Inbreeding, the Habsburgs, and Texas

Ewen Calloway, in Nature magazine, writes:

habsburgsInbred royals show traces of natural selection

A provocative analysis now suggests that the Habsburg royal family [some of whom are pictured here — click on the image to go to the Habsburg-laden web site whence come these images] might have evolved under natural selection over three centuries to blunt the worst effects of inbreeding. Evolutionary theory predicts such a ‘purging’ process, and researchers have documented the effect in animals and plants. But evidence among humans is scant — in part because of the dearth of data on inbred families spanning many generations…. Leonid Kruglyak, a population geneticist at Princeton University in New Jersey, is not convinced that natural selection is behind the changes in mortality. He says that the results are more likely to be a statistical fluke caused by small sample sizes.

The new study is:

Royal dynasties as human inbreeding laboratories: the Habsburgs,” Gonzalo Alvarez, Francisco C. Ceballos, Heredity, epub April 10, 2013.

The team published an earlier study:

The Role of Inbreeding in the Extinction of a European Royal Dynasty,” Gonzalo Alvarez, Francisco C. Ceballos, Celsa Quinteiro, PLoS ONE 4(4): 2009, e5174.

Others, too, have written about the Habsburgs and their potential value to scientists. In 2004, the Improbable Research newspaper column looked at one such effort:

Researchers in one field do not always pick up on good suggestions from those outside their speciality. Take, for example, the case of the Hapsburg lip.

“I do not propose to deal with one of the most famous inherited features, the ‘Hapsburg lip’ … because it could almost be described as a medical condition, about which I am not qualified to speak. However, I feel sure that the ‘Hanoverian eye‘, the ‘Coburg nose‘ and the ‘Danish neck’ will prove equally fascinating”.

So said Frances Dimond, curator of the Royal Photographic Collection, in a lecture that that was published in 1994 in the Genealogists’ Magazine….

A neurologist of my acquaintance recently moved to east Texas, where he discovered a most unexpected source of research material. He reports that, thanks to many generations of inbreeding, the region is full of genetically based neurological phenomena that he had previously seen only in medical books. What he had thought to be rare curiosities turn out to be commonplace in Texas.

The royal families of Europe and the hoi polloi of east Texas are both there, quietly waiting for scientists to study and make sense of them.

(HT Jennifer Ouellette)