Harvard Professor on Cousin Marriages, Kinship and Democracy in Pakistan

In his recently published book entitled "The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous", Harvard Professor Joseph Henrich argues that western democracy and prosperity in America and Europe can be traced back to the Catholic Church's ban on cousin marriages and polygamy. These bans promoted individualism and created what is now known as a "nuclear family". Cousin marriages and strong kinship remain prevalent in present-day Pakistan, according to the author. Cousin marriage not only helps keep the wealth within the family but it is also used as a device to maintain kinship (biradri) networks that have negative political and economic consequences for the nation. Biradris promote nepotism and work against meritocracy. While the extent of kinship (biradri) networks in Pakistan is much higher than in America and Europe, it is not as high as in Africa and the Middle East. Biradris (kinships) play a powerful role in Pakistan's elections and political patronage networks. These run counter to meritocracy and the basic precepts of western-style democracy and national prosperity. Others, including Professor Anatol Lieven, believe that the presence of strong kinship networks makes Pakistani society strong and resilient. 

What's WEIRD About the West?
The WEIRD acronym in the title of the book stands for Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democracies. It represents the the West's cultural evolution (distinct from biological evolution) over the last few centuries that has produced what the author describes as "Self-focused, individualistic, nonconforming, patient, trusting, analytic, and intention-obsessed capture just a small sampling of the ways in which WEIRD people are psychologically unusual when seen in a global and historical perspective". 
Kinship Intensity. Source: Phys.Org

Kinship Intensity Index: 
The extent of kinship in Pakistan is much higher than in America and Europe but not as high as in Africa and the Middle East. Professor Henrich defines what he calls Kinship Intensity Index to capture the strength of kinship in different societies.  
The KII combines the data about cousin marriage, nuclear families, bilateral inheritance, neo-local residence, and monogamous marriage (vs. polygyny) with information on clans and customs about marrying within a certain community (endogamy). 
Kinship (Biradri) in Pakistan: 
Professor Joseph Henrich says that kinship system (biradri), cousin marriages and polygamy remain prevalent in Pakistan.  He cites a study showing that cousin marriages were 76% of all marriages for second-generation Pakistani Brits, while in Pakistan comparable rates were under 50%.  
To make this point about identities, the author cites a 1972 quote from late Pakistani politician Khan Abdul Wali Khan who said, “I have been a Pashtun for six thousand years, a Muslim for thirteen hundred years, and a Pakistani for twenty-five.” Professor Henrich explains that "what Khan was saying is that his lineage comes well before both Islam and Pakistan. In fact, his dates suggest that his lineage was four to five times more important than his universalizing religion, Islam, and 240 times more important than his country, Pakistan".
Biradri's Role in Pakistani Elections:
Electioneering in Pakistan is rarely about debating issues and offering solutions; it's more about biradris (kinship networks). Political parties and politicians are rarely judged based on their capabilities, ideas and performance. The focus is on recruiting "electable" candidates with a known vote bank of their ethnicity and "biradri" (clan).  
Pakistan's mainstream political parties continue to rely on the "electables" to win general elections. "Electables" are powerful, resourceful and wealthy, often land-owning individuals from certain biradris who have a greater chance of winning enough votes to get elected regardless of their party affiliation. Major political parties recruit them to run on their "tickets" as their nominees. Winning more seats in the parliament helps political parties form governments to gain control of the state's resources for the benefit of their leaders and their cronies in their political patronage networks. It is a good investment for the electables to be aligned with the party in power.

