German Incest Case

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Locksmith Patrick Stübing and Susan Karolewski are a German couple with four children. They are also full biological siblings. “Eeeeewww”, I hear you say. And I agree. Eeeeewww. But why do we feel that way?

The incest taboo is as close to a cultural universal as you can get, and is most likely genetically determined. It is counteradaptive to want to bonk your siblings, as this may lead to the accumulation of harmful recessive alleles in the offspring. But how is this implemented from a practical evolutionary perspective? Humans have no physical way of identifying their biological siblings, usually relying for this information on whatever mom & dad tell them. Instead, it appears that humans are built in such a way that they don’t generally want to bonk people of the same age with whom they have grown up in close contact (the “Westermarck effect“). Historically, this would have kept our ancestors from mating with siblings, cousins and younger aunts/uncles.

Stübing was placed in an orphanage at age four. Three years later, Karolewski was born. When he was 23 and she was 16 the two met for the first time. This means that their anti-incest biological programming never had any opportunity to do its thing. They became a couple, got a home of their own and had four children. So far, so good.

But three of those children have been taken into foster care. And Stübing has received several jail sentences due to a German law from 1871 prohibiting sex between siblings. (I don’t know why Karolewski hasn’t.) Says the federal Constitutional Court in a recent ruling, intercourse between grown-up siblings jeopardises “the family’s vital function in society”. The ruling also refers to the “health of the population”.

This ruling is bad and wrong in so many ways. To be able to discuss this in principle, let’s assume (as appears likely) that all sexual contact between the couple has been consensual and that their children were not taken into custody for any other reason than their parents’ close biological relationship.

  1. This is a victimless crime.
  2. The couple’s children have become the victims of unnecessary state intervention.
  3. People with genetic defects are free to procreate provided only that they are not close relatives, cf. Tay-Sachs and similar effects of religio-ethnic isolation.
  4. The idea that the state should monitor the genetic makeup of the population is a holdover of long-discredited eugenic pseudoscience, which Germany has particular historical reason to distance itself from.
  5. Even if the Stübing-Karolewski children do accumulate genetic defects, then this is a temporary problem lasting only one generation, as they are unlikely to repeat their parents’ procreative stunt.

The whole affair is deeply controversial in Germany, and I’m happy to note that the vice president of the Constitutional Court, Winfried Hassemer, has reserved himself against the ruling in very strong language.

All western countries have legislation to protect children from sexual abuse by teens and adults, all western countries outlaw rape, regardless of biological relationships. And for evolutionary and cultural reasons, the great majority of all people on Earth aren’t remotely interested in bonking their siblings. Adults around the planet are constantly engaging in all manner of consensual sexual intercourse that might make me go “eeeeewww”, but none of them has asked me what I think. It’s none of my business. Besides, looking at Stübing and Karolewski, I would never have guessed that they are related, thus obviating any queasy feelings. To tell the truth, I find all of my six female cousins pretty hot, though we’ve never been that friendly. And my kids are just about as far from inbred as it is possible to be.

In Sweden, I am sad to say, sex between siblings is also a crime, punishable by up to a year in jail. This kind of legislation is outdated and should be overturned. Stübing and Karolewski are trying to use their case to make that happen in Germany.

BBC News, Der Spiegel, Svenska Dagbladet.

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94 thoughts on “German Incest Case

  1. “How would you propose enforcing this? Would this require people to be subjected to a battery of tests and making sure their results are within a certain small margin of error of each other before they’re allowed to screw?”

    Azkyroth, I had no plans to enforce this. Moral principles works on the individual level where secular power has, and always will have, little authority.

    / Mattias

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  2. I read somewhere about a sort of reverse Westermarck effect, such that family members “separated at birth” but reunited as adults often experience immediate, intense, irrational sexual attraction to each other. (In one case, involving two heterosexual brothers, this was expressed by “sharing a woman together”.)

    Does anyone here know more about this, and whether it has a name? (I hope not “Stübing-Karolewski Effect” – that’s too polysyllablic for us Americans.)

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  3. It is counteradaptive to want to bonk your siblings, as this may lead to the accumulation of harmful recessive alleles in the offspring.

