By the 1930s, the practice of polygamy in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) had been abandoned and banned by the state of Utah, making it punishable by imprisonment and a hefty fine (equivalent to around $10,000 (£7,675) in today’s money). After abandoning such a practice, followers needed somewhere to go. They settled on the remote ranching town of Short Creek, which formed part of the Arizona Strip. The community of Short Creek encompasses two cities on the border of Arizona and Utah, and it’s the location of the headquarters for the FLDS. “Most families include at least three wives, because that’s the number you need to enter heaven,” says Bistline, who has three mothers and 27 siblings.
Short Creek is now facing genetic disaster because in this small, isolated community of Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), the likelihood of being born with fumarase deficiency is over a million times above the global average. Fumarase deficiency is rare because it’s recessive – it only develops if a person inherits two faulty copies of the gene, one from each parent. Humans haven’t gone extinct because, being recessive, those genes are only unmasked if we have children with someone who also just so happens to carry a copy of that exact same mutation too.
Brigham Young was a leader of the Mormon Church and he also founded a city – Salt Lake City, Utah – which flourished from a sparsely populated desert valley into a full-blown polygynous utopia in the space of a few short decades. According to local historian Benjamin Bistline, who spoke to news agency Reuters back in 2007, 75 to 80% of people in Short Creek are blood relatives of the community’s founding patriarchs, Joseph Jessop and John Barlow.
In Short Creek, a large proportion of men must be kicked out as teenagers, shrinking the gene pool even further. “They are driven to the highway by their mothers in the middle of the night and dumped by the side of the road,” says Amos Guiora, a legal expert at the University of Utah who has written a book about religious extremism. Some estimate that there may be up to a thousand so-called “lost boys”.
“With polygyny you’re decreasing the overall genetic diversity because a few men are having a disproportionate impact on the next generation,” says Mark Stoneking, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany, in explanation for BBC. “Random genetic mutations become more important,” he added.
In March 2014, Kenya's Parliament passed a bill allowing men to marry multiple wives, while in many West African countries it’s been practiced for thousands of years.
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