Consanguineous marriages, often viewed as incestuous and objectionable, are more widespread than commonly perceived. They integrate multiple facets of human adaptation: economic, cultural and genetic. The widely touted explanation for the origin and persistence of consanguinity is that it provides many socioeconomic benefits; however, this view may be too simplistic. The bias against consanguinity may preclude an objective understanding of this sociobiological puzzle. Inbreeding increases the speed of selection of beneficial recessive and co-dominant alleles, e.g. those that protect against diseases. In populations endemic with malaria, the prevalence of consanguineous marriages and the frequency of alleles protective against malaria are both very high. Thus, consanguinity could theoretically increase the relative fitness of a population under specific ecological conditions; sometimes, the overall genetic benefits may exceed genetic costs of inbreeding. We discuss some recent evidence from studies on inbreeding along with the reasons responsible for the mating strategy found in some human populations. We contend that a better appreciation of our inherent biases and potential genetic benefits of inbreeding in specific ecological conditions would help us to appreciate the wider picture of consanguinity.

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