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Incest – how did society’s view on consanguineous marriage change throughout history and science development and why Research Paper


It has become very difficult to articulately place incest in its correct sphere: could it be within the morality, legislation, biological, cultural, or psychological sphere? The intense reflection on, and the heated debate revolving around this topic is the most certain occurrence.

Consanguinity was highly upheld in most traditional societies. However, in the later decades of the nineteenth century, societal views on incest took a different turn, an example being in the UK. At the time, incest was considered a form of abuse against a young girl, literally, child abuse.

Such a turnover of events where incest became punishable by law instilled fear among individuals hence reduced incestuous rates and associated consanguinity. The punishment of incest act was endorsed in 1908, and any convicted male would be imprisoned for 3 to 7 years (Kuper 82).

Later social reformists and influential scientists like Darwin pointed out the health risks associated with consanguinity. In England and most parts of Europe, the supposed harmful and injurious effects of consanguineous marriages have led to the rejection of these marriages.

Consanguineous marriages are those marriages between close biological kin. Despite the fact that they have declined in modern Western societies due to their negative genetic effects, they are still preferred in Middle East, North Africa, and most Asian countries, where first-cousin marriages are popular (Saggar and Alan 244).

This paper will focus on the decline of consanguineous marriages in the modern contemporary Western world, and the reasons for this.

Upon reading various literatures, it is evident that science has had a role to play in as far as decline in consanguineous marriages is concerned. However, it cannot be perceived to be the only reason.

On the contrary, other factors have come into play, and together have had a collective impact on how individual’s think about consanguineous marriages (Ghaz et al. 17). These include scientific genetics, modernization where education levels of women have been elevated. Nowadays, women have become very empowered with regard to gaining knowledge and resources.

In addition, modernization has brought about a change in the family structure, and nowadays there is an inclination towards a nuclear kind of family system. There have also been increased internal rural to urban migrations, and improved economic conditions among individuals.

To begin with, consanguineous marriages promote interbreeding. This is associated with an increased risk of genetic illnesses while compared with cross-breeding in non-consanguineous marriages.

Consanguinity is associated with increased mortality and morbidity rates, as well as high rates of congenital malformations (Bener and Rafat 374-6).These factors alone are enough to make consanguineous marriage unacceptable within the scientific fraternity. Professor Alan Bittles, renowned for his role in human genetics, collated data on infant mortality globally amongst children born from first-cousin marriages.

He revealed a 1.2% extra increased infant mortality risk evident from this kind of consanguineous marriages. In addition, he showed a 2% extra increased risk of children from first-cousin marriages developing birth defects in contrast to children from non-consanguineous marriages (Wilkinson “BBC”).

As mentioned, higher morbidity rates are evident amongst children from consanguineous marriages. Some of the illnesses they suffer from include deafness, complex congenital heart disease, retinal dystrophies, and intellectual and development disability (Saggar and Alan 244).

Science aims at producing the best in far as life and technology is concerned hence, the reason why there have been so many improvements in living organisms and livings standards in general.

Interbreeding therefore, seems to go against the laws of science, leave alone nature itself. This is the main reason why the acceptability of consanguineous marriages has been questioned and prohibited, leading to its decline.

Prior to 1970, issues about child sexual abuse were rarely mentioned, and incest occurred in the eyes of the public without raising eyebrows. Now, things are different and the negative reactions by the contemporary Westernized society to incest incidences say it all.

The legislature has created laws that protect the wellbeing of children (any person less than 18 years) against incestuous acts. These laws give children a voice and therefore not subjects of their parents’ authority. This is because individuals have become enlightened and modernized.

Science and modernization go hand in hand. Therefore, even though science may not entirely play a key role here, it is somewhat influential in as far as modernization and increased knowledge is concerned (Kuper 80-85).

Goode (1963) presented a theory on the effect of modernization on family structure and conjugal marriage in his classical book, “World Revolution and Family Patterns” where he tried to explain about the high possibility of decreased frequency of consanguineous marriages with time.

According to him, modernization would lead to increased awareness and complex social interactions thereby; individuals would choose their marriage partners from a wide pool of potential individuals (Goode 218-219).

In addition, he said that women would become more educated and empowered to the extent that they would demand for freedom in the path towards marriage. True to this theory, Goode was actually right and the world has changed just as he had foreseen.

Modernization has been deemed the reason why there is remarkable decline in the number of consanguineous marriages. Consanguinity has declined in developed countries as compared with developing countries.

The map shown next indicates the prevalence rates of consanguineous marriages across the globe (Saggar and Alan 247):

The map shown next indicates the prevalence rates of consanguineous marriages across the globe.

In agreement with Goode’s remarks, the woman today is very educated compared with the woman of the past. As a result of this, there is increased awareness on the negative effects of consanguineous marriages. As a law of nature, it is said that when one educates a girl, he or she has educated a nation.

This is because women are more careful and thoughtful thus, their education is a greater success in as far as reducing consanguineous marriages is concerned. This is because, in this contemporary age, the woman has a voice and can air her views out.

