Kinship Arguments and Muslim Debates on Alternative Reproductive Techniques


As the articles and our discussion in class have shown, it can be difficult to define any relationship among kin as the definition of a particular relationship varies greatly across economic, cultural, and geographic barriers.

The critique by Susan McKinnon argued against evolutionary psychology’s limited view of kinship relationships, which emphasizes that relationships are “digital”, meaning that an individual either is or isn’t related to another individual in that way. Using an anthropological approach, McKinnon suggests that relationships are not simply formed on the basis of genetic closeness, natural selection, sexual selection, and the environment of evolutionary adaptation but may also be forged simply because humans desire to form new relationships. The most prominent example used in this essay was that of stepparrental relationships and adopted children. Evolutionary psychologists would argue that stepparents that indiscriminately treat their biological and stepchildren would be an “evolutionary anomaly”, and they present the high rates of violence between stepfathers and stepchildren as evidence to support this point. However, McKinnon is quick to point out that many parents are eager to adopt, even when they may already have biological children. She ends her argument by asking why then should adopted and stepparrental relationships should be different for evolutionary psychologists since they are both considered nongenetic or affinal kin. This is a powerful counterargument that should be considered; while evolutionary psychology barely scratches the surface of the broad study of kinship, instead focusing on how relationships form from a biological standpoint, evolutionary psychologists tend to be reductionistic in how they attribute the foundation of all relationships to genetics. For this reason, modern counselors, therapists, and family psychologists all use evolutionary theory as only one perspective to take when viewing kinship and relationship development, alongside social ecological models, social exchange theory, and attachment theory.

The article by Shapiro explicitly opposed McKinnon’s article and its attempts to “deconstruct” evolutionary psychology. He states that most of McKinnon’s arguments pertain to kin terminology differences across cultures rather than kinship, and he appeals this notably while countering the idea of a “multiplicity of mothers” described in McKinnon’s piece. By offering small ethnographic examples, he contends that while the common man has a mother, a mother-in-law, godmother, and even a mother country, not all of these mothers have equal significance as being “motherly”. Shapiro becomes even more adversarial when discussing McKinnon’s ignorance of focality theory and how this error causes a scholar to misrepresent the traditional family. While McKinnon was primarily writing to show flaws in evolutionary psychology and Shapiro opposes McKinnon’s views, he is not clearly in support of the views of evolutionary psychology as he acknowledges its shortcomings. Both of these articles present important commentary and insight into the issue of kinship from multiple perspectives. Personally, I found McKinnon’s accusations of evolutionary psychology to be misplaced and overly adversarial in some areas although I agree the field can be reductionistic in its view. Evolutionary psychology aims to describe how human origins and our biology impacts how we form relationships, not define different types of kin relationships or explore the study of kinship. Shapiro’s view is apt in that it clearly points out this issue.

In class, we discussed that in nearly every society, one of the most basic reasons for a spousal relationship to exist is to reproduce, often both biologically to carry on one’s genes and socially to pass on property and resources. Marcia Inhorn, using her experiences in Lebabon and understanding of Muslim practices, explains that many Islamic religious texts, including the Qur’an prohibit formal adoption and gamete donation as alternative methods to conceive for families for whom IVF has failed repeatedly. Muslims believe that every child should have a mother and father that are clearly defined, without mismatch between social, legal, and biological definitions. Consanguineal children, to whom parents have a tie through nasab (blood relations), are considered a gift from God, so preserving nasab is imperative to Muslims. As such, there seems to be a clear emphasis in their culture on the biological aspect of a parent-child relationship. The idea of being a traditional child is so embedded in Muslim culture that in studies conducted in Egypt and Lebabon, childless men could not accept the idea of social fatherhood and stated that adopted or donor children wouldn’t be their children. As a result, many couples are willing to remain childless to avoid social stigma and apostasy, yet a small proportion of couples exists that would be willing to break religious traditions to satisfy their desire to have children. This may be a very difficult position for many couples, and the decision they ultimately take likely has multiple determinants including moral values prevalent at the time and in the surrounding area, liberal or conservative opinions, and what role religion plays in their lives.