The preference for "electables" perpetuates the status quo and preserves the power of the privileged few. It denies the opportunity for new aspiring entrants to bring about any positive change.  It depresses new voter turnout and discourages wider participation in the political process.
Strong Society, Weak State:
British Professor Anatol Lieven described Pakistan as "strong society, weak state" in his 2012 book entitled "Pakistan: A Hard Country". Lieven believes that the presence of strong kinship networks makes Pakistani society strong and resilient.   Here's an excerpt of his book: 
Marriage with members of the same kinship group, and when possible of the same extended family, is explicitly intended to maintain the strength, solidarity and reliability of these groups against dilution by outsiders. (Professor Alison) Shaw writes of the Pakistanis of Oxford that in the year 2000, almost fifty years after they first started arriving in Britain, there had been barely any increase in the proportion of marriages with non-kin, and that over the previous fifteen years 59% of marriages had been with first cousins; and the proportion in strongly Pakistani cities such as Bradford is even higher: 
Greater wealth was perceived not solely in terms of individual social mobility, although it provides opportunities for this, but in terms of raising the status of a group of kin relation in their wider biradiri and neighbours in Pakistan . . . Status derives not only from wealth, mainly in terms of property and business, but also from respectability (primarily) expressed by an ashraf (noble) lifestyle. One element of being considered a man worthy of respect derives from having a reputation as being someone who honours his obligations to kin. Cousin marriage is one of the most important expressions of this obligation. The majority of east Oxford families have not achieved social mobility and status through massive accumulation of property and business. For them the marriage of their children to the children of siblings in Pakistan is an important symbol of honour and respectability, a public statement that even families separated by continents recognize their mutual obligations.
Harvard's Professor Joe Henrich has argued in his recent book that the Catholic Church's ban on cousin marriages and polygamy has spurred democracy and prosperity in the West. The ban has promoted individualism and created the modern nuclear family. This cultural evolution of the West has distinguished it from much of Asia and Africa where kinship remains strong. While the extent of kinship (biradri) networks in Pakistan is much higher than in America and Europe, it is not as high as in Africa and the Middle East. Cousin marriage not only helps keep the wealth within the family but it is also used as a device to maintain kinship (biradri) networks that have negative political and economic consequences for the nation. Biradris (kinships) play a powerful role in Pakistan's elections and political patronage networks. These run counter to meritocracy and the basic precepts of western-style democracy and national prosperity.Others, including Professor Anatol Lieven, believe that the presence of strong kinship networks makes Pakistani society strong and resilient. 
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Comment by Riaz Haq on October 9, 2020 at 4:16pm

Caste and Political Organization - Roles of Leadership and Patronage


Political organization of Punjabi and Pakhtun villages revolve around the landholdings
and caste affiliations and thus the roles of patronage and leadership always reside with
the traditional landowning Quoms. In other words, land and caste status are seen as the
major factors determining the dynamics of, and rights to, political and feudal power
(Ahmad, 1970; Alavi, 1972; Barth, 1959a; Eglar, 1960; Lyon, 2004).
Eglar (1960) described how the political power and roles of leadership and patronage in
Mohla, a Punjabi village, resided with the Zamindars of village. Land was the major
source of income, gaining political prestige in village by entertaining more people, and
extending influence in official circles. Since land holds the key to power for Zamindars,
they have strong feelings for their land and Eglar (1960) highlighted that Zamindars
may share food and money with others but not their land. Zamindars, Chaudharis, in
Mohla fulfilled a number of different social roles and devoted their time to the village
affairs. A Chaudhari forms a link between villagers and government, sees to it that his
village recieves governmental loans/subsidies in case of distress, helps villagers
financially and socially in the time of need, arranges Parea (village councils) in case of
disputes, elopement and theft in the village and takes decisions. Moreover, a Chaudhari
maintains a guest house as a symbol of his status. This guest house serves as a men's
club for the villagers and Chaudhari's guests are also entertained here. Chaudharis
command respect and have influence through their wealth, generosity, and power (Eglar,
1960). On the other hand, Eglar (1960) mentioned that Kammis are not given the status
of Zamindars, even if they acquire land. Leadership roles always reside with Zamindars
of the village and only Zamindars are called Chaudhari. It shows that the political power
and roles ofleadership in a Punjabi village are not associated merely with the ownership
of land or economic wellbeing but should be supported by the membership in a
Zamindar Quom.

Comment by Riaz Haq on October 10, 2020 at 7:11pm

Cousin Marriage and Democracy


A recent paper finds that consangunuity is strongly negatively correlated with democracy:

How might consanguinity affect democracy? Cousin marriages create extended families that
are much more closely related than is the case where such marriages are not practiced. To illustrate,
if a man’s daughter marries his brother’s son, the latter is then not only his nephew but also
his son-in-law, and any children born of that union are more genetically similar to the two grandfathers
than would be the case with non-consanguineous marriages. Following the principles of
kin selection (Hamilton, 1964) and genetic similarity theory (Rushton, 1989, 2005), the high
level of genetic similarity creates extended families with exceptionally close bonds. Kurtz succinctly
illustrates this idea in his description of Middle Eastern educational practices:

If, for example, a child shows a special aptitude in school, his siblings might willingly
sacrifice their personal chances for advancement simply to support his education. Yet once
that child becomes a professional, his income will help to support his siblings, while his
prestige will enhance their marriage prospects. (Kurtz, 2002, p. 37).

