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All in the Family

INCEST AND INFLUENCE: The Private Life of Bourgeois England. Adam Kuper. viii + 296 pp. Harvard University Press, 2009. $27.95.

In 1871, a short skit in the humor magazine Punch titled “Most Natural Selection” proclaimed that “If Mr. Darwin’s theory of the Descent of Man were true, we should . . . have to accept quite new views of marriage.” Insisting that it was preferable that married couples should not be near relations, such as cousins, the skit claimed that “if we are descended from Anthropoid Apes . . . we should conclude that there was no cause or just impediment whatever why we should not marry cousins so very many more degrees removed than any other as those arboreal and quadrumanous ones.” Punch’s characteristically facetious contribution to the famous debates over evolution in Victorian Britain undoubtedly shocked many readers with its grotesque and disquieting insinuations regarding conjugal relations between humans and simians. But Charles Darwin himself, who had pronounced himself reconciled to man’s bestial ancestry in his earliest notebooks, would more likely have been discomfited by what the skit suggested about cousin marriage, for in 1839 he had married Emma Wedgwood, a woman who was both his first cousin and his sister-in-law.

Wedgewood, Allen and Darwin family treeClick to Enlarge ImagePersistent intermarriage between members of Darwin’s family and the Wedgwood clan effectively intertwined two bourgeois dynasties of the English Midlands. A plethora of biographical studies of the great evolutionist and the ongoing publication of his correspondence have revealed the particularities of this complex family network in great detail, with the result that more is perhaps known about Darwin’s extended family than that of any comparable figure (with the obvious exception of royalty). In Incest and Influence, an illuminating study of the significance of cousin marriages for the 19th-century English bourgeoisie, Adam Kuper therefore uses Darwin as an exemplar of a more general tendency.

The book opens with an account of Darwin’s protracted deliberation over whether and whom to marry. His choice of a close relation as his spouse was, as Kuper makes clear, entirely unexceptional for a man of his social position in England at that time: In the Victorian upper middle classes, more than 1 marriage in 10 was between first or second cousins. A similar number of marriages were between brothers- and sisters-in-law, meaning that about 1 person in 5 married within the family circle. This emphasis on endogamy was an effective means for bourgeois families like the Darwin-Wedgwoods to sustain beneficial domestic connections and to safeguard the property and riches accrued from the nascent industrial economy. Great intermarried families therefore came to dominate trades such as ceramics (the Wedgwood family’s pottery was world famous) and banking (the largest bank in the world, the House of Rothschild, was a family firm, and many Quaker banking families, including the Barclays and the Gurneys, intermarried and eventually merged their banks).

Unlike other scions of such families, Darwin took a keen interest in the scientific aspects of interbreeding and heredity. Throughout his career he remained acutely concerned as to “whether or not consanguineous marriages are injurious to man,” as he put it in the conclusion to the Descent of Man in 1871. Darwin thus plays a further part in Incest and Influence as one of the foremost proponents (along with his cousin Francis Galton) of a more empirical approach to questions of heredity.

In 1870, Darwin participated in an attempt to get Parliament interested in collecting evidence to determine whether cousin marriages had “injurious consequences.” When the attempt failed, he designed a study to address the question and asked his son George,* who was a mathematician and amateur genealogist, to carry it out. George Darwin consulted marriage records, studied genealogies of the peerage and landed gentry, sent out questionnaires to upper-middle- and upper-class families, and gathered statistics from mental asylums, eventually concluding that the proportion of patients in the asylums who were the offspring of first-cousin marriages (about 3 to 4 percent) was about what one would expect given his estimate that 3.5 percent of middle-class marriages were between first cousins. The only finding that gave him pause was that although 3 to 3.5 percent of the men at Oxford and Cambridge were the sons of first-cousin parents, only 2.4 percent of the men who rowed for those universities (and were thus presumably extremely fit) were the offspring of cousins. In the end, he found little evidence that interbreeding between cousins was injurious, at least in the middle and upper classes, and both his father and Francis Galton endorsed his conclusions.