Morgan Clarke’s paper clarifies and restates many of Inhorn’s points including that certain assisted reproductive technologies, such as in vitro fertilization, have been accepted in Muslim societies with certain religious stipulations. The most important of these limits is that any such technology should have a medical reason, usually infertility, and should only involve a husband and wife couple to maintain sexual propriety. Although surrogacy and donation of sperm or an egg is generally forbidden, some Shi’a authorities allow these techniques, particularly for polygamous men when the egg is donated from one of the wives of a husband. Interestingly, breastfeeding confers kinship on a child in Muslim cultures, and it prevents the nursing child from marrying his or her “milk siblings” and the nursing woman. This leads me to ask a question: Since formal adoption is not traditionally allowed, how common it is for women who want children to raise a child and breastfeed them so that they can be considered a member of the family? This seems like a convenient method to bypass any explicit rules against adoption.

20 Replies to “Kinship Arguments and Muslim Debates on Alternative Reproductive Techniques”

  1. Hi Ashruth,
    Thanks for a great blog post! You bring up many interesting points from the readings pertinent to the importance of kinship in the societal structures around the world. A particular point of Marcia Inhorn’s article that I believe deserves more discussion is her observation of the emotional difficulty with which infertile couples approach IVF or alternative forms of reproductive technology and donation to become pregnant. Inhorn observes that Sunni Muslim men more receptive to forms of gamete donation tend to be more educated or have personal characteristics such as time spent out of the country or external exposures common in their histories (Page 106). These men also feel such powerful love for their wives and families that this sense of duty remained with them while they worked to respect their religion as much as they could in their attempts to conceive. Sometimes, although the husband in these instances was willing to accept adoption or IVF treatment as an opportunity to have a child, the wife remained more hesitant and adherent towards their religious boundaries. Everybody approaches these obstacles differently in the context of their personal preferences and religion.

    As you note, a decision such as this contains many factors important to consider, such as moral values as well as societal expectations. How will a child born of IVF or gamete donation to a Muslim family be treated by somebody who does not approve of such technologies? Is there an obligation of the family to inform community members of the methods for conceiving this child since he or she may be sharing religious space with others? Questions surrounding reproductive technologies in religious communities do not end with conception – they extend into not only the parents’, but also the child’s, lives and community. Qualifying some of your points with these extended questions adds even more depth to the aftermath of using such technologies.


  2. McKinnon and Shapiro’s strongly differing opinions were a rather interesting compare and contrast. I agree that the reductionist outlook on kinship by most counselors and therapist is too honed in on pure genetic ties that form “kin,” which suggests adoption and fostering is by and large an anomalous phenomenon.

    One particular argument struck between the two authors was the discussion on what constitutes a “mother.” McKinnon notes the usage of “mother” from other cultures and suggests that differing definitions of “mother” offer a “nurture” factor coming into play in the role of kinship observed in primarily non-Western cultures. That is to say, an aunt to be a “mother” in one culture while a whole generation of females could be “mother” in another.

    Shapiro argues against this sentiment by nothing the semantics of “mother.” In Western culture, he notes the usage of “father” in the context of a religious figure is one such example that goes against McKinnon’s multiplicity hypothesis. He states that “we know intuitively that [the religious figure we call “father”] is not as central a member of the ‘father’ class as one’s genitor is.” He also goes to point out the varying usage of “mother” in different contexts, with not all of them suggesting a progenitor relationship that implies kinship (eg. Mother tongue).
    It was interesting to read the differing outlooks, but while I believe McKinnon’s theories have merit, I found Shapiro’s counters to have more foundation, especially when he noted the differences in the Wari language when used with genetically related “mothers” vs. non-genetically related “mothers.”

    Inhorn’s research into the Islamic outlooks on IVF and other reproduction technology was incredibly insightful. While the Sunni shunned the technology (including any sort of third party involvement), the Shi’ites were readily accepting it. The concept of adoption in Islamic cultures appears to be more of a foster situation at best. While warmly accepting orphans and treating them with kindness, said orphans were never to formally change their last names, a sign of formal adoption into a family.

    To address your question, I actually looked into a response by Sayyid Muhammad Rizvi, a former Director of the Islamic Education and Information Center. He notes that if a child is two years or less and breastfed for a day and a night, they become mahram (that is to say, unmarriageable) to the family. Apparently this is not an “adoption” per se, but a foster situation. It is still prohibited to change the last name of the child, but they are functionally acting as a “milk sibling” as defined by Clarke.

