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Response to Leonard

Posted by pbio on 07 May 2009 at 22:28 GMT

Author: Hamish Spencer
Position: Professor
Institution: University of Otago
Additional Authors: Professor Diane B Paul
Submitted Date: January 15, 2009
Published Date: January 20, 2009
This comment was originally posted as a “Reader Response” on the publication date indicated above. All Reader Responses are now available as comments.

Although we appreciate John Leonard's response, the only evidence he provides in support of the claim that the stigmatization of cousin marriage in the west is almost exclusively a U.S. phenomenon is the fact that he himself hasn't encountered it. If anecdotal evidence is to count, we have our own, opposite experience in New Zealand, where the Tui beer ad reflected sentiments commonly expressed when we mentioned our work to friends, students, and others. (Indeed, about half our interlocutors assumed that first-cousin marriage is illegal in New Zealand.) Mr. Leonard suggests that the ad is a US-influenced meme, but advertisers would hardly trade on a belief that lacked resonance in the target population. It is true that attitudes toward cousin marriage have not been well-studied empirically, and so it is possible that Mr. Leonard is right. But we do know that the incidence of cousin marriage in Europe, including the UK, began to wane at the end of the nineteenth century, falling sharply in the twentieth. Historians working in this area generally assume that the decline was accompanied by increasing stigmatization and would agree with Australian geneticist Alan Bittles that “there is a widely held belief in western societies that consanguineous unions are restricted to population isolates and result in adverse outcomes, with progeny who are both physically and cognitively impaired” (A. H. Bittles, The bases of western attitudes to consanguineous marriage, Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology 2003, 45: 135-138, on p. 135).

Diane B. Paul
Hamish G. Spencer

No competing interests declared.