Charles Darwin did it, so did Queen Victoria, yet marrying your cousin remains a taboo. It will be the subject of a free public lecture at the University of Bath on Tuesday 1 May at 6pm.
Professor Hamish Spencer, an evolutionary geneticist from Otago University in New Zealand, will be tracing the history over the last 200 years of western laws and attitudes surrounding first-cousin marriage, and will talk about the influence of the eugenics movement on a matter that clearly has eugenic overtones.
It is topical following recent controversial comments by British politicians about the consequences of cousin marriage in the Pakistani immigrant population in England.
Professor Spencer said: “The subject of marrying your cousin is likely to elicit jokes and laughter, and has even been exploited by advertisers.
“Darwin married his first cousin and worried for the rest of his life about the possible effects on his children. However research into birth defects in offspring of cousins found that the risk was much smaller than generally assumed.
“Women over the age of 40 have a similar risk of having children with birth defects and no one is suggesting they should be prevented from reproducing.
“Whilst it’s permissible in the UK, in 31 American states it’s illegal to marry your first cousin.
Such legislation reflects outmoded prejudices about immigrants and the rural poor and relies on oversimplified views of heredity. There is no scientific grounding for it.”
Professor Spencer is an evolutionary geneticist at Otago University’s Department of Zoology and was Head of Department there from 2009 to 2011. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and has recently become director of the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology & Evolution. He has a wide variety of research interests, from human genetics to the evolution of snails, birds, parasites and algae. Much of his work uses mathematical modelling to understand how populations evolve and respond to natural selection.
He is best known internationally for his work on genomic imprinting, an unusual feature of mammalian development where expression of a gene in an individual differs depending on whether it is inherited from the mother or the father.
Professor Spencer also has an interest in the history of the eugenics movement, and a paper he co-authored in the journal Plos Biology in December 2008, on the laws and attitudes to first-cousin marriage, received worldwide media attention.
He is visiting the University as a David Parkin Visiting Professor until June. While at Bath, he is working with Dr Jason Wolf on mathematical models of genomic imprinting.
The free public lecture entitled “Charles Darwin & beer advertising with some genetics thrown in” will take place at 6pm on Tuesday 1 May on the Claverton Campus in lecture theatre 3WN 2.1. There is free parking in the West Car Park from 6pm.