Folks at Sanskriti magazine have written an article on the relationship between modern science of genetics and the Hindu Gotra system. The article has too many logical inconsistencies and factual errors, which I would like to discuss.
The crux of the argument is this: Ancient Rishis prohibited marriage within the same gotra to prevent inbreeding, which is known to cause diseases due to accumulation of recessive forms (alleles) of a gene. However, there are several problems with this argument.
Firstly, let’s look at the religious side of things. Gotras were set up by Brahmins, and all brahmins were identified by being descendants of 8 rishis – so 8 gotras were established. Marriage between people of same Gotra is prohibited. Gotras can be assigned to adopted sons and disciples of a rishi. Gotras are passed only from Father to son, hence the tradition of transferring the last name in case of son but not daughter. In some societies (e.g. Malayalis and Tulus), Gotras are passed from mothers to their children. So far, so good.
Now let’s look at the genetics argument before we move to point out the fallacies. The author points out that the reason behind this tradition is the perpetuation of Y chromosome. Y chromosome is passed only from father to son, so technically, a man of a particular gotra can trace his lineage to that particular rishi. That is the reason why a man keeps his family’s gotra while a woman who does not share the Y chromosome (since they have XX sex chromosomes) does not. Finally, the tradition to prohibit the marriage between people belonging to same gotra is set up in this way to prevent disease which may arise due to accumulation of recessive alleles of various genes.
Alright, let’s get down to pointing out the errors in the article.
- Since gotras can be assigned to disciples and adopted sons of a rishi, the whole theory of Y chromosome lineage and inbreeding avoidance falls apart. Same applies to cases where the mothers are assigning the gotras (Malayalis and Tulus).
- The argument about preventing inbreeding is a broad and incorrect simplification. Recent research into populations which have inbred over several decades due to geographical or other limitations (e.g., Iceland) have revealed a complicated relationship between inbreeding and health. Some studies have found that it increases instances of diseases (e.g., in middle east) whereas others have paradoxically found that it sometimes leads to increase in fertility .
- I am not sure what the author wanted to get out of linking the evolution and gene loss in Y chromosome with the gotra system. There is just no connection between these two concepts whatsoever! Also, as several recent research papers have shown, the perpetual loss of genes in Y chromosomes and its imminent extinction is a myth [2,3]. So, rest assured, Y chromosome is not going anywhere.
- The author states that “Ancient Vedic Rishis created the Gotra system… in a bid to prevent inbreeding and completely eliminate all recessive defective genes from the human DNA”. Exogamy (marriage outside social group, or in this case, gotra) will NOT be able to eliminate the recessive alleles. It will only make it less likely that a person has two copies of a defective allele. This is a misunderstanding of one of the fundamental concepts of genetics.
- The article does not delineate the genetic diversity or lineage of the original rishis, although I doubt the veracity of this whole story due to lack of evidence.
- The concepts of genetics have been discovered relatively recently, starting with the experiments of Gregor Mendel in 19th century. To say that ancient rishis devised this system of gotras based on science of genetics is quite presumptuous. Like it or not, ancient rishis had no clue about genes, recessive alleles, Y chromosomes or even the most rudimentary concepts of modern genetics.
The fact is that the folks in the vedic ages (roughly 3000 BCE) devised a patriarchal system based on rights of sons to family name and property. Also, incest taboo, which is an integral part of several cultures, probably played a role in setting the system of gotras. The taboo is almost universal in human cultures. Both these factors, patriarchy and incest taboo, along with misogyny, combined to form this archaic system of gotra which actually has no sound cultural or scientific basis. The attempt by folks at Sanskriti magazine to link this to genetics is an exercise in futility. It is time we stop putting the facade of modernity and science on these anachronisms and justifying them by using scientific means.
- Helgason, A.; Palsson, S.; Guthbjartsson, D. F.; Kristjansson, t.; Stefansson, K. (2008). An Association Between the Kinship and Fertility of Human Couples. Science 319 (5864): 813–6.
- Bellott, D. W. et al. Mammalian Y chromosomes retain widely expressed dosage-sensitive regulators. Nature 508, 494–499 (2014).
- Cortez, D. et al. Origins and functional evolution of Y chromosomes across mammals. Nature 508, 488–493 (2014).