What is kinship? What’s it got to do with Reproduction and Religion? Diana Cagliero

Susan McKinnon’s work “On Kinship and Marriage: A Critique of the Genetic and Gender Calculus of Evolutionary Psychology” explores how the ways that psychologists view kinship, through the lenses of nature and nurture, do not always account for the vast diversity of kinship relationships that are captured in anthropology. McKinnon spends the chapter exploring different types of kinship relations discovered by anthropologists and poses a critique to the argument of evolutionary psychologists. Evolutionary psychologists argue that for an organism to maximize its reproductive success it must have knowledge of a clearly defined boundary for which organisms are a part of their kin-groups and which organisms are not (106).

“Evolutionary psychologists reject the idea that the evolved human brain manifests a generalized capacity to create a wide array of cultural forms and learn a diverse range of behaviors” (McKinnon 108)

McKinnon uses multiple examples throughout the paper to explore how anthropologists have discovered a wide array of kinship relations, and many of these relations are not defined by the sharing of genetic material. She explains how through “even a simple perusal of systems of kinship terminology demonstrates that there is no single straight line between any underlying biological ‘reality’…and the social categories of motherhood” (110). McKinnon goes on to describe other kinship relations such as marriage, and argues that for humans, marriage involves social groups and relations not simply just the individuals in search for a mate driven by evolved preference mechanisms (McKinnon 122). Overall McKinnon’s closing argument against using evolutionary psychology as a primary lens for evaluating kinship relationships goes as follows:

“By reducing the variety of human systems of kinship and marriage to a ‘core mindset’ that looks suspiciously Euro-American in its valorization of the individual, of genetics, of utilitarian theories of self-maximization, and of an idealized 1950s version of gender relations, evolutionary psychologists erase what we know about the complexity of kinship and marriage around the world” (McKinnon 128).

  • What do you think of McKinnon’s closing argument? Do you agree with her critique of evolutionary psychology?

Warren Shapiro’s work is a direct critique of Susan McKinnon’s paper. In the abstract Shapiro refers to two positions commonly found when examining literature on kinship studies. He refers to McKinnon’s work as “collectivist”, or as assigning the group priority over the individual when making an analysis. Shapiro mentions the phenomenon of “focality”, which refers to focusing in on a different perspective, which is a feature he claims McKinnon’s analysis lacks.

Shapiro shapes his main argument by stating “evolutionary psychologists, who do not pretend to be specialists in the cross-cultural study of kinship, have managed to grasp the truth more profoundly than McKinnon”. Shapiro goes on to examine many of McKinnon’s examples and turn these on her, showing how McKinnon draws on the less practiced societal definitions of kinship and ignores the primary, consanguine link that ties most family members together through cultures. Shapiro dismisses the claim of a “West/Rest dichotomy” explaining how notions of kinship “are grounded in native appreciations of procreation, and from this base they extend to other areas of experience”.

Shapiro also argues that in the cultures that McKinnon describes as collectivist through mechanisms such as group motherhood or collective childhood are “concoctions”. He states “kinship in our species is nothing if not individual, because the bonding that we undergo, especially as children, is socially selective”. Shapiro’s opinion is that close procreative kin are universal and therefore relationships exist between them that are nearly universal.

  • Does your opinion on McKinnon’s work change after reading the Shapiro text? With whom do you agree with more, or are you somewhere in the middle?
  • Do you agree with Shapiro’s claim that McKinnon is a “collectivist” whereas he uses the ‘superior’ concept: “focality” when examining kinship studies?

After considering these more conceptual works on kinship and kinship theory, Marcia Inhorn’s paper “He Won’t Be My Son” provides an ethnographic study from which to analyze these concepts. In this study, Inhorn traveled to Lebanon to interview men from both Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim populations at two different IVF clinics. Inhorn gathered research on the religious mandates in both sects to examine how the mandates were observed in practice.

Inhorn begins introducing the issues associated with IVF in the Islamic faith by stating, “Islam is a religion that privileges—even mandates—biological descent and inheritance” (95). Consequently, there is high cultural resistance to adoption although many Muslim couples take it upon themselves to become legal guardians for orphans (95).