  3. Hi Ashruth, Thank you for summarizing the four articles and sharing some of your thoughts as well. While I can understand your feeling Shapiro is adversarial and against evolutionary psychology, I had a slightly different take and interpretation of Shapiro’s perspective while reading.
    I thought Shapiro was appropriately critical because much too often, the Western perspective dominates research, philosophy, history and more. Shapiro seems to recognize that McKinnon’s approach is largely a through a Western lens, and he wants to adjust the spotlight to illuminate different communities around the world, which have a strong culture of defining kinship through genetics. In fact, reading Inhorn’s He Won’t Be My Son, it is clear, as you have mentioned in your blog, studies point to a cultural and religious rejection of children who are adopted or born through gamete donation. Inhorn shares the testimony of a physician who explains how a child of such means is essentially like a stranger in the household.
    My intention, of course, is not to reject all the insight that McKinnon provides. As an American, I understand and subscribe to the evolutionary phenomena and method of kinship that McKinnon describes. I do believe in the diversity of relationship and kinship formation – I can observe it in my very own friendships. For example, I joking call one of my closest male friends “the older brother I never had,” but there is some truth to it. I treat him as I would my two genetic younger brothers. This is also true for my family. We met another family of four in my early children, and eventually, our families ended up sharing a house for a time. For as long as I can remember, my family has considered them family. It feels as if I have a second set of parents and another set of siblings. So yes, McKinnon makes many valid and interesting point. However, I do think McKinnon, as an American anthropologist, takes on the Western perspective that could afford to be challenged and broadened. Does anyone else have similar kinship experiences?

  4. This response does a good job of summarizing the intentions in conclusions in McKinnon’s and Shapiro’s paper, as well as their relationship to one another. However, I think it is necessary to include that each paper relies heavily on examples coming from outside the Western worldview – such as McKinnon’s mention of the people in Langkawi, Malaysia defining family as those whom eat together, and Shapiro’s example of the Inuit and Polynesian areas. These are necessary to take into consideration as much of the understanding of kinship that we are exposed to is limited in the narrative to a Western point of view, particularly an American-centric one. I agree that McKinnon makes a powerful counterargument in saying that adopted and step-parent relationships should not truly be considered in that they are both considered nongenetic kin, however, elaboration on the flaws of this. Statistically, step-parent relationships have more violence than adopted relationships. For adopting parents, adoption is often the primary goal, while step-parents may just go along with it for the sake of taking on a spouse they like.

    I think that both articles lacked an appropriate discussion around lesbian and gay couples role as parents and nonbiological kin, however, this might be due to a slightly outdated nature of the articles. Lesbian couples have the opportunity to both be genetically related to the baby, or for one to be the egg donor and the other to carry it. The same opportunity obviously does not exist for male couples. What do you think Shapiro would say about the effect of nonbiological vs biological relationships in these couples?

    Clarke’s paper about Muslim men’s perspectives on IVF and other reproductive technology was a fascinating read and you did a good job of summarizing the important points of it. I believe that it is probably not common for women to breastfeed adopted children – as it ultimately would have to be a matter of timing. An adopted mother herself would not be capable of breastfeeding the child unless she had just been pregnant or given birth, in which case, she is probably not concerned about adopting unless the baby was lost. If she had a sister that happened to be breastfeeding at the time, that would be lucky. It’s possible that the timing would encourage women to adopt in those circumstances, as they would then be able to breastfeed and therefore make it a member of the family. I would question instead if it is more common for men to take on an additional wife to be the surrogate or the egg donor for their relationship.

  5. Hi Ashruth,
    I found your summary and opinions of the four articles a very informative read. Susan McKinnon’s article on kinship and the subsequent critique of her article by Warren Shapiro were full of particularly interesting thoughts. Both authors – as you mentioned – questioned the main points of evolutionary psychology’s perspective on kinship, although Shapiro’s main focus seemed to be on debunking McKinnon’s analysis of human kinship relations. I personally found that, in most cases, McKinnon too stringently opposed evolutionary psychology. For instance, the people in her examples who distinguished between the mother who gave birth to them from others, even if they did address others as “mother,” which was noted by Shapiro (141).
    One particular point that McKinnon mentioned that Shapiro did not discuss in his critique is the families that include parents who are lesbians or gay. McKinnon mentions the idea of “choice” (116) in considering relatives and that these particular situations move away from biological kinship relations. In these cases, McKinnon states that the act of raising the children – or the “doing” of kinship (116) – makes the kinship relation more real than the biological relationship that a parent and child may not share in such a situation. In these specific examples, I agreed with McKinnon’s outlook and wanted to read Shapiro’s analysis of this viewpoint, as he spoke about the case of adoption and how an adopting parent and adopted child are referred to in a manner that claims them as derivatives of “parent” and “child” (145). What would then be his view of a family that included a nonbiological parent due to a child being born from a donor or surrogate, as is common in many families with lesbian or gay parents?
    In response to your question about women who use breastfeeding to become a part of the family, while avoiding the rules against adoption, I would infer that such children would still not be primary members of the family, but instead a type of derivative member which may not be satisfying for the women who consider this method.