    I’m not so sure:

    Inbreeding, also, by its tendency to secure homozygous combinations, tends to bring to the surface latent or hidden recessive characters…..Existing legislation against the marriage of near-of-kin is, therefore, on the whole, biologically justified. On the other hand, continual crossing only tends to hide inherent defects, not to exterminate them; and inbreeding only tends to bring them to the surface, not create them. We may not, therefore, lightly ascribe to inbreeding or intermarriage the creation of bad racial traits, but only their manifestation. Further, any racial stock which maintains a high standard of excellence under inbreeding is certainly one of great vigor, and free form inherent defects.

    The animal breeder is therefore amply justified in doing what human society at present is probably not warranted in doing, — viz., practicing close inbreeding in building up families of superior excellence and then keeping these pure

    Genetics and Eugenics: A Textbook for Biology Students

    Is that observation still accurate?

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  4. Sweet Dawkins, Salvador, what a stinker you’ve found! Nobody’s believed in “families of superior excellence” since 1945. Humans attain excellence through education, not breeding.

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  5. What is wrong with the government being concerned about the genetic makeup of its population? Just because there’s a bad history that being associated with racism and genocide doesn’t mean the idea is itself bad. Would we for example object to a law that mandated that people with Hunttington’s disease use in vitro fertilization to make sure that their offspring don’t have the allele?

    Or another situation-there have been cases of people with certain non-standard genotypes deliberately engaging in genetic selection so their children have the same type. This might be ok with the more healthy forms of dwarfism but it has also occurred with deaf people. Would we object to a law outlawing deliberate selection of deaf children?

    Claim 4 is thus very weak.

    Claim 5 is very hard for me to understand. It seems to be an argument that since in this particular case we will only have a few kids who end up with awful lives as a result that it somehow makes it ok. If we knew that a certain type of child abuse would not last more than a generation would that make it acceptable?

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  6. Sal, as applied to humans, the conclusion promoted never was accurate, and you know it, you lying hack. The rest of the world has moved on. Why are you still trapped in the 1920s?

    For the honest readers: as I understand it, anti-Holocaust backlash after World War II quite rightly killed the last vestiges of public support for eugenics; when you hear about it, it’s either from a tiny minority of crackpot holdouts, or from people like Sal who seem to have a bizarre obsession with the idea that’s almost impossible to account for if they really disapprove of it as they claim.

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  7. The part where it says “continual crossing only tends to hide inherent defects, not to exterminate them; and inbreeding only tends to bring them to the surface, not create them.” is nearly accurate, except that of course selection works to eliminate “defects” even in outcrossing populations. But this is not in conflict with Martin’s statement, since I assume he knows that inbreeding does not create deleterious genes: the wording about “accumulation” is just a bit ambiguous.

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  8. Sweet Dawkins, Salvador, what a stinker you’ve found! Nobody’s believed in “families of superior excellence” since 1945. Humans attain excellence through education, not breeding.

    Yeah, but if you don’t have the hardware to run the software, that excellence isn’t gonna happen.

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  9. Said Josh, Would we for example object to a law that mandated that people with Huntington’s disease use in vitro fertilization to make sure that their offspring don’t have the allele?

    I’d picket in the streets against a law like that. We should make the information and the medical tech available as part of a good universal health care system, not make their use mandatory.

    As for people selecting for dwarfism and deafness, society should not assist them through e.g. IVF, but nor should it be forbidden.

    Both of these examples are BTW tiny minority cases that wouldn’t have any measurable impact on “racial health”. Thus they are not good arguments that the government should monitor the gene pool.

    <since in this particular case we will only have a few kids who end up with awful lives as a result that it somehow makes it ok.

    The stated rationale of those laws isn’t “poor kids”, but “Purity of Essence”.

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  10. Sang Ringo, but if you don’t have the hardware to run the software, that excellence isn’t gonna happen, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

    Don’t worry. Everything humanity has accomplished so far has come about thanks to people whose genetic makeup was the result of their parents bonking whoever happened to be available. You could kill every single descendant of Nobel winners, and humanity’s gene pool as a whole would still not become measurably less excellent. Need I say “Stephen Hawking”?

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  11. I’m not sure why you would say ‘Stephen Hawking’, since ALS isn’t really genetic (at least, not in the way that Tay Sachs is).

    Nobel winners (and I know a few) aren’t a good example of genetic excellence, despite Shockley’s claims to the contrary. His sperm bank recipients also suffered from a bad case of regression to the mean.