Curiously, as Kuper shows, for much of the 19th century the principal legal concern with so-called incest was actually over marriage with a deceased wife’s sister, which was prohibited by Scripture and did not become legal until 1907. It was only after the First World War that scientific opinion hardened decisively against cousin marriage. Interestingly, the most recent genetic studies, as Kuper remarks in the book’s coda, now generally concord with George Darwin’s view that the risks to the offspring of first-cousin marriages are well within the limits of acceptability—that is, so long as cousin marriages are not repeated over several generations.

It is well known that Charles Darwin’s life was blighted by recurrent stomach complaints (which resembled the fatal ailments of his Wedgwood mother) and by persistent anxieties over the health of his own children. Like many biographers, Kuper endeavors to discern a clear link between Darwin’s putatively fretful domestic circumstances and his revolutionary scientific thought. He cites the following passage from Darwin’s 1868 work The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication:

The existence of a great law of nature is almost proved; namely, that the crossing of animals and plants which are not closely related to each other is highly beneficial or even necessary, and that interbreeding [i.e., inbreeding] prolonged during many generations is highly injurious.

Kuper then speculates that Darwin “was bound to consider the implications for his own family. His scientific project and his personal concerns could hardly be separated.”

Significantly, however, the phrase “closely related” in the above passage from Variation refers not to the crossing of plant or animal “cousins,” but rather (as is clear from sentences that precede it but are not quoted by Kuper) to more unambiguously incestuous unions, such as a male animal “paired with his daughter, granddaughter, and so on” or “matching brothers and sisters, which is considered the closest form of interbreeding.” In fact, in a passage added to the second edition of Variation in 1875, Darwin insists that “consanguineous marriages, such as are permitted in civilised nations . . . would not be considered as close interbreeding in the case of our domesticated animals.” It is, I would suggest, only by blurring the distinctions between Darwin’s interest in “close interbreeding” (a deliberately precise phrase that he uses repeatedly in both On the Origin of Species and Variation) and his related but nonetheless distinct concern with “consanguineous marriages” that Kuper can sustain the assertion, made in the introduction to Incest and Influence, that Darwin’s apparent “personal obsession” with cousin marriage played a central role in “provoking revolutionary ideas about breeding and heredity.”

Such unwarrantedly audacious claims and the book’s sensationally alliterative title (hardly anyone used incest to describe cousin marriage in the period under consideration) actually militate against what I consider its main insight in relation to Darwin and Victorian society more generally: that cousin marriage amongst the English bourgeoisie between the 1790s and 1910s was pervasive and entirely commonplace. Our own attitudes to such unions are, as Kuper acknowledges, perhaps more prejudiced than those of any previous period, and this contemporary abhorrence is no more based on unequivocal scientific grounds than was the Victorians’ seeming acceptance of the practice.

Incest and Influence presents a richly detailed and fascinating picture of the distinctive family life of the Victorian bourgeoisie, which Kuper considers “one of the great neglected themes of nineteenth-century history.” This portrait affords a useful corrective to the excitable assumptions of many of Darwin’s biographers (most notably Adrian Desmond and James Moore) that his marital circumstances were so anomalous and worrying that they spurred on his researches even into the self- and cross-fertilization of plants.

*Due to an editing error, in an earlier version of this review George was misidentified as Charles Darwin's eldest son. Darwin's first-born son was actually William Erasmus Darwin.

Gowan Dawson is Senior Lecturer in the Victorian Studies Centre at the University of Leicester. He is the author of Darwin, Literature and Victorian Respectability (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and coauthor of Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical: Reading the Magazine of Nature (Cambridge University Press, 2004). Currently he is writing a new book titled “Show Me the Bone”: Fragmentary Fossils, Functionalist Palaeontology and the Reconstruction of Prehistoric Creatures in Nineteenth-Century British and American Culture. He is also general editor, with Bernard Lightman, of an eight-volume series, Victorian Science and Literature (forthcoming from Pickering and Chatto).

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