Amish Genetics

Many people have asked me what I see as the challenges for cultural survival of the Amish. Most people first think about technology creeping into their culture as being a major threat. While that is undoubtedly one of the challenges they face, I believe their concentrated gene pool poses a greater threat to their cultural survival.

I have written blog posts in the past about the tight gene pool among Amish groups, most notably this one published in 2011. I came across an article about the Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg, Pennsylvania that gives a recent snapshot of some of the genetic diseases they screen for and/or treat there. I followed several links to learn there are diseases being discovered among the Amish and Mennonites that I’ve never even heard of, such as Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease, Batten Disease, and Spinal Muscular Atrophy to name three.

It seems that each established Amish community has its own genetic challenges. In my home community numerous cases of a rare genetic disease called Cohen Syndrome have been discovered. This disease is rarely found in other established Amish communities. By established I mean the older Amish communities that have become the “parent” communities for newer settlements. If all or most of the people come from one parent community, the genetic issues obviously follow them to their new homes because their gene pool remains the same, especially if they go on to allow second cousins to marry. The irony is that many communities have been allowing this because they want their sons and daughters to have a choice for marriage partners because without them their communities cannot survive. So it seems the very thing that they thought would ensure cultural survival could be a threat to their long-term survival.

Some of these genetic illnesses occur because both of the parents are carriers for the disease, called autosomal recessive inheritance. Other illnesses are carried by one parent, called autosomal dominant inheritance. So when young Amish people get together from other communities, they at least have a chance of avoiding the genetic diseases carried by both parents.

Because of the prevailing beliefs among the Amish that every aspect of human life is in God’s hands, most Amish people refuse to look for marriage partners in other communities to try to avoid genetic diseases. In the article about the Clinic for Special Children there is mention that there were only 80 to 100 “founders” for the Amish. The estimated Amish population was over 330,000 in June 2018.  This gives one an idea just how concentrated their gene pool is.

There are also studies being done about the prevalence of genetic mental illnesses among the Amish. I’ve met Janice Egeland at one of the Amish conferences held at the Young Center in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. I believe my father suffered from this strain of bipolar, though I can’t prove that because he wasn’t part of the study.

The flip side of the coin is that there is also a strain of genius that runs through some families. Gid Miller, who was married to one of my paternal aunts, was one of these highly intelligent people. I think he probably understood the genetic threat among the Amish, and he decided to do something about it. He started a new community in Cashton, Wisconsin and he got several families from Independence, Iowa interested in helping to establish the settlement. Together they came up with a set of church rules that were stricter than either Independence, Iowa or Geauga County, Ohio. This was the outward reason for starting the new community.

I believe that Gid wanted healthy grandchildren, and that was the hidden reason for starting the community. Years after leaving the Amish, I visited the communities of Independence and Cashton. I also had conversations with three of my cousins’ sons who eventually left the Amish from the Cashton community. As the patriarch of the community, Gid established a rule that didn’t allow anyone to marry a relative closer than a third cousin. In many Amish communities it is common for second cousins to marry. After generations of this, the genetic pool only tightens. So Gid did several things to try to ensure healthy genetics: mixed families that weren’t genetically close; made a rule against marrying second cousins, and he had to be consulted if a baby was born prematurely or with an illness. He had a say in what measures would be used to keep a baby alive. The result is that children with handicaps are uncommon among the Cashton Amish according to my cousins’ sons.

My aunt and uncle have both died. I don’t know who is leading that community now. Perhaps they will eventually follow the example of Amish elsewhere, or perhaps over the last forty years Gid’s rules have become institutionalized and someone else is deciding who can marry and which babies will be saved.

There is a consortium of clinics that are designed to help the Plain Communities with genetic illnesses. One of those is in LaFarge, Wisconsin, not far from Cashton. I hope this center can help facilitate parents being allowed to choose health care options for their premature or ill babies. But I do hope they maintain the rule to prohibit second cousins from marrying.

My hope is that more young Amish people will think about marrying someone from a community with more genetic diversity than their own community can provide. Let’s hope more leaders like Gid create rules to help diversify the gene pool. Their long-term cultural survival may depend on it.

Photo by Saloma Miller Furlong Taken of Gid and Aunt Sarah’s farm near Cashton, Wisconsin
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21 thoughts on “Amish Genetics”

    1. I know. In the Amish world, just as in the wider world, it seems positions of power can lead people to controlling others when ethically they shouldn’t. One of his sons and his wife had decided to move to Montana, so Gid and his wife, and the grandparents on the other side got together and talked the son and his family out of moving. I think that was wrong, too. It is an example of how someone could use his intelligence for the good, or he could overstep boundaries and use it for doing wrong.

      I remember Gid and my uncle Sam, who also moved his family to Wisconsin, pressured my parents to move out to Wisconsin. I really didn’t want them to because I knew they were stricter. Perhaps some part of me knew that the control Gid had on the community wasn’t healthy, even though I always thought of him as witty, smart, and jovial. My grandmother and Aunt Katie, who were fearsome, also lived there. That contributed to my resistance to moving there.

