“Half the Targaryens went mad, didn’t they?”
—Cersei Lannister, on a reference to the inbreeding among the Targaryens.
An artwork is an honest reflection of our world and this quote from the HBO Series, Game of Thrones is a representation of one of our most archaic beliefs: inbreeding among humans leads to defects. How true is this belief system, for almost every society and civilization has condemned the act of marrying in close relatives? Is the Gotra system, developed during the Vedic civilization which restricts marriages, scientifically correct at reducing the risks of inherited diseases? A person with the knowledge of 10th grade biology can understand why it is so. Whenever we talk about a correlation between science and religious beliefs / systems, it is imperative that we talk about objective reality only.
The Gotra system is a system of identifying people of similar lineage who are descendants of a common male ancestor. However, people of same Gotra need not be cousins, as even adopted sons and disciples could have had the same gotra centuries ago. But there’s a possibility that they can be cousins, marriages in the same gotra is always avoided.
For example, Moudgalya is my gotra, which means anyone with similar gotra “could” be my distant cousin. Since disciples also adopted their guru’s gotra, therefore one can never be sure and the purpose of the gotra system is defeated. But to avoid that slight chance of turning out distant cousins, not marrying the same gotra became a rigid law in Hindu society, especially in Brahmins. Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishya have family gotras predominantly because, probably, during the Vedic period, the caste was not rigid, and lower caste people were actually the ones who could not uphold their duties. That is why they lost claim on the family name. Once the caste system became rigid by 3000 years ago, the gotra had confined itself to the aforementioned castes only. This is why when Chandragupta ascended to throne of Magadh he had to put forth a family name — Maurya.
Over the years, generations over generations the male lineage survived as Gotra. Where does this ancient belief system stand in 2017? Does this system unjustly prohibit to consenting adults to marry? Are the claims of its scientific approval correct? When the entire world has been marrying in and out of clans and races since existence, has this system truly been any effective? Is our take on the approval of science on matters of religion hypocritical (accepting and rejecting the same scientific proofs as required)? Let’s talk about basic science first.
The natural selection is survival of the fittest. Life started as a single cell. It evolved into the varieties of life forms through millions of years through mutations in its genetic materials. These mutations happened of all sorts. Only those life forms whose mutations were fit and beneficiary to survive in the environment, remained, while the rest faced extinction. One great example of selective mutations are the mosquitoes which have evolved to survive from the coldest tundra to the scorching deserts and rainforests. They evolve fast. Those mosquitoes which can survive the anti – mosquito coils pass on their genes to their children, while the rest perish. The new generation comprises of only those which are resistant.
Over millions of years of evolution, multi-cellular life forms switched to sexual reproduction to provide for better intermixing of genetic material, to avoid redundancy. Male and female sexes evolved in both animal and plant life forms because asexual reproduction is technically just cloning. This reproduction technique took 50 percent genetic material from 2 parents, thus provided more diverse genes. With this, many genetic mutations can be combined together with other similar mutations. These new mutations could be eradicated from the life form or they could survive in the gene pool until they have enough impact on the fitness of the life form to be selected for or against. Simply speaking, it provided a chance to have changes, both good and bad. The good changes survived in nature, helped that life form to adapt. Thus, this type of reproduction ensured a better overall chance of survival of the species (there are exceptions).
Many species developed ways to avoid self-fertilization / pollination or inbreeding. Some plants have chemicals to detect its own pollen. Some animals have been attributed to have chemicals to recognize one’s kin, for example, the MHC in mammals or cuticular hydrocarbons in insects. Why do life forms take such strong steps to avoid having same genetic data from both male and female? —To minimize the probability of having genetic defects. However, inbreeding is not directly responsible for genetic defects, it just increases the frequency of homozygosity. Sorry Cersei. Homozygosity can be explained as the situation in which a person ends up with identical alleles of a gene. Allele is a version of a gene. We have 2 copies of 22 chromosomes and one pair of sex chromosomes, half of which comes from each parent. That means we get 2 alleles of each gene. Now, there are many deleterious recessive alleles which do not appear as a trait (just as a carrier), when paired with a different allele, but becomes a visible trait (like a disease) if present in both copies. This happens when the parents have very similar gene composition. If a carrier mates with a sibling then the probability of that individual also being a carrier is nearly 50% as they share the same parents. When that happens, the gene becomes a trait. If the gene was disease causing, the child has the disease. So, King Joffrey could be crazy because… never mind.
Coming back to India, the Gotra system has been trying to stop the marriages of people with similar genetic material since centuries. Delhi High Court ruled on a case of marriage of swagotra as “It cannot be used as a scientific base of argument” and provided the bail for the man charged with kidnapping, who had fell in love with a girl of same gotra and had gotten married. In 2017, over a hundred generations, it is very hard take the application of this system with a grain of salt. With modern technology at our disposal, it is possible to know the genetic makeup of individuals and compare the similarities. With the coming generations, this will become easier and cheaper. Genetic clinics do this professionally. They calculate the risk of defects and try minimizing it. Many defects in an embryo can be detected quite early too. Instead of bashing a couple of same gotra, analysing their true genetic composition, is the way it should be followed in 21st century. The entire world in itself is an example of societies without gotra, doing quite well at life. Genetic science is new and there is no evidence as to how people 3500 years ago could think about recessive alleles. But, it is indeed possible, even though unlikely, that they could have taken out observations over generations or heard about these observations from their forefathers, about genetic problems in close inbreeding and then went on to devise a plan to counter it.
The Gotra system, with all its loopholes, can still work as the first line of defense, but analysing the genetic makeup is the correct way to go.
Right here, our Hindu society becomes massively hypocritical and contradictory. Genetic science tells us that inbreeding increases the probability of 2 identical recessive alleles appearing in a single person, increases the chances of defects. Through Gotra system, it becomes less likely that a person ends up with 2 copies of defective alleles. People firmly believing in Gotra system take proud at India’s Vedic scientific marvel. But the same science also tells us that crossbreeding provides (generally) better chances of survival of a species through mutations, which will lead to the fittest adapting. The more diverse the genetic material of the parents, the higher the chances of mutations. This means that inter caste and inter racial marriages would be beneficial for the humans. The Indian caste system disagrees with science here massively and the society which was talking about scientific accuracies in Vedic society a minute ago takes to heels.
Looking the other way does not solve the problem. The caste system still exists in India. Because of all the Hindu bashing being in trend like the saffron terrorism during Holi by kids, even genuine criticism goes unheard. Sure, the untouchability cases are now nonexistent, but the marriages outside one’s own caste is very much frowned upon in smaller towns and villages, thus stagnating the gene pool, stopping the wheels of evolution. Slightly. Flowers are bright and attractive to attract bees which deliver the pollens to faraway plants. Life found this way for reason. Sure there would be both suitable and unsuitable changes over centuries to the features and traits, but it will definitely increase our species’ chances of survival. With the climate change knocking our doors, the future generations might need to adapt more than ever.