Monday 11 April 2011

Beware the Hapsburgs

There's an excellent article in The Independent this morning on new research which has found that the Spanish arm of the Hapsburg dynasty probably died out because of  inbreeding -  a deliberate if ultimately kami-kaze policy adopted by the family in order to make sure no one else got their thievin' mitts on their considerable riches and power.

Researchers found that the last of the Spanish line, Spanish king Charles II, was the offspring of a marriage that was almost as genetically inbred as an incestuous relationship between a brother and sister or parent and child. It is likely the reason he was infertile.

"Charles II of Spain was nicknamed El Hechizado – The Hexed – because people at the time thought that his physical and mental disabilities were the result of sorcery," writes Steve Connor. "Now a study into the genetics of his immediate ancestors has found that he was so inbred that he probably suffered from at least two inherited disorders. 

"Despite his deformities and severe health problems, Charles had married twice in the hope of continuing the rule of the Hapsburgs, but he was incapable of fathering an heir and died childless at the age of 39. He was the last of a long line of Hapsburgs and it spelled the end for the Spanish branch of the dynasty."

In fact, it is a bit unfair to compare the Hapsburgs to dog-breeding as of course there was no attempt at all by the family to select for rude good health - the over-riding criteria was just does your name start with "Haps" and end in "burg" and "ah - you have a severely undershot jaw, too! Great!"  (What is known colloquially as the Hapsburg Jaw or Lip - so severe in Charles II that he couldn't chew.) But even if they had made a point of only marrying the healthiest, least-deformed members of the family,  in all likelihood the inbreeding would still have caught up with them sooner or later.

As it has now done with dogs.

Read the rest of the excellent Independent article here.

Here endeth today's warning from history.


  1. I don't know as anyone had ever computed the COI and published it before, but "Charles the Second was an inbred monstrosity with a sad and fatal genetic load" is hardly breaking news.

  2. Wow! That is scary. Many pedigree dogs are bred niece to uncle, grandfather to granddaughter; even half-brother to half-sister is common. I know that they outcross, but that is frequently to another inbred dog.

    Why not have a class for 'healthiest and fittest dog' for each breed?

  3. "... it is a bit unfair to compare the Hapsburgs to dog-breeding as of course there was no attempt at all by the family to select for rude good health."

    Except, in the absence of modern medicine, Nature was still practicing a lot more selection for vigor on these royal humans than it is now permitted to practice on fancy dogs.

    The Hapsburgs, in order to continue for as long as they did, had to survive natural birth, childhood diseases (no vaccination), bad sanitation, infections, injuries -- pretty much everything that would kill anyone else in the 16th century, except frank starvation.

    They had to be capable of natural procreation.

    No one was engendering them by implanting semen directly in their mothers' uteri, delivering them via planned caesarian section, nursing them in an incubator, giving them vaccinations and antibiotics, or in any *effective* way cosseting them along to stay alive.

    A rather poorly-cared-for pet animal gets better medical care than did sixteenth-century royalty. A winning show dog is subjected to reproductive technology that was unavailable to humans a few decades ago.

    A modern Charles II, if he was a fancy dog who won prizes because of his marvelous chin (The defining fancy point for the breed, natch, so the more exaggerated the better! And it took us AGES of inbreeding to set that type!) would have most likely sired another generation with major technological assists.

  4. If we spent just 10% of the time we spend on arguing about producing better dogs on trying to breed nicer humans, we'd all be fitter for survival, and wouldn't have any overpopulation problems anymore...! NB Hereditary problems in reigning families are quite common: to mention but a few, how about haemophilia in the Romanov dynasty, or porphyria in some of the ancestors of the British royal family! I suggest that we immediately stop the impending royal outcross in order to investigate the possible glitches in the bride and groom's respective pedigrees!
    By the way, since this blog allegedly seeks to improve animal health & conformation, why on earth doesn't anybody ever try to improve the lot of other highly inbred domestic animals, such as horses,cattle,or fowl, etc... Is there too much money involved in that kind of commercial breeding, I wonder, for it to be even discussed, or are there absolutely no problems to be found there?

  5. It a nice idea but how would one judge a 'healthiest and fittest dog' class? As the pedigree dog world shows a dog can look good but be a genetic disaster. Would my springer win if I brought him along rippling with muscle afer a hard shooting season carrying his health test results in his mouth?!
    Royals have always been a good place to start understanding inherited diseases; haemophillia is an often used example.

  6. The pedigree of the descendants of Queen Victoria is a pretty good human example of why the "popular dam" effect is bad news even in a species that only produces one offspring at a time.

    Also rather interesting that V&A rather definitely thought outcrosses to bring in more genetic diversity were the way to go.

  7. I remember listening to a news segment several years ago about marriage arrangements in Korea, before the marriage is approved, they check back 100 generations to see if there is any chance of a prior inter marriage.