The Last Word on Breeding

October 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

The Last Word: on breeding

4 October, 2013 Dr Andrew Gunn

A friend learnt as an adult that her parentage was complex. At her father’s funeral, she anxiously expected to meet her other father, the biological one, for the first time.

It wasn’t to be. He had a car accident driving there and died. The death of two fathers within a few days didn’t kill her, so I guess Nietzsche would say it made her stronger.

I read today that scientists can now create babies with three parents. The technique aims to avoid inherited mitochondrial disease; but unlike old-style IVF, or the wandering of my friend’s mum, all three parents contribute a little DNA.

Getting diverse DNA sounds okay. Even Oedipus knew inbreeding wasn’t good — although in 1991, a Louisiana Democrat called Carl Gunter argued against allowing abortion for incest because “inbreeding is how we get championship horses”. Of course, Gunter also said: “There ain’t no way to make people equal, one’s born a man and one’s born a woman.”

But just quietly — let’s keep this in the family — the truth is we’re all inbred. Early descendants of Adam and Eve had few eligible partners — and that’s irrespective of whether we’re considering Y-chromosomal Adam and Mitochondrial Eve in Africa over 100,000 years ago, or the Judeo-Christian-Muslim couple later created from dust and non-pork spare ribs. Climate change from the Toba super-eruption about 70,000 years ago might also have trimmed the human population down to a few thousand breeding pairs.

Without inbreeding we should have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great grandparents and so on. The maths indicates that about 700 years ago, the required number of ancestors exceeds the total human population.

This effect is called pedigree collapse. We are all kin. Many geneticists think all humans are 50th cousins or closer, and we’re all descendants of rapists, murderers and royalty. Although of course royal families are never ill-bred, just inbred. The Hapsburgs are the pin-ups of royal inbreeding. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the Hapsburg whose assassination prompted World War I.

He visited Australia in 1893 and was described as a man on a mission to see as many strange and exotic creatures as possible. And then kill them. His pedigree included great-grandparents who were double first cousins, sharing the same four grandparents.

The Archduke’s shooting in June 1914 followed a botched bombing earlier that morning. The failed bomber, Nedeljko Cabrinovic, then swallowed cyanide and threw himself in a river to drown. The cyanide didn’t work and the river was only ankle deep. He eventually died in prison from tuberculosis.

It’s not known if Cabrinovic’s great grandparents were also double first cousins.

I recently learnt about my mother’s mother’s mother’s father’s mother (edited 2021, I’d missed a generation!). She entered Australia in 1849 on a boat crammed with dodgy ethnics practising a religion associated with terrorism. Bridget McQueeney was in a shipment of young female orphans from Irish workhouses. Australia was suffering a chick drought; and Ireland was suffering a potato famine with too many eligible spouses and too few edible spuds. Win-win. No politicians competed to turn back the boats. Bridget dutifully bred 86 grandchildren.

My father’s side have also been in Australia for yonks. In fact, Ned Kelly’s sister married a Gunn. Come to think of it, Bridget’s mum was a Kelly … Uh-oh.

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