  6. Ashruth did a fantastic job of summarizing the articles and discussing the intersection of the articles, however, I think it is also important to discuss flaws in each article. The McKinnon article, for example, explores and explains some faulty logic in evolutionary psychologists’ arguments for the kinship relationships. While Shapiro discusses over-generalizes kinship terminological differences to kinship cultural differences, I would argue that the greater faults in McKinnon’s logic lie in her understanding of evolutionary theory. For examples she argues against the evolutionary psychological conclusions regarding the classical notion that men are attracted to women based on physical appearance and women are attracted men based on wealth and power. McKinnon attacks this idea by stating that this attraction comes from the historical period of human hunter-gatherers. She completely ignores the possibility that this quality is derived from human ancestor species, and as no selective pressures acted against these traits, these behaviors were not eliminated over time. As I have mostly studied biology and evolution, I would argue that all traits and behaviors innate to all humans must have some evolutionary basis regardless if these features affect human fitness or if they are ancestral ancestors.

  7. Hey Ashruth, thanks for the response, I thought you made some really good points and pointed out some interesting points from the readings! I agree with Elisabeth’s comment on the need for expansion on Inhorn’s article. Although it was a small part in the article, I found that the findings on which men choose to go through IVF donation and other forms of reproductive assistance integral to understanding why ideas and beliefs toward ARTs in the Muslim culture are differed among different people. Inhorn mentions that Sunni men who were willing to break Islamic rules had spent ample amounts of time out of the country (mainly in the U.S.), they were educated, and did not value or practice the religion as much as other men. The men also seemed to have more loving and caring relationships with their wives and held them to a better standard than others. In agreement with what you mentioned in your post, it is important to examine all of the determinants of what leads Muslim couples to choose different forms of assisted reproduction.

    In addition, I wanted to further talk about McKinnon’s work and an argument she had made against evolutionary psychology’s viewpoint on the way men and women have evolved, in regards to relationships. She mentions that women and men have developed different reproductive strategies, specifically in the way men and women invest in parental effort. This set the stage for women to evolve a preference for men who provide the most preferences. McKinnon found this problematic because of the assumption that can be made that women only are concerned with the economic and social resources that their spouse can provide. There is no way that an evolutionary psychologist view of marriage can be generalized to an entire population because of the diversity of marriage systems found all over the world. As you had mentioned, evolutionary psychology fails to broaden their scope and analyze relationships cross-culturally.

    Lastly, I thought that you had brought up some valid questions about the idea of breastfeeding a child into the family. I wonder what boundaries are set for children who are breastfed into the family, are they treated with the same level of respect and acceptance as blood-related offspring? If adoption is not allowed because the children will be considered as illegitimate, how does a milk sibling title differ and what separates the two? There does not seem to be any harsh rulings about this method of “adoption” and it seems like an easy alternate for couples who want to adopt, but cannot because of religious law.

  8. I really appreciated the comprehensiveness of this post! It helped me organize my thoughts a lot. The reading by Clarke about Muslim perceptions of and regulations on reproductive technologies was very thought provoking, and it brought up some topics that I feel are worth mentioning as well. Something that was on my mind as I was reading the paper was the connection between patriparallel cousin marriage and social reproduction. Clarke mentions an important statement by a Lebanese doctor that explains patriparallel marriage to a cousin as a sort of safety net situation in which the families know each others morals and values, ideologies, status, etc. so there is less of a risk involved than if a stranger was brought into the family. Cousin marriage is generally looked down upon by the West for health reasons, and is something we as a society are generally unfamiliar with. Viewing this practice as a way to ensure beneficial social reproduction makes it easier to conceptualize– by keeping the lineage “pure” and therefore keeping all material and social wealth in the same family, the social status of that family will persist.

    This concept also connects to Clarke’s further discussions with health professionals about common practices involving AID. There exists a great deal of debate and tension surrounding the idea of sperm donors– the child is considered a “bastard” and has no father. However, if a family is seeking help via sperm donation, it is common to ask a brother or father. This system is quite similar to the foundations upon which patriparallel cousin marriage is built. By using a close family member for donation, gossip and stigma is avoided while still maintaining those close familial bonds.