    But there *are* some genetic markers for intellect. And even some bloodlines that show consistently higher intellectual achievement. We’re just not allowed to talk about them.

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  12. Martin, whether the stated rationale of these laws was originally “Purity of Essence” doesn’t change that one can make a decent argument based on “poor kids”. You assert that the cases of dwarfism and deafness that “society should not assist them through e.g. IVF, but nor should it be forbidden” – could you explain why? And what is the logic of saying no to the Hunttington’s situation?

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  13. 65 comments–Martin, you have to do more sex stories.

    “families of excellence” –i come from a long line of Scots Ulstermen marrying cousins, and look at me. I don’t blame my ignirince on my genetic background, but purely on environment. All that stuff in 19th, 18th, 17th, 16th…centuries was because they had way too many offspring, and to keep any sized scrap of land, a cousin was the one to marry. The catolic church came up with the lists of prohibited marrieages so that more estates would fall into their hands, and the protestants perpetuated them out of habit, not thought. And as my father says, “Come evening you were tired and the mule was tired and you didn’t want to go furthern over the next hill to do your courting.”

    Most cases I ever heard of siblings marrying, it is upon meeting after separation at birth or early childhood, overruling your ikkygirl conditioning. I am not sure how much basis that proposition has anyway. I have seen an awful lot of people who were consistently attracted to someone with their family’s phenotype. You think you are pretty, but yellow-haired, long-nosed, blockheaded giants don’t do a thing for me, but I find short, stout, snub-nosed and moon-faced cute even if they are red, yellow or brown skinned.

    If there are not any bad recessive traits floating around, what the problem with them breeding, besides the fact that the earth is neck-deep in humans of all types already? Inbreeding has been used to create all existing strains of humans, as it has been used to create breeds of plants and animals. You just have to start with good stock and weed carefully.

    Lots of people with all sorts of defects are allowed to reproduce at will, one defective after another, freaking Russian Roulette at the taxpayers expense. I guess when you say “religio-magical” or whatever swell phrase it was, you refer to all the genetic problems of Ashkinazim and Amish, e.g., who are allowed and encouraged to breed away at full steam. That fact alone should do away with any laws against incest as protection of society from ill effects of inbreeding.

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  14. Josh: You assert that the cases of dwarfism and deafness that “society should not assist them through e.g. IVF, but nor should it be forbidden” – could you explain why? And what is the logic of saying no to the Huntington’s situation?

    Not forbidding an action is one thing. Offering publicly funded aid with the action is quite another.

    The Huntington’s case is a question of disabled people’s rights. We allow people with all kinds of genetic glitches to reproduce. We should definitely not single out certain ones and forbid them to do so. What we should do is offer them a) information so they can make an educated choice, b) aid in the form of embryo screening.

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  15. Mary E, baby, I am crushed to learn that you don’t desire me! Would it help if I pointed out that such hair as I still have is actually dark brown?

    Anyway, good comment, I agree.

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  16. Most cases I ever heard of siblings marrying, it is upon meeting after separation at birth or early childhood, overruling your ikkygirl conditioning. I am not sure how much basis that proposition has anyway. I have seen an awful lot of people who were consistently attracted to someone with their family’s phenotype.

    The conditioning is not supposed to be on looks alone (and in prehistoric times it was probably counteradaptive to wait for very exotic-looking partners to turn up) One idea is that animals (incl. humans) learn to recognise siblings by smell.

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  17. Martin, the argument isn’t that we forbid the people with Huntington’s from reproducing; that I agree with you would be highly problematic. But I don’t see anything wrong with requiring them to use in vitro fertilization as long as society is willing to pay for the cost of the IV procedure. IIRC, Huntington’s is homozygous lethal so this wouldn’t stop anyone from reproducing since every person with Huntington’s must have one ok allele.

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  18. Josh, think of the practicalities. You are suggesting legislation that would make it illegal for Huntingtons patients to have sex without a contraceptive, or introduce mandatory abortion into the judicial system. Wrong way to go about it.

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  19. Martin, I agree with you it would be hard to implement practically. I’m strongly against mandatory abortion and requiring people to use contraceptives when they have sex would be unenforceable in any reasonably free society. But that’s an important distinction; this proposal fails on the practicality grounds, not on the moral grounds. That could be taken to imply that the moral issues with eugenics are not as black and white as you initially described them as.