      Thanks for your comment, Katie. It’s always good to hear from you.

  1. Interesting subject. Somewhat strange that there aren’t even more unfortunate outcomes among the Amish.Although, come to think of it, I have no idea at all of current Amish communities. Growing up in two different Amish communities, I knew of only two, one of whom was a girl that I literally had to ‘watch’ when her family visited. It was a horrendous afternoon- I remember she upended and drank my oldest sister’s perfume!

    1. Elva, there are many unfortunate outcomes. Here is a statement from a NYT article that was written about my home community: “The Amish are 12 percent of the local population, but their children represent close to half of the area’s most severe cases of mental and physical retardation.” A link to that article:

      In the Lancaster community there are different genetic illnesses. This statement in the same article describes why:

      Although 200 Amish settled in this area (Geauga County) in about 1880, the 20,000 Amish and Mennonites now in the Lancaster area served by Dr. Morton had different origins, founded by 12 families 300 years ago.

      Yes, genetics are endlessly fascinating to me.

      Thanks for your comments.

  2. This is very interesting! Unbelievable that he moved but didn’t allow another person. We have seen it in some places too in the Netherlands. Family marking family and often there we’ve seen Down Syndrome.
    You would think it is good if they can visit other areas in their time they can explore the world outside their community.
    That’s why we’ve seen the new settlement in Manitoba.

    1. Yes, Wilma, I suppose we all have contradictions in our beliefs… but this one is obvious about Gid’s, isn’t it?

      Some Amish people have Wanderlust, so they are often the ones who travel and/or start new communities.

      Thanks for your comments, Wilma.

  3. Almost all of my nieces & nephews are married to second cousins once removed or however they say it. This is in northern IN where they are considered more progressive. I’ve often wondered what the future holds for all the intermarriage. All it takes is a weakness in both parents gene pool.

    1. Yes, second cousins once removed is how they say it. At least it isn’t first cousin once removed, which is what some Swartzentruber Amish are resorting to. But eventually even second cousins once removed or third cousins marrying will show up if the parents are both carriers of genetic illnesses.

      Thank you for contributing to the discussion, Marietta.

  4. Interesting read! My grandparents were second cousins. Several of their children married second cousins. It skipped a generation. Now my children’s generation have started in on it again, mostly between the descendants of 2 of the patriarchs. The results?? There is an “albino” child. Very fair skin; very blond, almost white hair; & “pink” eyes. He needs to wear sunglasses when outside. I recently was looking up some of those genetic “disturbances”, & I somehow tend to agree with you as that being a threat to the amish culture. And while it may be more prevelant in amish communities, there are also “English” communities who deal with the thought of 2nd cousin dating. Especially in these mountain areas where several families settled & not much interaction with the outside world.

    1. Mary Ellen, thank you for sharing your perspective. I hadn’t thought about that, but you’re right that there are people who live in isolated mountain areas who are intermarrying. We live in an area not far from some of these isolated “hollers.”

    2. One side of my family is from one of those isolated communities in Eastern Kentucky. My family tree includes plenty of cousin marriages (both 2nd and 1st) and I’ve found many instances where I’m related to one ancestor in 2 or 3 different ways. It makes genealogical research rather interesting. Fortunately, there are prominent genetic disabilities in the younger generations.

      The British royal family are a good example of intermarriage. They married 1st cousins often over centuries. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert we’re first cousins AND third cousins once removed, and passed the genes for hemophilia to several of their children and grandchildren.

  5. This is a very interesting article. I think Gid used his intelligence in a good way. Something needs to be definately done about the problem of the genes and this is a problem that isn’t easy to take care of. I could hardly believe what I saw when I saw how my parents were interelated when I made a family tree. I am surprised that I am completely normal. There have been some things that have been passed along I have found out but I am sure we escaped a lot of things that could have been much worse. If you go from the standpoint that you accept whatever comes as God’s will it will take even longer to get the genes untangled. The Hutterites who live in tight communities don’t have the gene problems like the Amish and it can be done. However the Amish gene problem will take generations to take care of. That new discovery from a Chinese scientist who has figured out how to eliminate foute genes would maybe be able to help out. (That would really be scarry)I think these kind of articles are very important and maybe something will help sometime.

    1. Mary, thank you for your contributions to the discussion. Interesting how your genes are interrelated and I’m so glad you’re normal. Sure there are things that get passed down, and that is true of everyone. But giving babies a chance of living a healthy life is what most of us strive for.

      Gene-editing is the other end of the spectrum from believing that everything is God’s will. There is a happy medium between believing in destiny and playing God. Some people throw away all moral responsibility and make decisions that have grave moral consequences just because they can.

      Thank you for your kind words about the blog post.

  6. I would have never thought genetics could be their down fall. I always imagined it would be technology seeping into their lives. My question to you is do they,the Amish themselves, especially the Swartzentruber’s see this as a problem or do they still view special needs children as simply God’s will. Are there more like your Uncle Gid who saw and are seeing the writing on the wall, so to speak? Another question, do the Amish consider it important to add to the gene poll when it comes to their livestock? I don’t know much about breeding animals but I would think you would have healthier, stronger animals if you did? if this is the case you would think that they would realize the same within their own people?