  9. Regarding assisted reproduction technology, Clarke makes very interesting points on the position that Islam takes. Techniques such as artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization are welcomed in the two main denominations of Islam, Sunni and Shi’a. It is interesting to note that the techniques are only rendered as welcomed if it involves the husband and wife only. This seems consistent with the notion of keeping the family “close,” as seen with the patriparallel cousin marriage. This made me think back to scriptures I read and stories I have heard from my family members on these ideas in Hinduism. The dichotomy here is that in Hinduism, at least in the specific denomination that my family practices in, assisted reproduction is usually frowned down upon. The only exceptions are with infertility or genetic risks involved in natural conception. I believe this heavily aligns with the religious scriptures involving fertile goddesses and conception. The Hindu goddess Parvati, the goddess of fertility, is a huge influence in these ideas in that she represents the eternal bond between mother and child. As a Hindu female, I was raised with the idea that praying to the goddess of fertility will mean that I will grow up to be fertile and fit for child-bearing. The idea of naturally conceiving and raising a child (in a monogamous relationship) was emphasized many times, and is thus regarded as the “right” way to have a child.
    Another idea that was interesting to note was the backlash that Shapiro has on evolutionary psychology relating to kinship. He uses the Wari Indians to directly contradict ideas that procreation is not important when looking at kinship and the sharing of “bodily substances (Shapiro, 139).” He claims that ideas of kinship are centered around procreation, something that McKinnon argued against. I agree completely with the point in this post that evolutionary psychology does not define our kinships, but rather supplement ideas on what influences our kinships. Even in other scientific and psychological disciplines, the evolutionary view is seen as supplementary, but not definitive. Factors such as social structure, a person’s upbringing and culture, and even nowadays with media all impact how we view certain ideas of kinship. Even some aspects of the evolutionary views contradict what is typically “believed” in today’s world and offers a very different perspective. The human has come a very long way (evolutionarily speaking), and certain viewpoints must be re-evaluated in order to keep up with changing times and ideas. While this might seem to perpetuate the dichotomy of Western ideals against other cultures, even non-Western notions seem to be becoming more sophisticated with changing times.

  10. Hi Ashruth,
    I wanted to compliment you on how clearly written and organized your blog post was in describing both the McKinnon article and the responding Shapiro article. In class we talked about how every human society is concerned with biological and social reproduction and as a result very concerned with kinship ties. I would have to agree with McKinnon that evolutionary psychologists have reduced the variety found in relationships to simply genetic reasoning. However, a flaw that I would have to point out is that, while cultural influence has provided for more variation regarding relationships, McKinnon does not acknowledge the vital influence that evolutionary behavior has had on kinship. This article reminded me of what I had learned in Biological Anthropology, where female primates mated with many males in order to confuse them on who is the father while also protecting their future offspring. In the case of primates, males are more likely to invest time and resources on a child they believe could be their own. I believe that with humans there are some innate behaviors that cause humans to be the same, whether a mother or a father. As a result, I feel that McKinnon’s reasoning that because there are families willing to adopt, she cannot fully discredit evolutionary psychologist’s arguments. However, I would agree with her that humans’ willingness to adopt would have to do with their need to satisfy their needs socially, more specifically their need to love and be loved and to have a family.

    Maybe, in order to answer her question “If a genetic logic does not apply to adoption, why should it apply to step-parental relationships?”, we need to analyze kinship in a different frame of thought. While biology has a large impact on how evolutionary psychologists define kin, I believe it has an underlying impact on human behavior. However, I also believe that McKinnon’s argument holds merit about human needs but does not have a strong enough foundation. Maybe another reason why people are willing to adopt is because they decide that their social needs, the need to have a family to fit social status quo as a last resort, overrules initial instinct to have biological children. Both theories come into play and maybe both have merit.

    Coming from a large Greek family where kinship to God-parents and God-siblings is given the same merit as blood ties, I am interested to learn what you think would be Shapiro’s take on this type of kinship would be, even through the eyes of evolutionary psychology?

  11. Hey Ashruth, thanks for sharing. You provided a great summary of the readings.
    For me, I do agree with McKinnon. The notions of kin extend beyond blood relations, and it’s hard not to think about what we discussed in class about kin in regards to biological and social factors when reading this article. Sometimes, I feel that have a stronger “kin” relationship with many of my friends than my own parents. McKinnon doesn’t deny the existence of consanguineal kin, but she certainly disagrees with evolutionary psychologists’ viewpoint of blood kin being the only type of kinship vehemently (McKinnon, 117) while introducing what we learned in class as fictive kinship.
    That being said, I cannot deny my own western-influenced bias as I reminded from even conversations with my parents who are just a generation older that many “eastern” cultures do not support or use this type of fictive kinship. Like the Muslim culture that Inhorn and Clarke present, my parents view life as something that should be “natural” and that you need to help yourself and your own blood family (“kin”) before extending help to people outside of your blood. Although in Chinese culture there isn’t as much of an emphasis that your children are given as a gift from God, I find many similarities between Chinese and Muslim cultures.