Such kin groupings may be extremely nepotistic and distrusting of non-family members in the
larger society. In this context, non-democratic regimes emerge as a consequence of individuals turning to reliable kinship groupings for support rather than to the state or the free market. It has
been found, for example, that societies having high levels of familism tend to have low levels of
generalized trust and civic engagement (Realo, Allik, & Greenfield, 2008), two important correlates
of democracy. Moreover, to people in closely related kin groups, individualism and the
recognition of individual rights, which are part of the cultural idiom of democracy, are perceived
as strange and counterintuitive ideological abstractions (Sailer, 2004).

By the way, cousin marriage results in an elevated risk of birth defects but on the same order as a 40 year old woman having children as opposed to a 30 year old. In other words, the risks are small relative to other accepted risks. Results do get worse when cousin marriage is prevalent over many generations.


Comment by Riaz Haq on October 10, 2020 at 7:11pm

Consanguinity as a Major Predictor of Levels of Democracy: A Study of 70 Nations


This article examines the hypothesis that although the level of democracy in a society is a complex phenomenon involving many antecedents, consanguinity (marriage and subsequent mating between second cousins or closer relatives) is an important though often overlooked predictor of it. Measures of the two variables correlate substantially in a sample of 70 nations (r = −0.632, p < 0.001), and consanguinity remains a significant predictor of democracy in multiple regression and path analyses involving several additional independent variables. The data suggest that where consanguineous kinship networks are numerically predominant and have been made to share a common statehood, democracy is unlikely to develop. Possible explanations for these findings include the idea that restricted gene flow arising from consanguineous marriage facilitates a rigid collectivism that is inimical to individualism and the recognition of individual rights, which are key elements of the democratic ethos. Furthermore, high levels of within-group genetic similarity may discourage cooperation between different large-scale kin groupings sharing the same nation, inhibiting democracy. Finally, genetic similarity stemming from consanguinity may encourage resource predation by members of socially elite kinship networks as an inclusive fitness enhancing behavior.

Comment by Riaz Haq on October 11, 2020 at 8:45am

In the field of Pakistani Studies, Political Kinship makes an important and timely contribution, rendering visible the complex networks beneath the surface among Pakistan’s elites, both at regional and national level, while raising questions about how power is sustained and the state survives, despite its seeming descent as it lurches from one crisis to the next. -- Pnina Werbner, Professor Emerita, Keele University


As an anthropology professor, I have been looking for new ethnographies that retain the holistic, thick descriptive breadth of traditional ethnographic monographs. I would want such an ethnography to be undergraduate friendly, not laden with academic jargon, yet updated and infused with contemporary theoretical perspectives, methods, and concerns. Political Kinship in Pakistan is that book. Stephen M. Lyon has conducted fieldwork for decades in a Punjabi village as well as worked in Lahore. He combines his descriptions and insights into the daily ebb and flow of conflict and cooperation among villagers into an analysis of the contextualized, but systematic distribution of power at the local level. Using an emic (insider) perspective he shows how power is constructed and manipulated through kinship ties, wealth, and modes of alliances. He expands on the ethnographic focus to link the ideas and organizations associated with local power to an analysis of national level politics. Lyons writes with grace, and moves seamlessly from Evans-Pritchard to Foucault, relying on theories as tools for explanation, rather than as means to perform scholarship. I would recommend this book for area courses on Asia or for introductory cultural anthropology courses. -- Victor C. de Munck, Vilnius University and State University of New York at New Paltz

Stephen Lyon is a great storyteller. His stories enable a thorough understanding of the intricacies of kinship in local as well as national politics. -- Martin Sökefeld, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich

Stephen M. Lyon’s deep understanding of kinship provides a unique and fascinating prism through which to understand the culture and politics of a country that has rarely been examined in such depth. -- Ali Khan, Lahore University of Management Sciences

Drawing on two decades of ethnographic fieldwork in Pakistan, Stephen Lyon expertly illuminates the critical effects that kinship networks have on local and national power arrangements. His argument that cultural systems of attachment shape the larger political landscape, and significantly account for a resilient Pakistani state that few would have predicted, is both astute and bold. -- James Piscatori, Australian National University, coauthor of Muslim Politics