“The very concept of social parenthood is culturally contingent and is deeply embedded in ‘local moral worlds’” (96).

 First, Inhorn explains the religious mandates surrounding IVF in the Sunni sect. In the first authoritative fatwa it states “IVF of an egg from the wife with the sperm of her husband followed by the transfer of the fertilized embryo back to the uterus of the same wife is allowed…However, because marriage is a contract between the wife and her husband, no third party should intrude into the marital functions of sex and procreation” (103). In effect, using the gametes of a donor or a surrogate is not allowed because it would equate to adultery and the resulting child would be considered a bastard. The Sunni Muslim men’s narratives were nuanced and many provided deeper responses than just “it’s against my religion” while the counter narratives revealed “complex moral decision making undertaken by men who have decided, usually on their own, to ‘go against their religion’ in creating alternative family forms” (106).

In 1999 Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini stated that “donation is not in and of itself legally forbidden…. both donors and infertile parents must abide by the religious codes regarding parenting. Thus the child of the donor has the right to inherit from him or her, as the infertile parents are considered to be like adoptive parents” (110). Furthermore, Shi’a Islam recognizes a “temporary marriage agreement” as an option for surrogacy (112). These differences in religious mandates between Sunni and Shi’a Islam perhaps accounted for the differential in the number of men interviewed by Inhorn who opposed gamete donation: 83 percent of Sunni men and 64 percent of Shi’a men.

“Ultimately, then, it should come as no surprise that the Middle Eastern IVF industry is flourishing—with and without donor gametes, in the Shi’ite and Sunni worlds, respectively. Indeed, when all is said and done, it is the love among infertile Muslim couples of both sects that has brought this industry to the Middle East” (117).

Morgan Clarke continues this analysis of how ARTs in the Middle East can offer insight into changing definitions of kinship in her work “Kinship, Propriety and Assisted Reproduction in the Middle East”. Clarke introduces two forms of kinship found in the Middle East; patriparallel cousin marriage (father’s brother’s daughter) and “milk kinship”. These concepts are tied together in “local notions of ‘closeness’, ‘honour’ and protection, all bound up with notions of gender and sexuality” and become problematic when ARTs try to find a place to fit into this kinship scheme (71). Through ART kinship is defined as a “biogenetic” relationship, this definition can come into conflict when Middle Eastern kinship structures are not always defined as solely biogenetic; rather legitimacy and inheritance are often primarily valued.

“ARTs and modern scientific understandings generally offer a challenge to traditional understandings of relatedness, and there is good reason to detect potential transformations in the Islamic Middle East, although the key issue here is, characteristically, that of the legitimacy of kinship relation, the role that the moral circumstances of a child’s birth have in constituting their kinship status” (82).

  • Does Clarke’s conclusion that inheritance and legitimacy are the main facets constitute kinship in the Middle East reflective of the narratives collected by Inhorn?
  • Overall what do you see as the biggest moral issue standing in the way of ARTs and kinship structures in the Middle East?

Welcome to class!

Dear Students,

Welcome to our blog site! Each week, some of you will post blogs here and the others will respond.

A good blog post is

  1. Well written– full sentences, good grammar, correct punctuation.
  2. Thoughtful– Makes a case for something based on evidence (i.e. from the readings) and asks interesting questions.
  3. Is constructive– it leaves open the possibility that one might be in error, it acknowledges the force of counter arguments where appropriate, and it opens up a problem or a text for full consideration.
  4. Includes some specific questions that we can discuss in class.
  5. Includes enough summary of the readings that we can understand what you are talking about but does not become a book report.
  6. Is long enough to cover the subject but short enough to keep things interesting. This will depend on the topic and I will not give a specific length. But 1500 words might be a good place to start.

A good response post is:

  1. Well-written–full sentences, good grammar, correct punctuation
  2. Thoughtful– Makes a case for something based on evidence (i.e. from the readings) and asks interesting questions.
  3. Is constructive– it leaves open the possibility that one might be in error, it acknowledges the force of counter arguments where appropriate, and it opens up a problem or a text for full consideration. It is also polite. It is fine to point out a disagreement or a possible misreading, but it is never okay to mock or belittle a fellow classmate.
  4. Includes some specific questions that we can discuss in class.