Today’s question springs from a new study on a genetic mutation which causes a form of mental retardation among Amish.
Like other genetic research involving the Amish, this study will probably help them health-wise. It’s really the language used to describe it which may not be quite so helpful.
In the article describing the work, researcher José Luis Rosa of the University of Barcelona states that “in these communities there are high rates of inbreeding, so homozygous recessive diseases are more frequent than in general population”.
“High rates of inbreeding” struck me, and I’m now predictably seeing the term pop up in other places to describe the Amish. To the non-scientific public, “inbreeding” is a stomach-churning word which in its worst sense suggests sexual relations between close (nuclear) family members. Though criminal cases of abuse have occurred these types of relationships are not sanctioned by Amish.
There are at least two issues to touch on here: to what degree does, to use the researcher’s term, inbreeding exist among the Amish, and how it should be described.
Do Amish inbreed?
It’s true that it’s probably easier for the average Amish person to trace a genealogical connection to his spouse than it would be for a non-Amish person. While close cousin marriages are widely discouraged, in a limited, largely closed population, more distant relations inevitably wed. I have even heard Amish joke about this (“our family trees don’t fork”), but is this “inbreeding” as we commonly think of it?
It’s frequently noted that the Lancaster Amish population descends from a relative handful of immigrant families (see this explanation of genetic drift and the founder principle). I would think that in the 18th century when there were only a few dozen families in the population, close marriages would have been more likely.
Today that should be a lot less of an issue. Finding a spouse can still be problematic, particularly in small communities, as some newer settlements may be comprised by a majority of related families. However this traditionally leads youth to seek life partners in other communities.
The answer to the question “Do Amish inbreed?” probably hinges on how you define the term, how close or distant a relationship must be to be considered “inbreeding”. I’d argue the popular sense of the word suggests relations between very close family members, and so I’d say it’s not the best description.
What to call it?
As for the latter question, I’m no genetic researcher, but I’d have thought they might have chosen a less loaded and more clinical term like “endogamy“. The person describing it seems to be Spanish, though the English of the sentence it is excerpted from seems excellent (however this may be a translation). The article itself is online but behind a paywall; the abstract is readable here.
Perhaps the point in describing it this way was to make headlines for the study (such as this horror headline showing up in a major news outlet: “Amish Inbreeding Causes Genetic Mutation and Mental Retardation“).
Or perhaps what the Amish do can technically be described as inbreeding (and maybe this term is in fact commonly used in the genetic sciences). Unfortunately the word is so loaded that some people will glance at a headline like that and think Amish men marry their sisters.
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The Complexities of languages & people
I agree, Erik, that in-breeding is a loaded word. I haven’t looked at the article in Spanish, but their language has two words for in-breeding: one for animals and one for humans. I can’t come up with two words in English that make that distinction. So I’m guessing it’s a problem of the nuances of the translation. On a trip to the Big Valley in Mifflin Count, PA, yesterday, we talked with the so-called Nebraska (White-topper) friends about who their young folks married with five different and relatively small sub-groups that do not “deen” or have communion. Out of practicality or necessity, they have evidently removed the normal restrictions and allow their children to date and marry across Nebraska affiliations. I admit to being surprised but relieved. Rich Stevick
Different Spanish terms for inbreeding/endogamy?
Thanks for commenting on the Big Valley situation Rich. After recently visiting Nebraska people in Big Valley a Lancaster Amish friend and I were wondering the same thing about their allowances for marrying across the multiple Nebraska affiliations (one or two of which I believe are just a single church district). It would seem they’d have no other choice, really.
Interesting to know there are two words for the term in Spanish. I wondered whether something might have been lost in translation. It doesn’t seem like a very clinical term to use, in any case.
Have medical studies/research been done to help Amish families who may be too related genetically find help to choose spouses from other communities not so genetically linked to their own?
Carolyn I have never heard of anything like that happening. Pretty scientific approach, and I think they have a pretty good handle on the genealogy, fwiw. I’ve heard they do something like that in Iceland, which is only a couple hundred thousand people.
