At least Queen Elizabeth II died with the timely approval of Dr. Oz. The long-reigning monarch died on September 8, just a day after controversial comments by Republican United States Senate candidate and miracle cure aficionado Dr Mehmet Oz about family relationships resurfaced. During a now-notorious 2014 interview on “The Breakfast Club,” Oz offered his advice to a listener who was worried because he “keeps breaking my cousin.” Oz offered the go-ahead, saying, “If you’re more than a first cousin, that’s no big deal.” It would have been a relief for the late Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who married and broke his third cousin, a woman whose face appeared on all her country’s money and stamps.
Our modern understanding of cousin crushing — especially in the age of unexpected Ancestry.com revelations — is complicated.
Here in the United States, there are clear legal and social taboos around close consanguinity, such as between siblings, parents and grandparents. As a species, it is in our best genetic interest to diversify.
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As BBC Earth’s Alfie Shaw explains, “inbreeding defeats the biological purpose of mating, which is the shuffling of DNA”. If you and your partner share the same genetic predisposition to certain conditions, the chances of your children inheriting them increase. A 2019 University of Queensland study of Europeans found that among people whose parents were closely related, “consanguineous children typically show decreased cognitive abilities and muscle function, height and lung function reduced and are at greater risk of disease.
Even Dr. Oz, who is often wrong, understands this. He explained during this “Breakfast Club” chat that “Every family has genetic strengths and weaknesses. And so the reason we naturally crave people who aren’t like us is because you mix up the gene pool a bit. .” First cousins share about 12.5% (although it may vary) of their DNA, which would be too close for my comfort even if Jeremy Allen White was my first cousin.
Yet historically, royal families have been incentivized to swim in the shallow end of the gene pool as a means of consolidating power. If you wanted a companion at your level, your options might already be under your own roof. The long-jawed Spanish Habsburgs got so carried away with the concept that their frail and last heir, Charles II, was nicknamed “the bewitched” and died unable to produce offspring. His father was also his uncle.
It’s when you move away in the family—the cousin zone—that genetic and social protocols fade. Elizabeth II’s ancestor, Queen Victoria, was married to her first cousin, Albert. Edgar Allan Poe married his first cousin Virginia Clemm when he was 13. And Charles Darwin, who you would think would have had more reservations, married his first cousin Emma Wedgwood. Albert Einstein was married to his first cousin, as were Igor Stravinsky, Satyajit Ray and HG Wells. Cousin relationships also appear throughout literature, from Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park” and “Pride and Prejudice” to Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights.” The list of more distant cousins who married is even longer, from Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt (fifth cousins, once separated) to Rudy Giuliani and his first wife Regina Peruggi (second cousins).
In the modern age, however, we don’t necessarily have as many incentives to marry the guy from the same swamp as us, and the idea of dating a relative has been less well received. In recent years, cousin encounters were a big comedic plot point on “30 Rock” and “New Girl,” and a more nuanced storyline on “Ramy.”
While Dr. Oz and most people who have ever attended a big family Thanksgiving dinner would probably shudder at the thought of marrying a first cousin, the law in the United States is quite flexible on the subject. Freewheeling from California, New York, Florida and 16 other states, whoever you share a set of grandparents with is completely fair game. In 24 states, including Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana – a place where a local fisherman once said to me in an unforgettable way, “There are 250 people in this town, and we are all connected in some way to the other” – let it go. In a few states, such as Arizona and Utah, first-cousin marriage is acceptable if you are too old or unable to have biological children. And in the UK, where the product of a union of third cousins is now king, marriage between first cousins is completely legal.
Laws aside, however, should someone breaks it with a cousin? Australian author Alan Bittles, who in 2012 wrote “Consanguinity in Context” based on his decades of research into intrafamilial marriages, concluded in his book that it was probably fine. “[There is] an excess risk of early death or serious illness of 3.5% in children of first cousins, which is much lower than [many people] would have anticipated,” he told Oprah.com. “In broad terms, our studies have shown that the health risks attributed to inbreeding have been exaggerated.”
But cultural taboos around cousin marriage make it less of a social slam dunk. A 2018 JAMA Psychiatry study from Queen’s University Belfast found that “children born to first-cousin couples were more than three times more likely to receive antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications [anti anxiety] drugs,” suggesting that such unions can be stressful for offspring.
Depending on where you live, it might not be against the law, but think about the kids before you beat yourself up. And be sure to keep your sense of humor as it will definitely be part of your legacy. As a Twitter tribute to the Queen said this week: “She was head of state, monarch, mother of several pedophiles and, most importantly, a devoted cousin to her husband.”
about the royal family