  12. Hey hey,

    Excellent job summarizing the articles and putting them directly against each other to highly the variation at multiple levels (educational schools of thought and personal opinions vis-à-vis religion). I think the stances from which the arguments are coming needs to be highly considered. If the discussion is of, as McKinnon quotes from Daly and Wilson, “human reasons to love” then the scope of the argument allows preclusion of non-consanguineal kinship; and, while this argument may not be the most pragmatic when it comes to an anthropological point of defining, say, motherhood in a cultural lens, it allows for a minimization of Western bias to answer specific questions.
    Just as we wouldn’t apply a definition of motherhood that allows a community of females that raise a child to all be the mothers when looking for some sort of inherited disease, it doesn’t make sense to apply a prescriptive, clinical definition of motherhood when trying to answer cultural questions. I am of the belief that the idea of kinship must be a moving target when it comes to asking various questions and the insights of both McKinnon and Shapiro can’t be taken in a vacuum- which is to say context matters. Asking why Muslims have allowed specific cases of surrogacy is a question that would be best answered by looking through the ideals of their culture, but there is some comparative value to looking at it through an evolutionary lens- it is not an either/or zero-sum game.

  13. Hi Ashruth,

    I thought your response did an amazing job of hitting the important points from each reading. I enjoyed how you tied them together; it really added an additional depth to each of the readings. One thing that I found quite interesting that you left out, however, was McKinnon’s emphasis on how evolutionary psychology uses a Western/American lens to view kinship. Throughout the reading, McKinnon discussed several cultures which blatantly went against the evolutionary psychological framework for kinship. This demonstrated that this framework is not universal to all cultures, and in fact, it might also not even be practiced majority of the time.

    Additionally, the western lens hinders our way of thinking about marriage. McKinnon demonstrates how marriage is an important way of expanding one’s kin. She goes on to show that not every society has the same rules when it comes to marriage. I found this interesting because typically in American culture, incest is thought of as definitively wrong because of the genetic and biological complications that a child born from incest may have. Nevertheless, McKinnon’s article made me realize that societies have different standards for which cousins one can marry, and this does not even depend on the level of blood relation. On page 123, McKinnon uses the example of a man in Bali’s preferred marriage partner as opposed to his preferred marriage partner if he were in the Tanimbar Islands. In Bali, he would prefer to marry his father’s brother’s daughter while in the islands, it would be his mother’s brother’s daughter. This example shows that the appropriate marriage is not based solely off of blood relation (or lack there of) but other societal contributions as well. McKinnon argues that evolutionary psychological theory is lacking because it cannot explain these differences in marital practice.

  14. Hi Ashruth,
    I thought your summary did a good job highlighting the key points of the articles. I really liked your statement on how evolutionary psychology is only one method to determining kinship since I agreed with parts of both Shapiro’s and McKinnon’s arguments. For example, I completely agree with Shapiro’s thoughts on how same or similar words had different meanings when he talks about the words father and mother. However, at the same time, I can also understand McKinnon’s arguments about terminology as in Chinese culture, the word “brother” and “sister” are used to describe siblings by blood as well as non-blood related siblings.
    In regards to the other two readings, I found it ironic that as I was reading them I had also just read about genetically engineered babies in China. While the government did not support the findings, I found it interesting to consider how society and cultures would accept such babies barring the ethical aspects. I would think that genetically engineered babies would be less accepted than IVF because for IVF babies, the father and mother are known whereas for genetically engineered babies, the concept of mother and father becomes blurred as the genomes no longer match up. Thus I was just curious about how the definition of kinship would evolve as technology related to procreation would advance.