Amish are suffering from centuries of inbreeding
There is a lot of evidence on this, one only has to use Google to find it. There’s no point in denying the evidence.
The problem started when they arrived in the US and only married within their own cult/group. The original genetic pool was too low and over centuries the problems have increased.
Misuse of a term.
Using the word “cult” to describe the Amish certainly is certainly by someone that finds any religious group a problem.
Cult is an accurate description.
the world cult is defined as a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.
a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.
a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.
Using the word cult here is a clever attack on Christianity.
“the world cult is defined as a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.”
For the Amish that figure is Jesus Christ.
“regarded by others as strange or sinister… a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.”
Strange, yes, sinister, no.
Excessive yes, misplaced, no.
I think there was a lot of inbreeding when different people of different nationalities came to this country. My family is not Amish, but Irish and in tracing our family back, we find a lot of inbreeding when the Irish came to this country. Second or third cousins marrying second or third cousins. Like the Amish with their people, I think a lot of the Irish Catholic wanted to breed Irish Catholic back in the 1800’s. Today, I think the Amish do it more than the Irish or people coming in to the U.S. from other countries do. Tracing my family on both my Mother and Father’s sides was very interesting.
I agree New York State of Mind that when families immigrated to the US that it was more common. My cousin recently did a family scrapbook and I discovered that my Great Grandparents were 2nd cousins. I never knew that before and was pretty shocked to find out. They were Norwegian. There is no known mutations in our family that I’m aware of.
I was interested in your observation that the writer of the accusation could be Spanish which immediately causes my mind to tether together the possibility that it is a further disinformation tactic being used to disintegrate a respected Protestant people by some group operating from a more sinister intent. Leaping backwards: Jesuit prosecution of Protestants vis a vis: Waldensians.
Jackie that is interesting, but not knowing anything more than what’s presented here, I’d probably give the benefit of the doubt and assume it was a translation issue and not so much an accusation by this researcher. The text of the press release is in pretty good English, but if you read carefully, it’s not perfect English.
Whatever the cause, the effect is that the word is picked up and used by decidedly English news outlets, such as in that International Business Times article I linked above.
I was an Anglican parish priest in rural Canada. Cousin marriage is legal there, and in the generation that came of age at the beginning of World War II, and into the 1950s, it was common in one parish I served. There were a couple of rare genetic conditions that continued to appear in their children and grandchildren, but will probably be eliminated as those children either out-migrate or marry outside the local populace. “Inbreeding” is pejorative when applied to humans, implying ignorance and lack of social normatives. There were common ancestors in my own family, as might be expected among people who originated in the Highlands and Islands of northern Great Britain, and my late husband and I had a distant common ancestor. We humans are not as genetically diverse as we would like to think.
Since I am not of a scientific or genetic bent I can’t add a whole lot to this conversation but find it interesting…and reminds me of a comment from a older man I knew who when asked about family would say with a smile…”I’m my own Grandpa.” Now that is an interesting family tree. God bless!
Bonnie, that reminds me of the song or poem, “I’m my own Grandpa.”
You can hear one version of the song and see a family tree diagram at
Yes, I imagine that is why he used the phrase….but since his family actually did have a lot of cousins marrying other cousins, and then divorcing and ending up switching their mates…via marriage…I wasn’t absolutely sure he wasn’t his own grandpa.
It is a loaded, indelicate term but one that raises awareness. In small Amish communities finding a lifelong mate is challenging for a couple reason that we as Englishers don’t have to consider for our choices: these young people do not go away to college thus limiting choices; if they want to remain in their Faith they much choose within their Faith; and old order transportation (horse and buggy) limits their distance. I grew up near a small Amish/Mennonite community and still reside near one. As genetic issues evolve with their off spring, parents are becoming more aware of the need to move farther from the tree trunk. If young people strike up a friendship with someone in another community, they have limited interaction with them and their families (a few expensive trips but mainly correspondence). It is hard to form a strong bond under the best of circumstances, let alone the ones they face. If a young woman marries a man from another community, she more than likely has to move there since he has an established means of support for her and their family. Girls who marry outside the community and their husbands come to them, usually come from a family with enough resources to entice the man to move (healthy dowry). The strides that Dr. Morton has done with genetic research have certainly raised a great deal of awareness. Some parents in communities are aware of genetics and discourage the first/second cousin marriages. In closing there are many common last names Yoder, Gingerich, Hostetler, Stauffer, etc. but outside the Amish there are a lot of Browns, Smiths, Jones.