Comment by Riaz Haq on January 29, 2021 at 9:23pm

The (Pakistani) military therefore provides opportunities which the Pakistani economy cannot, and a position in the officer corps is immensely prized by the sons of shopkeepers and bigger farmers across Punjab and the NWFP. This allows the military to pick the very best recruits, and increases their sense of belonging to an elite. In the last years of British rule and the first years of Pakistan, most officers were recruited from the landed gentry and upper middle classes. These are still represented by figures such as former Chief of Army Staff General Jehangir Karamat, but a much more typical figure is the present COAS (as of 2010), General Ashfaq Kayani, son of an NCO. This social change reflects reflects partly the withdrawal of the upper middle classes to more comfortable professions, but also the immense increase in the numbers of officers required. Meanwhile, the political parties continue to be dominated by ‘feudal’ landowners and wealthy urban bosses, many of them not just corrupt but barely educated. This increases the sense of superiority to the politicians in the officer corps – something that I have heard from many officers and which was very marked in General Musharraf’s personal contempt for Benazir Bhutto and her husband. I have also been told by a number of officers and members of military families that ‘the officers’ mess is the most democratic institution in Pakistan, because its members are superior and junior during the day, but in the evening are comrades. That is something we have inherited from the British.’18 This may seem like a very strange statement, until one remembers that, in Pakistan, saying that something is the most spiritually democratic institution isn’t saying very much. Pakistani society is permeated by a culture of deference to superiors, starting with elders within the family and kinship group. As Stephen Lyon writes: Asymmetrical power relations form the cornerstone of Pakistani society . . . Close relations of equality are problematic for Pakistanis and seem to occur only in very limited conditions. In general, when Pakistanis meet, they weigh up the status of the person in front of them and behave accordingly.19 Pakistan’s dynastically ruled ‘democratic’ political parties exemplify this deference to inheritance and wealth; while in the army, as an officer told me: You rise on merit – well, mostly – not by inheritance,inheritance, and you salute the military rank and not the sardar or pir who has inherited his position from his father, or the businessman’s money. These days, many of the generals are the sons of clerks and shopkeepers, or if they are from military families, they are the sons of havildars [NCOs]. It doesn’t matter. The point is that they are generals.

Lieven, Anatol. Pakistan (pp. 181-182). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

Comment by Riaz Haq on January 30, 2021 at 8:51pm

What the data were showing us was that the genetic distinctions among jati groups within India were in many cases real, thanks to the long-standing history of endogamy in the subcontinent. People tend to think of India, with its more than 1.3 billion people, as having a tremendously large population, and indeed many Indians as well as foreigners see it this way. But genetically, this is an incorrect way to view the situation. The Han Chinese are truly a large population. They have been mixing freely for thousands of years. In contrast, there are few if any Indian groups that are demographically very large, and the degree of genetic differentiation among Indian jati groups living side by side in the same village is typically two to three times higher than the genetic differentiation between northern and southern Europeans.39 The truth is that India is composed of a large number of small populations.

Reich, David. Who We Are and How We Got Here (p. 170). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Comment by Riaz Haq on February 7, 2022 at 8:57pm

Pakistan: Cousin marriages create high risk of genetic disorders
Scientists say inbreeding is causing an unusually high number of genetic mutations to spread in Pakistan, leading to disabilities in children of consanguineous marriages. Still, this social custom persists.


Karachi-based health expert Seraj ud Daulah said that the practice of cousin marriages in Pakistan can be traced to Islamic religious doctrines.

"I asked clerics to help create awareness about genetic diseases, asking them to explain to people how cousin marriages are contributing to the rise in genetic diseases," Daulah told DW.

However, he said the clerics he spoke with flatly refused, claiming that such marriages are in accordance with Islamic Sharia law and the traditions of the Prophet Mohammad.

Shah said many families in Pakistan go through with consanguineous marriages because they believe it is called for by their Islamic religion. Even if the government were to make such marriages illegal, it would be met with fierce resistance, he added.

Tribal and caste systems are deeply rooted in remote areas of Pakistan. Cheema said that the caste system, particularly among the Arain people living in Punjab province, is especially rigid and leads to many inter-family marriages. She said several genetic disorders are commonly found in this community.

In Pakistan's western province of Balochistan, the southern region of Sindh, and in the northwestern provinces, tribal systems dictate family life.

Ghulam Hussain Baloch, a resident of Balochistan, told DW that marrying outside of your tribe is considered a major social taboo. The situation in Sindh is not much different, where marriage outside one's clan or tribe could lead to murders and tribal clashes.