The education system has become quite complex and it is here that students are taught the negative effects of incest and associated consanguineous marriages. This can explain why high rates of consanguineous marriages are evident among the illiterate people since they fail to be informed.

The public in some countries have also been sensitized on the negative effects accruing from consanguineous marriages and the reason why these marriages should not be carried on (Mehndiratta, Paul, and Yash 15-17). Educating the girl child has been associated with great social impact, one of them being reduced consanguinity.

Naturally, women have proved to be better implementers of the law as opposed to their male counterparts. An educated woman is able to use reason and informed judgment based on her acquired knowledge, and will be reluctant to form incestuous ties due to the involved negative effects (Jurdi and Prem 4-7).

In Egypt, among the Turks, and in Jordan, the education level of a woman is a strong predictor of non-relative marriage (Shavazi, Peter, and Meimanat 3-4).

In the contemporary world, family ties have weakened due to globalization and trade that result in high rates of emigration and immigration between states, and within a state leading to crossed-marriages.

This together with urbanization, have epitomized a fresh means to living involving two concomitant processes of social change according to Hurd (83-85): “continued separation of economic production from the domestic setting, and economic empowerment of women”. This touches on the changed economic conditions in recent contemporary times.

The economic conditions of people have greatly improved thus there is no need to secure wealth solely within the family since different families across tribes and religions find themselves in the same social cadre.

This leads to crossed marriages and declined consanguinity. In contemporary society, things like slave trade have been eradicated and this is an indicator that standards of living have improved. Globalization has been a great contributory factor to reduced consanguinity and improved living conditions.

In the current world, trade and commerce has forced people to move from their native lands in order to settle elsewhere in a venture to carry out business. There are also other projects that foster immigration like the Green Card lottery project which promotes immigration into the US.

Such mobility leads to new social networks and relationships that sometimes lead to crossed forms of marriages. In addition, globalized trade is associated with increased profits and income hence better economic statuses and increased standards of living amongst individuals, and families.

There is also the change in family structure and size, partly attributed to the media. Westernized cultures portray small family sizes to be ideal in relation to living standards and economic status (Koç 141). As a result, the family institution has changed from being the extended type that aimed at protecting the family name.

Nowadays, the family name is not important since people have learned to value other things more like good health, education and living standards compared with a mere family name. Family planning has been used in reducing family units to single nuclear units.

There is great variation in consanguinity rates across and within Arab countries Despite the fact that the society’s views on consanguineous marriage has greatly shifted throughout history and has tremendously reduced, it is worth noting that consanguineous marriages have either remained constant or escalated in some countries like Iran and Yemen (Shavazi, Peter, and Meimanat 2).

It is clear that other than scientific factors, economic and social factors have contributed to the decline in the prevalence rates of consanguineous marriages. However, according to opposing literature, there is need to carry out more research to confirm that more genetic disorders occur in consanguineous marriages as opposed to non-consanguineous marriages.

Works Cited

Bener, Abdulbari, and Rafat Hussain. ‘Consanguineous unions and child health in the State of Qatar.’ Paediatr Perinat Epidemiol 20.5 (2006): 372-8.

Ghazi, Tadmouri, Pratibha Nair, Tasneem Obeid, Mahmoud T Al Ali, Najib Al Khaja, and Hanan A Hamamy. ‘Consanguinity and Reproductive Health among Arabs.’ Reproductive Health 6 (2009): 17.

Goode William. J. World Revolution and Family Patterns. New York: Free Press, 1963.

Hurd, Geoffrey. Human Societies: An Introduction to Sociology. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.

Jurdi, Rozzet, and Prem C. Saxena. ‘The prevalence and correlates of consanguineous marriage in Yemen: Similarities and contrasts with other Arab countries.’ Journal of Biosocial Sciences 35 (2003): 1-13.

Koç, Ismet. Prevalence and socio-demographic correlates of consanguineous marriages in Turkey. J Biosoc Sci 40 (2008): 137–48.

Kuper, Adam. Incest & Influence: The Private Life of Bourgeois England. New York: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2009.

Mehndiratta, M., Paul, B., and Yash P. Mehndiratta. ‘Arranged Marriage, Consanguinity and Epilepsy’. Neurology Asia 12 (2007): 15-17.

Saggar, Anand K., and Alan H. Bittles. ‘Consanguinity and Child Health’. Pediatrics and Child Health 18.5 (2008): 244-9

Shavazi, Mohammad J., Peter McDonald, and Meimanat Hossein -Chavoshi. Modernization and the Cultural Practice of Consanguineous Marriage: A Study of Four Provinces of Iran. Liverpool, 2006. Web.

Wilkinson, Emma. ‘Cousin Marriage: Is it a Health Risk?’ BBC. 16 May 2008. Web.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "Incest - how did society's view on consanguineous marriage change throughout history and science development and why." May 3, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/incest-how-did-societys-view-on-consanguineous-marriage-change-throughout-history-and-science-development-and-why/.

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