Long distance Amish dating
A friend’s son is marrying in a few months, and the bride to her is a couple of counties away, probably a two hour car ride at least. That is a long distance situation even if you’re English…some marry across states. Makes you wonder however well you can get to know a person. Letters still work.
Its sad but you’d be surprised by the amount of people who are supposed to be educated and some claim to be spiritual who have seriously downed others who are different than they are. I “unfriended” one such person on FB who kept posting all sorts of horrid things about the Amish.. they All ran puppy mills, they were all inbred. etc etc.. After trying to have a decent conversation with them, I saw they would never change their beliefs so they no long are within my scope of vision.
I agree with Julie Armstrong that we are not as genetically diverse as we would like to think.. They say you can find common ancestors within 8 generations.
One of my great grandfather’s sisters grandsons wanted to date me when we were in high school.. I said “heck no!! We’re cousins!” I think wer’re 3rd cousins, once removed.. That was too close for me.. haha
8 generations is a huge separation. thats a 200 year separation. for every generation there is 25 years.
and Third cousins count back four generations to their great-great-grandparents
The term is derogatory. It just carries such a negative connotation, bringing up images of Deliverance, and what not.
I looked up synonyms for “inbreed/inbred” and couldn’t find anything that seemed adequate. The term you suggested, Erik, sounds much more respectful (endogamy), but even it seems to mean something more specific:
Endogamy – “Marriage within a specific group as required by custom or law.”
In each definition I found, endogamy is a requirement, not a choice. Initially, I thought the “ugly” term inbreeding was used as an attention grabber, but I honestly can’t find a term that is equal in meaning, without suggesting something else which doesn’t apply. Can anyone else?
Oh! I sort of like “consanguinous marriage.”
Of Service to Others
I agree that “inbreeding” is a loaded term; I like Lattice’s term better. Anyway, the smaller gene pool among the Amish has provided scientists with valuable answers to questions about heritable traits. “Twin studies” is another tool scientists use to get answers to the same kinds of questions. Anyway, you can inherit good traits and not-so-good traits —one of the traits the Amish population seems to have in abundance is resourcefulness and intelligence.
“Unfortunately the word is so loaded that some people will glance at a headline like that and think Amish men marry their sisters.”
Yes, Erik, I agree. But then, I thought, these are probably the same people who watch “Breaking Amish” or any of the other questionable Amish “reality” (!) shows, and take it all in as FACT! (I would worry more about THEM “in-breeding” than the Amish, personally.) 😉
You cracked me up here Alice Mary. I searched around a little today to see what kind of Amish inbreeding commentary people are making out there on the internet. Some things I wouldn’t want to repeat here. Maybe we’ll see this theme on a future episode of “Mafia” or “Breaking”.
Eric, maybe YOU’LL see them on Breaking Amish or Amish Mafia.. I refuse to give them ratings, though I did watch Breaking Amish after the last series was done. 😉 The other one I watched for about 5 minutes & left the room.. It just disgusted me.
Eli.. thats funny… Sounds like they were making a family braid. 🙂
I breed show mice and if humans are similar, being mammals and all, then it is possible to bred brother to sister for generations as the ancient Egyptians and Inca rulers did.
Basically with mice, when you breed brother and sister together you get a population dip in the seventh generation and the nineteenth generation, those that come through the final bottleneck can keep breeding brother to sister for ever without genetic problems. The research lab near where I stay has mice going onto their 128th generation of brother to sister breeding according to the lady in charge. She said such mice are very valuable for research purposes as the genetic variable is zero.
