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Yaniv Erlich has a soft spot for genealogy. A data scientist at Columbia University and the chief science of officer of the DNA test company MyHeritage, he describes many things in the context of family.

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These are the core obsessions that drive our newsroom—defining topics of seismic importance to the global economy. Our s are made to shine in your inbox, with something fresh every morning, afternoon, and weekend. In much of the world, consanguineous marriage between cousins is very common. For most Americans, however, marriage between cousins is at best a punchline, at worst a taboo.

In many states, it is illegal for first cousins to get married. The objections are ostensibly based on the risk of genetic problems. But is there an actual risk?

The genetic risks in question are related to something called unmasking. It goes something like this: We each receive one copy of each gene from each of our parents.

Thus, we inherit two versions of each gene called alleles ; one is dominant and one recessive. For a recessive gene to actually manifest in an individual, both copies of the gene must be the recessive allele. If an individual inherits only one recessive allele of the gene, the individual is considered a carrier who can pass on the illness to their offspring.

But when an individual inherits two copies of a dangerous recessive allele, they the gene is said to be unmasked and inherit the condition. Trouble is, cousins share one set of grandparents.

So the risk of inheriting two copies of a dangerous allele is elevated compared to non-related marriages since they have a greater chance of inheriting the same recessive allele from their common ancestors. Nevertheless, British authorities determined that despite the increased risk, most children of cousin marriage are healthy. Bittles and M. Black tackled consanguineous marriage on a global scale in a paper in Annual Review of Anthropology.

For the reasons discussed above, beyond just dangerous recessive alleles, the odds of of first cousins inheriting two copies of the same allele—any allele, whether recessive or not—is elevated. Populations with fewer consanguineous marriages have higher heterozygosity, meaning individuals carry two different alleles for a given gene.

Unmasking is less common in highly heterozygous populations, so according to Bittles and Black, as cousin marriage declines, there should be corresponding increases in human health at a population level. The bottom line is that it is often safe to have children with your cousin, but doctors do recommend genetic counseling for prospective first cousin parents.

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By James MacDonald. Published August 24, This article is more than 2 years old. me up.

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