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  20. Brother-Sister incest goes back to Osiris and Isis, doesn’t it? They even had a child, Horus.

    As to the law, is brother-brother or sister-sister sex illegal?

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  21. From a practicality point of view, the only country that has successfully prevented people from reproducing is China, and that was for population control, not eugenics. On the other hand, people who can afford to pay the massive fines for having more than one child are doing so, which means China is effectively selecting for the ability to amass wealth (ironic on so very many levels).

    On the other hand, the Jewish community’s reaction to Tay Sachs has been widespread and effective – there are free tests offered by a number of charitable agencies (one had a table at the student center every year when I was in grad school), and the rate has dropped to almost nothing. All with no coercion.

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  22. Ringo, the Tay Sachs example isn’t such a good one since Tay Sachs is a recessive trait. They’ve made no effort to eliminate the Tay Sachs allele from the gene pool (which is good because there’s some evidence that the heterzygotic case has some advantages) they’ve merely avoided having people marry each other if they have the allele. And in fact, some of this has been essentially coercive, at least among certain ultraorthodox groups. I’ve been told that in some charedi communities the matchmakers insist that potential clients be tested and will not match up people who have the allele. Now, that’s a small fraction of the people in question, but is a non-zero fraction.

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  23. True in the ultra-orthodox community (there’s actually an elaborate anonymous testing system that will tell you if a potential mate is incompatible, without telling you why. Canavans and some others are also kept track of).

    Among the less observant IVF is more common. If only one member of a couple is a carrier, it’s true, nobody bothers. But why is this a problem?

    The deaf and LP (little person) communities are more interesting examples. And yes, there are members who prefer to breed true. There’s a wonderful documentary called “Sound and Fury” about the deaf community and cochlear implants, though this is getting tangential.

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  24. Ringo, it isn’t a problem per se. It just means that it isn’t a very good example compared to what was under discussion. We aren’t then talking about eugenics as much as we are talking about just avoiding specific genetic pairings (although that does in some ways make it closer to the original topic of the thread).

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  25. It looks like there are three parts to the discussion – autosomal dominant, autosomal recessive, and “we don’t know what you have but you’re too closely related”. The first two can be further subdivided into severity of problem. (And I guess the third can too).

    There was a time when you had to get tested for syphilis before getting married (back when marriage and making babies actually had something to do with each other). So, if you want to take the long view, this is really nothing new.

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  26. There is simple reason why the government has no business regulating the genetic makeup of “its population” in any way. In a republic, we, the people, are the sovereign of the country, which means that we have to care about a desirable government not the other way round. The government doesn’t get to choose its citizens, it is elected to serve the existing ones not to create “better ones”. (For the same reason public education may not force a specific political ideology or religion on children).

    The argument that it is for the protection of their potential children that certain genetically high-risk couples should not be allowed to reproduce doesn’t hold. Weighing the benefit of not being born against the disadvantages of an inherited disease is absurd on at least two levels.
    A) Many people die a very unpleasant death, so by that rationale they would all be better of if they had never been born.
    B) Nonexistent entities like not yet conceived hypothetical children do not have any rights that could be weighted against the rights of their potential (very real) parents to procreate. Once the kids are there and do have rights it is too late to worry about preventing their existence.

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  27. Surrendering to one’s partner, or wielding power over one’s partner, can be pretty damn hot. Or so I’m told.

    Bad example Martin — whatever superficial “scripts” are involved, consensual Dominance & Submission actually represents a power exchange, not a true power imbalance.

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  28. “Did they know they were siblings when they started fucking?”

    Actually, it’s my understanding that they DID NOT KNOW.
    Which is the tragedy at the heart the story.

    I watched the original German newscasts (Tagesschau, RTL, etc) on an iTunes video podcast awhile back–just reportage, without commentary or editorializing. From what I remember the two didn’t know, it was only revealed later.

    I wish the Chancellor or President would grant a pardon, at least…the jail sentence is just overly harsh, especially in light of the circumstances of this particular case.
    A bit of mercy and pity seems due here, at the very least.