I understand from discovery channel that Africa’s cheetah population went through a bottleneck sometime in its distant past and that all cheetahs are 95% related to each other.
Inbreeding is only bad until all the negative or harmful genes have been breed out by the affected being unable to breed and pass their genes on. Once that has been done, only pure genes are left.
A normal genetically divers population masks the bad genes allowing them to surface every so often, but with inbreeding they surface more regularly and can be more easily or quickly eliminated, leaving pure genes to continue.
All around the world we have inbred alien animal populations that started with a few escapees that have now generations later, become a healthy and fit menace.
Inbreeding will not destroy a population, if anything it will make it genetically purer. Go figure.
Very interesting.. thanks for sharing this..
DNA testing would probably be acceptable
The Amish are known to adopt technology after careful consideration of its usefulness. The use of petroleum products such as gasoline, pesticide, fertilizer, plastic, polyester, how and when to use phone, fax, & internet, the hiring of drivers, the use of machinery running off solar, gasoline, propane, natural gas, electric etc. have all been choices made over time based on its usefulness vs. detriment to the community.
Given the fact that founder’s effect had caught up to the Amish, DNA testing would be wise and I believe the communities would see the usefulness of it as they become more and more disabled by genetic diseases. Jewish youth organizations did this in the 20th c to fight Tay Sachs. Testing would be done in the schools so people would know if they were carriers or non carriers. When they’d have a dance or youth event for the Jewish young people, each student would put either one or two dots on the hand, one dot meant non carrier, two dots meant carrier. This was so at least from first meeting people would know the odds of having a Tay Sachs child before getting into a relationship (if both parents are carriers of Tay Sachs the punnet square odds are if they have four kids, one will be a non carrier, two will be carriers, and one will have Tay Sachs). Any community with recessive diseases running in it can do testing such as this,it would be worth it to know. 23&me or any of the big companies can provide tests, or a university or public health Dept can sponsor it. Discounts are offered for group testing projects or tests bought in bulk. Once the results are in hand, run them through promethease.com which is an extremely extensive database which will turn up any and every condition. In my family we have anabaptist background and my sibling married someone also of anabaptist background. We did this and both were carriers for a handful of things but neither carried the same thing as the other so any kids they have could be carriers but never have active disease of those conditions.
Interesting, Walter! I guess that’s what Hitler was trying for.
It is interesting how much marriage customs have changed in America over the years. Many prominent early Americans — among them George Washington and Charles Darwin — married their cousins.
Today, marriage among partners of different races and nationalities is quite common, something quite rare even two generations ago.
Rounding things out, the Amish and other outlier groups practice their own form of marriage to this day.
Change is not always welcome, but always interesting.
I heard my fathers side (Amish) of the family tree described as going out two generations and back two generations, out two generations and back two generations 🙂
I grew up in northern Sweden where up until 50-100 years ago people lived very isolated and marrying relatives was quite common. Today people do not choose to marry relatives but in small towns and even more so in villages people are often related in some way further back so it is not that uncommon to marry distant relatives without knowing it, that happened to my brother and his wife. In our case we have no known genetic diseases so it doesn’t matter but it that had been that case there might have been a problem. Some genetic diseases are more common here but since they are more common you also have more knowledgable hospital staff and often measures to have them detected earlier. Most families do not have such diseases despite having first cousins marry each other multiple times (like my mother’s father’s family). One must also remember that good genes are also concentrated when close relatives marry and that might in a way make up for increased risks of genetic disease.
I sometimes test people by telling them that I have two cousins that are married to each other and some say nothing and some say gross. I then tell them haha, yes, they are my cousins both of them but they are in fact not cousins themselves, one is my cousin from dad’s side and one is my cousin from mum’s side so they are no more related than my parents were. It is interesting to test people’s prejudice though.
This isn’t really so much inbreeding but on a different posting I related about the complicated relationships that had developed when a twice widowed 82 year old bishop remarried for the third time to an 84 year old widow. The bishop’s son was married to his new wife’s granddaughter. That made the bishop’s son a step-uncle to his wife and step great-uncle to his own children as well as being their father. Another of the old bishop’s granddaughters is married to his new wife’s grandson making them both step great-grandparents as well as great-grandparents to their great-grandchildren. The bishop’s son is brother-in-law to his mother-iin-law. Oh my. This is making my headache!
