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Keep Your Friends Close and Your Family ~Closer~: The Genetics Behind the Habsburgs and Other Royals

By Noshin Shakawat

Have you ever wondered if you came from royalty?


When monarchs reigned throughout the world, in order to hold onto power and their regal identity, it was common for royalty to “keep it within the family.” Inbreeding, or the mating of closely related individuals, was very common among numerous royal families. From Pharaohs to European nobility, inbreeding was the fad of its time. This practice was meant to keep the bloodline “pure” of any outsiders, however, “pure blood” doesn’t mean it’ll give the good looks fit for a king. Inbreeding, over the course of multiple generations, causes an increase in the number of individuals that are homozygous for a trait and therefore increases the appearance of recessive traits. Essentially, the more you “mess around” with your family, the more likely you will mess around with your looks. Here, let me show you what I mean:

At some point, generations later, almost everyone has acquired that recessive trait and that recessive trait isn’t always attractive. In fact, the recessive traits associated with inbreeding are often considered birth defects or are genetic disorders. Traits such as cleft palate, albinism, and scoliosis can all be acquired due to inbreeding.

An example of a genetic disaster of its time, the 13th century, was the Habsburg family. The House of Habsburg, one of the most influential and distinguished royal houses of Europe, is a prime example of the lasting effects of inbreeding. As a result of self-inbreeding to preserve the royal bloodline to keep their reign, they ended up with one infertile generation. They would’ve lasted longer if they didn’t constantly interbreed, as infertility is a long-term result of inbreeding. Additionally, due to their incestual patterns, it has led the family to have their own hallmark trait, the Habsburg jaw, or medically-known as prognathism.

Prognathism is a genetic condition that has caused their children to develop long, jutting lower jaws, with severe under-bites. Their looks weren’t the only trait that was tampered with: hemophilia and developmental delay also took hold of many members of the family. Other royal families in Europe, such as the Romanov family in Russia and the House of Hanover in Great Britain, have also dealt with these recessive conditions due to inbreeding as well. Let’s not forget the royal families outside of Europe, such as the royal dynasties in Egypt who because of their “family bond” has led to the development of elongated skulls, cleft palates, and clubfeet.

Being related to royalty might not be the best for you and your future descendants. Although inbreeding is culturally and religiously acceptable across certain societies worldwide, inbreeding among relatives that share at least 50% of their genes (parent/child or sibling relationships), over multiple generations, would have a lasting impact on a family. As you can see from the royal examples above, it can lead to a genetic disorder that spans across multiple generations or a birth defect that becomes a defining trait for your family or worse the end of a family lineage.

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