Stanley Kurtz on The Enemy at Home on National Review Online
Short Course in Kinship
In the late nineteenth century, British anthropologist Sir Edward Tylor developed the founding insight of the modern study of kinship. Tylor cited exogamy, or “marrying out,” as the key to human social progress. In Tylor’s scenario, early human groups, in danger of killing each other off through inveterate competition, discovered intermarriage as the path to social peace. Women who were related to one clan as sisters and to another clan as wives tended to discourage feuds between otherwise competing groups. As Tylor famously put it: “Again and again in the world’s history, savage tribes must have had plainly before their minds the simple practical alternative between marrying-out and being killed out.” And for Tylor, “cross cousin marriage,” a particular form of cousin marriage favored by many “primitive” societies, was the earliest and most fundamental form of clan exogamy — or “marrying out.”
So what exactly is “cross cousin marriage”? Well, in anthropological parlance, descendants of same-sex siblings are “parallel cousins,” while descendants of opposite-sex siblings are “cross cousins.” That is, if a man marries his mother’s brother’s daughter, he is marrying a cross cousin. If, on the other hand, a man marries his father’s brother’s daughter, he is marrying his parallel cousin.
Yes, this sort of terminological arcana has been the bane of generations of anthropology students. But let me put my larger point in the form of a threat: Sit still for this brief basic account of anthropological kinship theory...or lose the war on terror.
All right, let’s say we have a society made up of clans organized by descent through the father. (Imagine a grander version of your own father’s family line, or something like the Hatfields and McCoys.) In any given clan, the men all trace their descent from a common male ancestor. In such a society, a rule or preference for cross-cousin marriage would create a systematic form of exogamy. In other words, if every man in a patrilineal, clan-based society were to marry his mother’s brother’s daughter, every man would be marrying someone from a different clan. (For example, if you were to marry your own mother’s brother’s child, you would be marrying someone from outside of your father’s family line.) Since every man’s mother in our imaginary society is born into a different patriclan than his own, when a man marries the daughter of his mother’s brother (i.e., his cross cousin) he is renewing an alliance with another patriclan (i.e. his mother’s birth clan) by bringing a woman from his mother’s birth clan into his own clan as a wife, just as his father did before him.
On the other hand, in a society made up of competing patriclans, a rule or preference for parallel-cousin marriage would have exactly the opposite effect. Parallel-cousin marriage would seal each and every clan off from all of the others. If, say, every man in a society made up of patrilineal clans was to marry his father’s brother’s daughter, every man would be married to a descendent of his own birth clan. (For example, if you were to marry your own father’s brother’s child, you would be marrying someone from within your father’s family line.) That would be a very strong form of endogamy, or “marrying in,” which, according to Tylor, would encourage social isolation, cultural stasis, rivalry, and high levels of conflict between clans.
In any case, early history aside, there is a critical flaw in Levi-Strauss’s theory of contemporary human kinship. Levi-Strauss did indeed show that the widespread practice of cross-cousin marriage confirms, rather than contradicts, the leading role of exogamy in human social life. Unfortunately, Levi-Strauss almost entirely failed to deal with the single great exception to his rule. Although the vast majority of societies with a preference for close-cousin marriage favor the marriage of cross cousins, a significant minority of such societies favor the marriage of parallel cousins.
And as we’ve already seen, parallel-cousin marriage has an effect precisely the opposite of the alliance-building interchange encouraged by cross-cousin marriage — and praised by Tylor and Levi-Strauss. Instead of encouraging cultural exchange, forging alliances, and mitigating tensions among competing groups, parallel-cousin marriage tends to wall off groups from one another and to encourage conflict between and among them. However strong the urge among anthropologists to identify the cooperative advantages of exogamy as a core characteristic of human nature itself, the hard fact of the matter is that a significant minority of human societies have chosen to organize themselves according to principles quite the opposite of alliance-based exogamy. Care to hazard guess as to exactly where in the world those societies might be?
While the vast majority of societies that practice cousin marriage favor the marriage of cross cousins, the relatively small number of societies that encourage parallel-cousin marriage can be found in the Islamic cultures of North Africa and west and central Asia. Russian anthropologist Andrey Korotayev has shown that, while the region that practices parallel-cousin marriage does not map perfectly onto the Islamic world as a whole, it does (with some exceptions) closely resemble the territory of the eighth-century Islamic Caliphate — the original Islamic empire. So there is one great exception to the claim that human society — and even human nature itself — are built around the principle of extra-familial marriage. Almost every known contemporary case of preferential parallel-cousin marriage is the result of diffusion from a single source: the original Islamic Caliphate. And while parallel-cousin marriage may not be Islamic in any strict or formal sense (in fact, the practice apparently predates Islam in the region), as Korotayev puts it, “there seems to be no serious doubt that there is some functional connection between Islam and FBD [father’s brother’s daughter — i.e., parallel cousin] marriage.” Sounds like we’d best find out what that “functional connection” is.
...Proves the Rule
Once you give up the idea that every human society depends in some fundamental way on the practice of marrying out, it’s fairly easy to see the other side of the coin. If in-marriage stifles cultural development and change by walling society off from outside influences, then strong endogamy also has the corresponding benefits of heightening social cohesion and preserving cultural continuity. That is precisely the argument of Kansas State University anthropologist Martin Ottenheimer, who notes that parallel-cousin marriage among Pakistanis in Great Britain tends to reinforce cultural continuity in Muslim immigrant communities. Ottenheimer’s study, Forbidden Relatives: The American Myth of Cousin Marriage, was published in 1996, several years before it became apparent that reinforcing the “cultural continuity” of immigrant Muslim communities in Britain might have a down side. (See especially chapter 7.)
Muslims prefer to marry parallel cousins, and that keeps their society tight knit and opposed to change. 70% of Muslims marry their cousins. The Islamic world is the only place on Earth that prefers parallel cousin marriage to cross cousin marriage, which at least allows male clans to mix members. Instead they prefer parallel cousin marriage, to keep the family unit closely sealed,since it it most important for them to preserve the sexual honor of the family's women. This is done by marrying them to their male parallel cousins.