Health officials respond
In March 2020, the government in Punjab formed a task force aimed at preventing genetic diseases. The children's hospital in Lahore is now offering free genetic screening services in cooperation with Germany's CENTOGENE diagnostics company and other international organizations.

Cheema said pre-natal screening will help parents decide whether to terminate the pregnancy in cases where lethal disorders are detected. Early detection can also aid treatment of a child born with a hereditary disorder.

"We have screened 30,000 families in Pakistan with suspected genetic disorders," an official from Punjab's health department told DW on condition of anonymity.

Health expert Daulah, however, said that more needs to be done to change people's mindsets on the danger of having children with close family members.

"In religious matters, people have blind faith and they do not want to listen to any logic," he said.

"Perhaps if the government asked all clerics to spread awareness about the rising number of genetic disorders, and its connection with cousin marriage, then perhaps more Pakistanis would pay heed," he added.

Comment by Riaz Haq on July 15, 2023 at 7:03am

Study links endogamy to persistence of harmful genetic variants in India


A large-scale medical genetics study aimed to identify unique genetic variants behind South Asia’s health problems.

In 2009, a study in Nature Genetics by the group of Kumarasamy Thangaraj, at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, reported a fascinating finding on why a small group of Indians were prone to cardiac failure at relatively young ages. They found that the DNA of such individuals lacked 25 base-pairs in a gene crucial for the rhythmic beating of the heart (scientists call it a 25-base-pair deletion).

Intriguingly, this deletion was unique to the Indian population and, barring a few groups in Southeast Asia, was not found elsewhere. They estimated that this deletion arose around 30,000 years ago, shortly after people began settling in the subcontinent, and affects roughly 4% of the Indian population today.

Comment by Riaz Haq on July 15, 2023 at 7:04am

Why Endogamous Marriages Could Make Us An Unhealthy Population


Endogamous marriages are the ones that take place within a particular social group such as caste, clan, tribe, gotra, etc. The presence of thousands of castes and communities in India has led to the formation of a very fragmented and dissociated society.

Posted by Shivani Gual

When I look around my family and close relatives, I often find multiple family relations between two people. My father’s sister married a man whose sister married my mother’s brother. You might need a pen and a paper to figure that one out! What I intend to communicate here is that in small communities marriages among relatives is a common affair. This is known as endogamy.

Endogamous marriages are the ones that take place within a particular social group such as caste, clan, tribe, gotra, etc. The presence of thousands of castes and communities in India has led to the formation of a very fragmented and dissociated society. These castes, even though belonging to the same religion, are so different from each other that it is laborious to find similarities in their customs and traditions. As a result, marriages are found to be conventionally more successful when they are endogamous due to the familiarity between the two cultures.

Also read: Endogamous Love: On Love Jihad & Marriages In India

Endogamous marriages are the ones that take place within a particular social group such as caste, clan, tribe, gotra, etc. The presence of thousands of castes and communities in India has led to the formation of a very fragmented and dissociated society.

One of the most common endogamous groups is caste. Caste-system in India is primordial and it was first mentioned in Rig Veda, the oldest Hindu shastra. This division that varna-system created has lost its muscle today but the notion and attitudes remain in the minds of people. Every caste has its sub-castes and an imperceptible hierarchy exists which results in the formation of new endogamous groups. Due to the presence of a strong caste system in India, inter-caste marriages are overtly avoided even today.

The social and cultural gap between different endogamous groups is so significant that marriages among them are believed to destabilise and dismantle the society. Consequently, the choices for marriage unions are limited and restricted to the core primary group. When members of this group mate and have children, it is often found that these children suffer from genetic imperfections that their ancestors might have possessed. Inbreeding is one of the reasons for these ‘hereditary diseases’.

Inbreeding is a phenomenon where two close relatives mate with each other. While there is a huge demand for inbreeding in animals such as dogs and cows for various reasons, it is a taboo in many human societies. Inbreeding is infamous as it results in sub-optimal heritable attributes in the inbred offspring. When a child inherits a pair of recessive genes, one from each parent, it becomes dominant even though it might have been inactive in the parent. The chances of a recessive gene being present in close relatives are higher and therefore it is more likely that an inbred child will have a genetic disease.

In our fragmented society, there are over 4000 castes and communities, some of which comprise only a few hundred people. When a group of people indulges in marriage unions through generations, it results in an aggregated gene pool due to the absence of diversity. This limited gene pool is often responsible for the transmission of recessive genes from one generation to another creating a risk of chromosomal, genetic, or congenital abnormalities.


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