What is it about an aristocracy that makes them ‘superior’ to the rest of us? Is it genetic?
On its own merits, any hereditary aristocracy should fall down within a couple of generations. From the earliest human societies the first elite will have possessed a real superiority – usually as warriors and charismatic leaders. When the elite pass power to a second generation, it becomes an hereditary aristocracy.
The lottery of genetics means that there is no guarantee that their descendants will inherit the same traits, so to ensure continuity the hereditary aristocracy must rely on the myth of superior nobility. To do this, an aristocracy will use inherited wealth and unequal opportunities to mask mediocrity within the noble class, while playing up any real ability. However, throughout history, the real boost to the myth of aristocratic superiority has typically been religion.
Modern history’s most famous example of an aristocracy whose own religious myth of superiority led to its own genetic undoing is the Spanish Hapsburg family. The family’s interbreeding over a few generations between 1500 and 1700 led to its extinction.
In the Hapsburg view of the universe, not only did the family have a divine right to rule, it had a divine plan to fulfil – to unify the world to prepare for the second coming of Christ.
To maintain their legitimacy to rule an earthly empire the Hapsburgs employed an army of genealogists to prove their divine descent from biblical and historical figures such as Adam, King David and the Roman Emperor Constantine, as well as claiming a blood relation to Christ himself. Statistically speaking, where these people actually existed, the Hapsburgs would indeed have been genetically descended from them – as would their lowliest kitchen maid and stable boy. Genealogy, however, is all about producing a documented lineage.
The Hapsburgs carried out their divine mission of territorial gain through marriage. By uniting empires, Spain’s power in Europe and the New World peaked under Hapsburg rule. However, to keep their heritage in their own hands and to keep their divine bloodline pure, the Hapsburgs began to intermarry more and more frequently.
Over a 200 year period, 8 out of 10 Hapsburg marriages were either uncle-niece or cousin marriages (up to second cousin). The result was that from 1527 to 1661 the Hapsburgs had 34 children of whom 10 died in their first year and 17 died before the age of 10.
The last Spanish Hapsburg king was Charles II. Because of his highly inbred recessive genes he was physically disabled, disfigured and mentally retarded. The 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica citation for him says “there was no room in his nearly imbecile mind for more than childish superstition, insane pride of birth, and an interest in court etiquette.” He was also impotent and produced no children from his two marriages. When he died in 1700 the divine line of the Spanish Hapsburgs died with him.