That is ROFL funny!! I’d have a headache too if I had to figure out the relations!
inbreeding? I have a question for you… who were Adams boys in the BBible married to?
A few thoughts
This is an interesting discussion, and I agree that the term is very loaded. Endogamy is very much more the issue here than an interest to marry someone purely because of relational ties. Thus, the practice of endogamy in this situation is the primary practice and the by-product of that practice (due to restricted access and limited early population of settlers) is marrying others who have some relation to you (not marrying a relative as practice in and of itself). Two very different situations.
This reminds me of a similar situation that has occurred in the Navajo population. There is a great video on this if anyone has the time to watch it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F0hGlPvXXKs (this is just the first of about 9 or 10 segments to watch). The Navajo, because of issues of genocide, have a limited gene pool as well, with only 7 or so groups/clans having survived the forced marches, etc. Because of this, they have some very serious genetic disorders that have developed and persisted. I recall reading about liver issues (Crigler-Najjar syndrome) in the Amish community some years ago, where children would have to sit under bilirubin lights for some years before having to get liver transplants. I have also read in the research literature about the relative absence of autism in the Amish community as well (obviously relating autism to genetic predispositions, etc.).
This topic also is very interesting to me in relation to how the Amish view disabilities and care for those in their community with disabilities. I have been curious to know if families ever seek out assistance from the broader community to help them support child development in individuals with communication or cognitive issues. I’ve read that some seek services for mental health issues, but services for people with disabilities is less known to me (outside of Dr. Morton’s Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg, PA, but these deal more with health, not development).
Not a scientist but every Amish church here in Ohio that I personally know someone from would never marry first cousins and would frown upon second cousins! It would be the talk of Holmes county! There are only a handful of last names here but the connection is several generations back! Our church generally tries to marry within the church (the Beachy church)and and ours is smaller than the Amish! We do not inbreed, although we are converts and I suppose you would say “fresh blood” lol! So we have done our part in adding a fresh last name to the plain community 🙂
the other end of “the spectrum” [abuse]
On the other end of “the spectrum”, this CBC News report aired Saturday, March 16, 2013, and involves Manitoba Old Order Mennonites. At this link there is a text article and the television video. I thought I’d share.
Lest we Forget
I have heard well meaning people think on such thing when Amish is discussed and I must say I think we all forget that at some point marrying family with in the same family was common, the monarchy is very much steeped in it, and if you came from small towns and did not go any where it was not a surprize to even find cousins being married unto one another.. sure some were 2 or 3rd cousins but is that not marrying into the family gene pool.. Alot of the monarchy and Jewish families of the Biblical times did the same, it was to help preserve the family ” riches” lest they be squander among the masses… I found out that my father and mother were 3 cousins, go figure but because of the small town no body batted an eye… I think we at times get too paranoid over the frivolous of things.
we are all related. no two people are no more than 50th cousins. and any random couple has a 2-3% chance of having a child with a birth defect. when you get as close as 3rd cousins that chance jumps to 3-4% and stops at 7% with siblings and closer. the problem is what happens over multiple generations of imbreeding. once several generations have occurred than thats when you start seeing huge amounts of birth defects. a great example would be the royal family in the UK
ANother interesting thread.
As always, I am late to this discussion. I don’t have much first, second or otherwise knowledge about line breeding or inbreeding among humans.
I do have experience with line breeding Californian rabbits and Red Angus cattle. The quick and dirty of it is that if no animal is ever breed to have more than 50% of the blood (DNA)of a specific ancestor there is little reason to expect genetic problems. If you get above that threshold you are risking problems. The further you go above that point the more problems you can encounter.
There was a man named Lentz from Oklahoma that wrote a book some 15 years or so ago on line breeding. He owns, or did own, a herd of really uniform Herefords that has not had ANY new blood introduced into the herd since sometime in the late 1800’s. He wrote in his book that he had experienced NO genetic issues; mutations, dwarfism, fertility issues, etc.