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  29. I’m sorry. Are you people actually saying that incest is ok? Cause that’s what it sounds like. Are you insane?? Have you gone so far off the intellectual deep-end that you’ve drowned your common sense? (As to this couple, if they didn’t know they were related it’s a totally different issue and one for the courts to consider.) And I hope the self-described “liberal” who also condones bestiality was being sarcastic. How do you know the animal is consenting? How sick are you people? This whole thread is an illustration of the saying, “a liberal is a man whose mind is so open, his brains have fallen out!”

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  30. Well, Mr. Fox, being an intellectual means (among other things) that you’re willing to consider unusual ideas, and being a liberal means that you demand justification before you accept anything as forbidden. Maybe there are very good arguments to forbid sex with animals? If so, then let’s hear them!

    And before you flip your lid, let me remind you that this is a discussion of principles. I am personally only interested in sex with adult women, and whether or not you might wish to bonk ponies is not relevant to the discussion either.

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  31. My colloquial German isn’t very good. Did that guy just say “You pigs incest victims”? Or “You pigs incest sacrifice?”.

    Kind of weird to first insult someone and then call them a victim. “You pigs, you traffic-accident victims.”

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  32. As I understand it, the real problems with recessive alleles start after several generations of inbreeding. If a pair of siblings doesn’t have much inbreeding in their immediate ancestry, then the children of their union should be OK.

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  33. I am madly in love with my fiance. But if I found out that him and I were siblings I would leave him and never look back. Genetically speaking it IS unhealthy no matter what to have sexual relationships with your sibling. This stuff about generation to generation. It can get messed up in the first grouping of kids BTW. It all depends on the parents DNA. If one of the siblings has one of the same RNA strands as the other sibling, their kids will experience birth defects. They continue to have sexual relationships even though they know they could accidentally produce and egg and sperm that result in two identical RNA strands. There have to be deeper psychological problems present that caused them to stay together after they found out they were siblings.

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  34. Kate’s comments are quite disturbing.

    “There have to be deeper psychological problems present that caused them to stay together after they found out they were siblings.”
    No, there don’t. They fell in love.

    Had you actually read the article, you’d know that they grew up apart, not knowing each other, and therefore never developed the inherent sexual revulsion for each other that most siblings develop while growing up.

    They may know intellectually that they are siblings, but they can’t go back in time and undo what happened. More importantly, their relationship does not FEEL wrong to them. That’s what makes this such a terrible situation for everyone concerned.

    You can’t understand their feelings because you have never been in the position yourself.

    “I am madly in love with my fiance.”
    Okay…
    “But if I found out that him and I were siblings I would leave him and never look back.”
    Bullshit. You might leave him, but no normal person could simply turn off their emotional attachment to another person that way. If you really could do that (which I highly doubt) then either you’re a sociopath, or you were never “madly in love” with him to begin with.

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  35. How about granting them a pardon on the condition that they stop having children (if half the kids are severely disabled, they really are proving the genetic reason for the taboo). Yes, this is interfering with their choice, but because they have broken a valid law meant in part to prevent the very consequence of inbreeding, making the pardon conditional seems fair. I know it’s disturbing, but I can’t think of any way to handle this that isn’t disturbing, and I’m trying to look at the principle of least harm.
    The other part of the reason for anti-incest laws is probably to protect the partners against special psychological concerns, but as they were raised separately, I don’t see psychological issues involved.
    Also, their kids *really* need to be raised under the same roof so they don’t make the same mistake mommy and daddy have.

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  36. According to both Bible and Darwin there have been a “first” of men and women.

    Doesn’t that mean that the first family of human beings have been siblings – all of them?

    Then – how would the first reproductive human beings reproduce? If Adam and Eve were siblings or even twins, would not that imply that the first generations of human beings were bred from a couple formed by a brother and a sister…?!

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  37. What if some entrepreneur creates a somewhat human-appearing organism with the IQ of a sheep? – Colugo

    Already happened, but using cultural rather than genetic means.

    The entrepreneur in question is called Rupert Murdoch, IIRC.

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  38. According to both Bible and Darwin there have been a “first” of men and women. – BoNo

    Nonsense; only the Bible contains such a claim. There is no reason to think that if you took a modern person, and could line up their mother, mother’s mother, mother’s mother’s mother… indefinitely far back, there would be any point at which you could say “Well this one’s human, but her mother isn’t.”

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