    1. Pamela, thank you for stopping by. The Swartzentrubers are the last of the Amish to see their genetics as a problem. In fact, they have the worst of the problem because they keep having church splits and then they don’t allow their young people to marry outside their small (and ever-shrinking) group of young people their sons and daughters can choose from. I hear they are allowing first-cousins-once-removed to marry one another.

      That is an excellent question about Amish views on breeding. I don’t know much about their practices, but I’m sure they do take into account which animals are being bred with each other. I think they believe, though, that they have dominion over animals the way God has dominion over us. When you think about it, we all make distinctions between humans and the animal world when it comes to issues like euthanasia or cloning. So the Amish believe that their lives are in God’s hands and therefore they have no right to try to alter that.

      Thanks for contributing to this discussion.

  7. Denise Ann Shea

    That was very interesting information. I’m watching Victoria on PBS (for the dresses, not the mashed up history) and have been reminded about all the cousins that intermarried in the royal houses. Some of them (that we know of) had very serious health/mental issues. I never even thought of the Amish–but the communities are so small, it’s no wonder that there are health issues. I thought that the lure of technology would do them in, but perhaps not. Your Uncle Gid had the right idea, it’s a shame that he was so controlling.

    1. Denise, I have often thought about the correlation between royal families intermarrying over the centuries and the Amish intermarrying. And you’re right… there were physical and mental health issues in royal families too. The Amish are very different socially (many of the early Anabaptist converts emerged from the peasant class in Europe), but the genetic issues are still similar. I’m sure the correlation is lost to the Amish because they call anyone who isn’t Amish “hoche Leit” (high people) because they consider themselves humble folk. So they wouldn’t see the similarities.

      Thank you for contributing to the discussion.

  8. Really interesting post. My sister had a child with cystic fibrosis, my daughter’s will be checked for the defective gene, at least they can make informed choices for the future. As God fearing people why can’t the Amish make the connection that God may want them to marry elsewhere, so they can halt a lot of the genetic problems. Over the last few months I have read all your posts. I have enjoyed them, been challenged by some and even looked at my faith anew. Thank you for writing them. Best wishes Diane.

    1. Welcome, Diane. I am amazed that you read all of my posts… that’s nearly ten year’s worth of them! Thank you for that. It is gratifying to know that my posts have evoked the various responses from you. I hope you were challenged in a good way, and I’m glad you’ve looked at your faith anew. My faith has been evolving during the last ten years as I’ve been writing this blog.

      I know, I’ve wondered the same, why the Amish don’t think about how God may want them to mix things up a bit in who they marry. Mind you, there are some, but the prevailing views are to marry someone within horse and buggy range.

      Blessings to your daughter and her baby. And thank you for your point of view in this discussion.

  9. Greetings,

    Many insular communities have similar problems. I am Jewish and some of our very religious groups (sects? denominations?) are confronting the same issues. They also see it as gods will and sometimes don’t hold much stock in believing the science behind it. They follow particular belief systems even within the Jewish faith and do not believe in marrying outside of that system. They have matchmakers who ostensibly would try to prevent that but it is not uncommon for even first cousins to marry. So for example the mother of the bride and the father of the groom would be full brother and sister.

    I find your blog fascinating because of these similarities between two different cultures and I have been reading your blog for several years now. They teach in a different language and therefore English is very often a second language to these children. They also don’t believe in obtaining any kind of secular education at all, especially for the boys and are extremely vocal in their resistance against the state trying to impose any kinds of standards on them.

    This makes life extremely difficult for those who leave this way of life to make their way in the modern world just as it did with you in your life. Those who go “off the derech” (off the path) are shunned by their families and communities and are unprepared for life in the mainstream. Some families even hold shivas for them, which is a period of mourning done after a funeral. Very traumatic stuff.

    There is growing awareness of sexual abuse in the community although it is hushed up for the most part. So many similarities!

    There are many good people and it is a valid form of living, but there needs to be some kind of reform from within.

    1. Lindsay, I am glad to hear from you. I have long known of the similarities between the very religious Jewish communities that practice an insular way of life, even in the middle of cities like NY. I’m always amazed how they can do that.

      Oof! Marrying first cousins. That is going to hurt them in the long run.

      I think it would be fascinating to write a book with someone who emerged from one the Hasidic communities. I think the parallels are so clear that it would be an interesting read for many people.

      Reform from within? How much hope do you have for that? I don’t have much for my home community. The only hope for those who are dissatisfied is for them to leave because the traditions and ways are just too entrenched. The women are the keepers of the traditions in the sense that if they were to rebel and refuse to uphold the men’s rules, the culture would fall apart. But most of the women are not going to rebel. So you are left with the restrictions getting passed down through each generation.

      Thank you again for your insights. I would love to hear more. You’re welcome to email me. I have a gmail address with my first name and last name @…

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