Obviously, he did NOT start the line breeding in this herd but he was adamant that it be continued. Last I heard he was looking to retire and he was VERY particular that whoever purchased his herd be willing to continue the process. He said that it could be carried on indefinitely with no problems, provided it was done correctly. Interestingly enough the example he used in describing the logic of line breeding was with biblical characters. Until I read his book I hadn’t picked up on the fact that inbreeding HAD to take place in certain families if the biblical narrative is to be taken literally.
The endogamy and the founder effect of a small population with large numbers of descendants DOES create very real genetic problems. You explained it quite well in your ‘Do Amish have genetic problems’ article and might want to link the two of these.
Saying that Amish “practice inbreeding”, as you say, is misleading. The Amish aren’t the only communities with founder-effect problems and genetic abnormalities.Orthodox Jews who follow the religion and lifestyle meticulously still have the same genetic problems as their ancestors did. It’s because they began with a small population, only married each other, and faced persecution from host societies so that conversion from the outside was rare and openly discouraged- JUST like Amish!! Very few children of the non-Jewishly-intermarried or their subsequent children will practice the Jewish faith. I’m sure it’s similar to Amish descendants not practicing the Amish faith after they leave. For example, there is an Elizabeth Byler Younts who writes Amish fiction and has the ancestry, but is not Amish herself. There is a Kevin Yoder who is a politician in Kansas and has an Amish-descended father and a non-Amish mother, and who can forget Verne Troyer, who was raised Amish, has an Amish form of dwarfism, and acted in his famous Hollywood roles?
Saloma Miller Furlong mentions in her memoir that one of the reasons she left, though not the primary one, is that she would have basically had to marry a distant relative if she stayed, since she was pretty much related to everyone in her community. I also believe John A. Hostetler, the former Amishman who became a famed scholar of his people, married a non-Amish woman.
I’ll give my same advice to Amish as I do to Jews; they ought to seek converts. I’m not saying that either group should lower their standards, dilute their culture to suit outsiders, or actively evangelize masses of people in an obnoxious way. But I see no harm in being helpful towards those who seek Judaism or Amish Anabaptism honestly and of their own free will. I also think that the Amish should adopt children out of the foster care system to help with their genetic problems. This is already being done by some Mennonite groups, who are raising African-American children. (45 percent of kids in foster care are African American). Here’s a link:
Besides the Jews and Hispanic Jewish-descended populations, other groups having genetic problems due to endogamy are New England Puritans, Romani Gypsies, French-Canadians and Middle Eastern Christians. Romani Gypsies have been highly endogamous, persecuted, and have their own faith and lifestyle (like Jews, Puritans and Anabaptists). But for Romani it varies; the proportion of Gypsy blood in Rom communities is lowest in Britain, and highest I think in Eastern Europe.. my brain is fuzzy! French-Canadians and Arab Christians have the same problem with high blood cholesterol due to endogamy, which is interesting to me from a historical perspective because the Arab Christian populations have been found to contain genes from the European Crusaders, most of whom were French! What a fascinating world we live in!
Do The Amish Inbreed
Inbreeding must work. Noah and his family repopulated the entire world that way.
Let's be realistic...
I’ve lived around and worked with amish my whole life. Do they inbreed? Maybe not all of them. It’s not uncommon at all for them to marry first cousins.
Do Amish Inbreed?
Absolutely they do. But it’s more like linebreeding. The Troyer and Swartzentruber Amish both often marry third cousins routinely. That means one or more of their parents are first cousins to each other. And they are always related multiple other ways through their familial lineage. In Canada now they are facing bloodline exchange shortages between USA and Canadian communities because of their refusal to obtain photo ID, even temporarily. This is exacerbating things because they are running out of dual citizen church members to intermarry.
I believe it’s the religion the Amish try to marry within, but it’s population is too small. It clearly is not healthy to do so, at least not at this point in history, and not so repeatedly.