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.