  15. Your blog post is a very nice summary of this week’s readings and you raise many important contrasting opinions posed by the authors. One particular point that I want to draw attention to is Clarke’s discussion about the role of polygyny in defining kinship. In one passage, Clark mentions that “sexual relations between parties not bound by a contract of marriage…is normally punishable by death,” and the children born from such deviant activity are viewed as bastards (75). Although societal norms and expectations encourage children to be born from a marriage contract, the desire for proper kinship can triumph such circumstances through polygyny. Clark adds that although popular consensus has wavered over time, one way to avoid a bastard child is by polygynous relations with a surrogate mother or egg donor. Shi’a authorities even consider temporary marriages to allow this exception (75). In a culture in which surrogacy or egg donation is forbidden or discouraged by stigma, polygynous marriages seem to offer an alternate route for acceptable reproduction, even if only temporary.
    I see this circumvented approach as a commitment to honest and acceptable kinship within muslim beliefs. While donor sperm or eggs are highly controversial, the simplicity of a marriage contract seems to offer an alternate route in which a woman who’s reproductive capability is compromised can accomplish an honest kinship with her children, as defined by religious and cultural rule. The strong desire for children as a mode of social and cultural reproduction can thus be attained by a couple. Polygyny however does not support true kinship if the male’s reproductive capability is inadequate. This is simply because polygyny is specific to the relationship of one male to multiple females.
    Clark disclaims that the slight differences between Sunni and Shi’a muslim beliefs are highly specific to these circumstances and would thus strictly allow or disallow such actions to foster true kinship. Most importantly, the example of polygyny shows that nuances between religious laws do not ultimately impede kinship through alternate modes, but rather offers alternate routes to the same desire of kinship.

  16. Asruth,
    I am impressed by your apparent comfort with the content and strong grasp on what is at stake in these readings. Your closing question reminds me of the biblical story of baby Moses being snuggled home to be breastfed by his biological mother. Perhaps this notion of breastfeeding indicating motherhood originated from the Abrahamic faiths. One aspect of the reading that stood out to me was this reliance on religious doctrine in answering bioethical questions. These are all, of course, based on a traditional understanding of marriage, one that McKinnon clarifies is not the only form of marriage but rather one of many. I look forward to discussing in further detail how religious systems dictate our perceptions of kin, family, and relationships, and how bioethical questions are addressed through both religious lenses (Inhorn) as well as anthropological lenses (McKinnon).
    On another note, I, too, felt that McKinnon was reductionist in her insistence that evolutionary psychology misses the picture by ignoring cultural evidence. Yet, I felt that perhaps Shapiro missed the boat too, as he accused McKinnon of lacking evidence. McKinnon’s article was filled with evidence, from my understanding, but this evidence was more anecdotal than scientific and was thus not compelling to Shapiro. My sense, and what I’d like to propose, is that these two works are not mutually exclusive, as you seem to hint at but not elaborate. Can we accept Shapiro’s argument that there is something inherently genetic about kinship and simultaneously accept McKinnon’s criticism of evolutionary psychology as overly reductionist?

  17. Very nice post, Ashruth! I agree with many of your takeaways from these various articles. An aspect of Susan McKinnon’s writing that struck me was her skepticism of evolutionary psychologists view on the role of men and women in heterosexual relationships. Using the an incredible !Kung San people as a reference point, she deconstructs the the intentions evolutionary psychologists assume of women when choosing a male partner. I feel that this portion of her critique is very powerful and provided me with a clearer perspective on her ideas on kinship.

    I don’t have a direct answer to your question however I do find it fascinating the connection between IVF technologies and breastfeeding when considering a child’s belongingness in a family. What a woman might or might not provide when a child is en vitro, another woman might be capable of providing post childbirth that instills a strong connection between child and woman.

  18. Asruth,
    Thank you for your summary and thoughts on the readings for this week. I think an important point worth discussing in more detail is Mckinnon’s idea of what makes a mother. This concept stood out to me because as pointed out, the mother child relationship is the most representative of what we consider to be kinship. She explains how there are a multiplicity of mothers across cultures, which contradicts evolutionary psychologists ideas of kinship. She argues that across cultures, mothers may not necessarily be the woman that gave birth to the child but rather aunts, grandmothers, uncles, etc. of the mother. She notes that the common thread of the conceptualization of the “mother” throughout cultures encompasses an individual that provides “nurturance, altruism, and allocation of resources” (pg 113). Shapiro argues against this by listing different types of “mothers” one can have, but explaining how they do not carry equal weight. He even goes to point out that many times, we give the “mother” title to people or things that have no genetic similarity to us, such as the mother in law, the denmother, and the mother country. He explains how, bearing the mother title does not inherently make something or someone motherly. But rather the mother title is one associated comfort. I believe that they are both right to a certain extent. I agree with McKinnon that mother does not necessary have to be blood related to assume the title, because in several cultures, there are exceptions to what we typically think of as the traditional mother. But I also agree with Shapiro in that giving someone the title of mother does not necessarily mean they will fill the role of mother. I agree with you in that both McKinnon and Shapiro likely do not support evolutionary psychologists ideals in how biology affects the formation of relationships.
    Although I do agree with the points brought up from both, several of the examples brought up by Shapiro are finicky, but valid. If McKinnon is going to go to the extent to say that a mother is one who encompasses specific nuturing characteristics, then everything we call “mother” must be acknowledged.

