenished constantly through mutation?