The shallow end of the gene pool

inbred_bigAll the church slicing, dicing and splicing that has ocurred over the history of the Anabaptist movement has had an unintended evolutionary consequenece.  One thing I’ve noticed about Anabaptist schisms is that they tend to break along family lines. This is a bad thing.

If you keep splitting and re-splitting an insular community long enough, you end up  with a lot of very small insular communities who are, to put it kindly, “purebred.” If you know anything about the history of the royal families of Europe, you know that this is not a good thing.

My family jokes about the “Stauffer Curse,” which leaves men with hair everywhere except where they want it. But aside from the Curse and a distilled hard-headed temperament (which my natural father believes is a genetic trait) there are even less savory mutations. Weak hearts kill the men in my family at very early ages. Several of my first cousins are afflicted with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye disease that has lead to legal blindness  for one of them. There are also inherited mental health problems, different flavors of depression, mania, severe anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder that have afflicted several of my family members.

While inbreeding has always been a problem for isolated rural communities, it is even more deep-rooted for Old Order Anabaptists. My uncle recently tracked our family tree back to Europe and discovered that it looks more like a daisy chain – lots of first cousins marrying each other. My parents were second cousins once removed. I have two aunts who are married to two brothers, and no one had to change a last name.

A few years ago, I took a drive with my father to the Mennonite Church in Loveville to visit the grave of my grandfather, who died before I was born. He pointed out to me that the graves of children far outnumbered the those of adults. “They are having to invent new names for the kinds of genetic diseases they are finding.”

The phenomenon of Anabaptist inbreeding has become so severe that there is now a specialized health clinic in Strasburg, Pa. for treating genetic afflictions, including the frighteningly named “maple syrup urine disease.”

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6 Responses to “The shallow end of the gene pool”

  1. OriginalSinnick Says:

    Is it possible that institutional ignorance is an inherited trait as well? According to my therapist, (not boasting here) it is a certain intelligence that makes it possible for individuals to escape the clutches of religious cults and survive outside the group.
    Conversely, does this mean that those within the cult do not possess any intelligence?

  2. Not that I’m totally impressed, but this is a lot more than I expected for when I found a link on SU telling that the info is quite decent. Thanks.

  3. Right Arm, right on; this is the same thing we run into out here in Utah, with the polygamous communities. Very informative. Thank you

  4. […] remarked already about how uncomfortably intertwined my family tree has been, but reading about how my Stauffer great-grandfather was competing with a […]

  5. Alice (Martin) Van Ryan Says:

    It is illegal in the Commonwealth of PA for first cousins to marry. I am a descendent of David Martin of Lancaster County, PA and both my parents were Martins. My mother is not closely related to my father. I am sure the gene pool tangles at some point, of course. In PA, the saying goes, “Shake a bush and a Martin runs out”. I moved to MS and dated two Martins before getting married. I know they were not related to me. One of them had English origins, the other Irish. My family is originally from Switzerland. My point is, we are all related in some form or fashion. I agree that inbreeding has affected members of the Old Order Mennonites in PA; I know people afflicted with physical problems. I suppose chalking this down to ignorance is fair, but it can also occur when the father raising a child is not the natural father, and yes, that happens even in that society albeit rarely.

  6. Hostetter Motor Co Says:

    Howdy Cousin!

    Was trying to explain this to my son and he said ‘You mean instead of a Tree we have a Bush?’

    My great grandfather has Stauffer, Shenk, Krieder, Long, Brechbill and Hostetter up his lines. Tryng to plot it out is something I have struggled with for years. It’s downright gnarly.
    On the up side genetic bottle necks don’t just create disease and deficits, but also duplicate and refine the positive traits. Amongst my great grand-father’s descendants, we have some fairly high IQs, one with photographic memory, a trend for good business sense and several painters.

    Luckily my grandfather’s rumspringe ended up with him at the University of Chicago and marrying a Methodist from Memphis. :D

    Take care now!

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