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Friday, May 05, 2006

Darwin and the Wars of the Roses

A friend emailed me this article on a new study to be published in a journal called The History of the Family, a study that takes a Darwinian evolutionary approach to studying the pattern of assassinations and executions among the English royalty between the death of Edward III and the reign of Elizabeth I; in other words, roughly the period of Shakespeare's two tetralogies (and if we add Henry VIII, of course, then he covered this whole period).

Now, the piece is on the Discovery Channel website--not exactly the place I turn first for news--so who knows if it accurately represents the study itself, but if so, the study seems pretty ridiculous to me. The major finding, according to the article: "the killings followed consistent patterns that correspond to Charles Darwin's 'survival of the fittest' theory." The study establishes this conclusion in this way:
the murdering royals never sacrificed lineal relatives. Of the 47 killed, only five were not cousins. These included one brother, two uncles and two nephews.

The researchers assigned genetic relatedness values to each individual, so that a parent, for example, is 50 percent, or .5, related to a child, while a full first cousin is .125.

Using these values, the scientists found that executioners never killed in excess of their own nuclear relatedness, meaning the total value assigned to the individual and his or her children.

If they had killed in excess of this amount, it "would have been the equivalent of evolutionary suicide," according to the researchers, since the killers would have been eliminating, instead of furthering, their genetic family line.

Finally, the study found that the longer an individual lived and served as monarch, the more people he or she killed. Elizabeth I, whose long, stable reign ended the Cousins' Wars, wound up killing five cousins, all of which were perceived threats to her life and throne.

So, let's see: rival claimants to the throne tried to kill each other so they could actually get the throne; they tended to avoid killing their lineal relatives, since close family relationships were important to them, and so political divisions tended to cleave to dynastic divisions; those who reigned longer tended to kill more people; and they tended to kill people who were perceived as threats to them. Umm ... ?? What the researchers call "Darwinian evolution," you and I (and Shakespeare and everyone in his audience) know as "Renaissance politics."

 Scribble some marginalia

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