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.