  19. Ashruth,

    I liked how you began your post by stating that there is a fundamental issue that one experiences when attempting to define “any relationship among kin.” This helped ready me for the rest of your post and compose my thoughts on a concentrated idea. The definition of a particular relationship truly does vary a considerable amount as you traverse through the countless physical and psychological barriers that are present in the world today, maybe even more than ever given the current state of social and cultural chaos that we live in. While thinking about this I began to consider the notion that kinship and its definition is simply more important and significant to society in some places in the world than others, and are there key effects that accompany this with regard to powerful impacts on society? Meaning does the extent to which how one defines the importance his/her kin and their duties pertaining to how they interact with their family affect the economic and political success of certain countries? I’m not sure, this could be an interesting topic to investigate.

    Furthermore, I appreciated your organized critique of the 4 readings we went over. For the purpose of this response I am going to focus on your critique of Susan McKinnon’s argument. You essentially stated that McKinnon’s main stance was against evolutionary psychology’s limited view of kinship relationships, which effectively emphasizes that kinship relationships can be simplified down to saying someone is or is not related to someone else. I too saw this the same way and really appreciated the unique way in which McKinnon suggested that relationships can be formed by the simple human desire to develop new relationships. While, to be honest, I did get a little confused when initially reading this because I always believed kinship to have to pertain to the traditional idea of family, and a genetic relationship, however McKinnon truly does bring a unique perspective to this through the introduction of adoption. Adoption is truly the most unique barrier to the traditional view of kinship. Are adopted children true kin of their parents? I’m not sure what the correct answer to that is and don’t necessarily think there needs to be a correct answer. I honestly think that the definition of kinship is directly correlated to the way in which one defines the term love. Essentially, what I’m trying to say is that kinship can be created by love. While the phrase, “my brother from another mother,” is commonly used amongst close friends to suggest that they are in fact kin can be seen as a joke I honestly don’t see it that way. I think that if parents who adopt a child consider that child to be their kin, then lifelong friends can also be considered kin, because in both scenarios, a profound feeling of love, trust and loyalty is used to define kinship. Yes, I blatantly understand that my argument could be weakened by pointing out that adopted children and their parents are a better candidate to be defined as kindship then lifelong friends because these parents actually raise their adopted children, yet I still think lifelong friends can have just as big of an influence on each other’s development throughout their life if their relationship is incredibly strong. I think this viewpoint or mindset is another crucial aspect for people to consider when viewing kinship and its definition. Overall, one must take multiple perspectives when tackling an issue as complicated as this one.


  20. Hi Ashruth!

    I agree with your readings of the article. To me, Mckinnon argues against an evolutionary psychology definition of altruism and kinship by emphasizing the disjunction of strict genetic relations with kinship terminology across a variety of cultures: “categories of kinship everywhere follow specific cultural logics that always exceed and escape the bounds of any supposedly universal calculation of genetic relation” (McKinnon 113). However, Shapiro takes a more moderate stance and counters McKinnon’s deterministic ultimatum that kinship is completely culturally constructed and devoid of genetic influence; to Shapiro, McKinnon ignores the genetic saliency associated with culturally different systems of kinship terminology and thus underestimates the importance of the genetic bond underlying kinship terminology and associated altruistic actions within those kinship ties – in essence, that McKinnon ignores the human focality bias that prizes genetic over social relation when performing altruistic acts (Shapiro 149). Our interpretations of the reading seem to be in line!

    However, what I’m curious about is how Shapiro would analyze the concept of “milk kinship” in Muslim cultures. There is no genetic bond, yet resources are invested in those adopted children that would rival any genetic intrinsic drive… and not only is there no genetic bond, it is a cultural custom that is widely accepted. An analysis of how children adopted though this form of kinship creation are treated comparatively to genetic children would be interesting as it is not the same construct as Western adoption. To me, this example favors McKinnon and is cited by her in her argument, but Shapiro did not explicitly address it.


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